Food First, December 18, 2012
The Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley celebrated the start of its newly-formed Food Labor Research Center with a reception last week.
Saru Jayaraman is the director of this center, as well as the co-founder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Center United. Also presenting were Eric Holt-Giménez, Joanne Lo (executive director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance), Raj Patel, and Anna Lappé.
Saru introduced the reception by noting that there are many university centers across the country that focus on food research, and there are also several centers around the country that focus on labor research and advocacy, but UC Berkeley's Food Labor Research Center is the first of its kind, focusing on food workers as the synergy between the labor and food movements.
Food workers are the individuals who carry our food from farm to fork; they work in farms, processing plants, packing plants, distribution centers, restaurants, as well as grocery and corner stores.
The Food Labor Research Center is launching at a unique moment; Saru explained that the creation of the center is emblematic of the ways that the food and labor movements have been gaining energy and establishing common ground in recent years.
And these two movements certainly do have common ground: with 20 million workers in the U.S. food industry (one-sixth of the nation's workforce), it is the fastest-growing industry in the private sector. Eric Holt-Giménez noted that food workers are pivotal for the food movement, as they are poorest segment in the United States, and the most likely to be food insecure. Food workers are organizing more and more as food justice activists, and in doing so, are raising up their own voices to add a critical perspective to the food movement.
Saru also introduced her forthcoming book Behind the Kitchen Door, which will release on February 13th, 2013. It features stories of restaurant workers across the United States, using data collected over the past decade. The book reveals the struggles of restaurant workers, who often do not earn a livable wage or have healthcare or paid sick days. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers has remained frozen at $2.13 per hour since 1991, thanks to heavy lobbying by the National Restaurant Association.
The Food Labor Research Center has already collaborated with the Food Chain Workers Alliance and Restaurant Opportunities Center to release two reports, "The Hands That Feed Us," and "A Dime a Day." These reports publicize and draw attention to the particular issues of food workers, in order to advocate for this group of workers, and put pressure on policymakers to improve their working conditions.
This center represents an exciting step forward for the labor and food movements, in an effort to unite their struggles.