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Courting Foodies: The Modern “Fair Food” Movement


The Fair Food movement has been around for decades, but it’s only recently started to go mainstream, as activists try to persuade foodies to pay attention not just to what they eat, but to the treatment of the farm workers who bring it to their table.

Farm workers have fewer protections than other laborers. When labor laws were passed in the 1930s, powerful Southern states lobbied to exclude agricultural and domestic workers — who were then mostly black — from labor protections. To this day, these workers remain excluded from federal minimum wage laws and the right to unionize, except in a few states where workers have won concessions, such as California.

In some states, workers have organized to hold growers accountable. The Fair Foods Standards Council, featured in the clip above, asks Florida tomato growers to agree to a set of standards for their workers, including a right to work free from sexual harassment, and to earn a fair wage. But that council covers less than 5 percent of farm workers nationwide.

FRONTLINE talked with Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley about how the broader fair food movement is evolving today. Here’s edited excerpts from that conversation.

What’s the status of the fair food movement in the U.S.?

There are many organizations that have been growing in power over the last decade. … In 2008 we started to think about how could we impact the broader food movement and get the sustainable food movement to include sustainable working conditions.

In January I convened a bunch of organizations that led to the Food Chain Workers’ Alliance. It’s about 14 or 15 unions and worker centers that collectively represent about 150,000 workers in the food system. That alliance has made great strides to agitate the sustainable food movement to think about issues of workers and how it can’t just be about local organic and fresh — it really has to include the people touching the food, from farm to table.

What’s happened so far?

Some of the things we’ve done is put out a report (pdf) called “The Hands that Feed Us,” about the 20 million workers in the food system. It was a pivotal moment. …

We created a guide to let diners know how restaurants were faring on these issues.

We’ve seen a lot of progress over the last couple of years. I wouldn’t say the rights of workers is a high priority now in the sustainable food movement. But there’s been tremendous progress [towards] adopting fairness as a key priority within the movement.

Why hasn’t it been a priority?

We got the Ford Foundation to support a very cutting-edge focus group of foodies, [which consisted of] online chats for a week. At the beginning we had 25 self- identified foodies. At beginning, zero of 25 said they would join anything related to food-worker issues.

During the week, we showed them videos about what was happening to restaurant workers and talked to them the ways in which they might be willing to participate. By the end, 15 of 25 said they would join some kind of organization supporting workers in the food system.

It really is about information, education and finding the rights tool for people in this movement. They’re not the people who go to a rally, meet with a legislator. They’re people who enjoy food. So the kind of actions and things they’re willing to do is sit around a table, eat, talk and maybe tweet their legislator at the end of the meal.

Why have foodies been so disinterested?

A lot of it is ignorance. And to a certain extent, the good-food movement has been very self-focused, an individual mentality: “I care about my health, my environment, my children.” It was born out of individualistic concerns, so making the leap to care about someone else who is remote and touching your food in Florida was, I think, a leap for people. … Even with the fair trade movement, you’re talking about people in Africa. The farther away the worker, the easier it was to take action.

Having to deal with the exploitation of the person bringing food right in front of you was a little uncomfortable. We’ve done a lot to get people to engage and think about people who aren’t just far away — but are right here in our own backyard.

How does Fair Food fit with the global movement?

The key difference between what’s happening with the broader fair trade movement is that our organizations are actually led by workers themselves. Any certifications we’re doing — this is a good employer a bad employer — comes from workers who have ability to say if it’s actually true or not.

In fair trade, there’s no voice for workers. It’s a label you can purchase and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re treating the workers in a certain way. There’s no way for workers to indicate whether that’s actually true.

How can people get involved? is a space for consumers to learn, take action, sign petitions to raise the minimum wage. Although farm workers are [still] excluded, every other worker would be impacted by raising the minimum wage to $10.10. And for shift workers the wage has been stuck at $2.13 for the last 22 years. The bill would raise this to $7. It’s a significant increase across the food system.

There’s also a smartphone app you can use to see which restaurants are faring well or poorly on these issues.

There are also opportunities for offline actions called eat-ups. You can gather with friends, educate yourselves, meet a food worker, and take action by tweeting your legislators.

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