Out of reach - Page 4

How the sustainable local food movement neglects poor workers and eaters

Collaborating with the Immokalee activists, Bon Appetit developed a workers’ rights contract that all their tomato suppliers must now sign. “After Bon Appetit sent me the contract, I sort of at first didn’t see the point. But then I spoke with the [Coalition of Immokalee Workers] and it made sense. Worker abuse has been around for centuries,” said Tom Wilson of Alderman Farms, one of the company’s tomato growers.
Greenwalt says Bon Appetit cafeterias were prepared to eliminate tomatoes from their menus. “Every chef and manager I talked to said they would rather not serve tomatoes than serve the tomatoes that were coming from these conditions.” But every one of their suppliers signed, agreeing to conditions such as a mandatory worker-controlled safety committee and a “minimum fair wage.”

The success convinced Bon Appetit that this style of food buyer participation is crucial to making positive progress on farm worker treatment. The company is now conducting a nationwide survey of working conditions on organic farms. “Labor’s not a new issue,” said Carolina Fojo, one of the company’s researchers. “But for some reason, people are just now talking about it. We’ve found it can be a sensitive topic for a lot of farmers.”

Visually, Hall’s USF food court is similar to traditional college eateries. But plate-side, Bon Appetit’s commitment to sustainability is clear; specials vary seasonally and food is sourced locally whenever possible. The price for a semester’s meal plan is $3,810, more than twice that of San Francisco State University. Hall’s customers, college students who may eat three meals a day here, often approach him with questions about their food. Queries range from where to how the food was grown, but in no instances that Hall has been aware of, about the workers who grew it.

Labor issues are not the popular cause these days, at least in the sustainable food movement. Unlike the “eat local” and organic food movements, equitable treatment of farm workers has yet to spawn trendy slogans for tote bags or a book on the best-seller list.

One UC Santa Cruz study found that, when asked to rank their concern about food system related topics, Central Coast grocery shoppers assigned higher concern levels to animal treatment on farms than that of humans. But Hall is confident this will change as Bon Appetit and others continue to bring attention to the economically disadvantaged on the front lines of our local and organic food systems.

“This is the next frontier,” he said. “I can see it brewing.”


In school cafeterias across the city, a different low-income group has its own challenges fitting into the sustainable food movement. San Francisco Unified School District manages one of the city’s most important food sources.

Every school day, Student Nutrition Services dishes out 31,000 cafeteria meals; of those, 84 percent go to students who qualify for free lunch or for the reduced price of $2 for elementary school students. It is not a stretch to say that for many of these kids, this is their one chance at healthy food for the day — certainly their only chance to learn about local and organic food. But the school district faces one of the major issues the sustainability movement has yet to resolve. Local and organic food costs a lot to produce, which makes it more expensive. If pricing was more socially equitable and accounted for living wages for farm workers, costs might rise even more. This is a problem. Federal funds supply about $2.49 for each free student lunch in San Francisco and less for the meals of students who do not qualify for reduced prices. After logistical costs like labor and transportation are accounted for, 90 cents per meal is left over for the food itself.

This is not enough to fund a menu like Hall’s. Given the numbers, it should come as no surprise that examining an average SFUSD school lunch — as San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer did in his Oct.

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