Don’t Just Eat Right, Eat Just! Four Tips for 2013
Photo courtesy of Restaurant Opportunities Center
By Saru Jayaraman & Fekkak Mamdouh
This new year’s, don’t just resolve to eat right — eat just! That means not just picking healthier options when you eat out, but peeking behind the kitchen door to make sure the workers at the restaurants you go to are treated fairly and justly by their employers. Making sure restaurants are just makes a big difference for workers, our economy — and your health. Here’s how:
There are 20 million workers throughout the U.S. food system, who harvest, process, ship, sell, cook, and serve the food we eat every day. Over half of them — 10 million — work in restaurants, which are literally the lowest-paying jobs in America. Over 90% of these workers don’t have paid sick days. And since the minimum wage for workers who earn tips has been locked at $2.13 for the last 21 years, most of these workers simply can’t afford to take the day off when they have the flu or worse.
What does that mean for you? It turns out two-thirds of restaurant cooks, servers and bussers report that they have no choice but to work when they’re sick. That means they’re handling your food and your dishes and are getting you sick. Last summer, thousands of people were exposed to Hepatitis at an Olive Garden restaurant in Fayetteville, North Carolina, because a server couldn’t take a day off work without losing his job. The way we’re treating our food service workers isn’t good for the workers, the restaurant industry or any of us who eat out.
So what can you do about it? Here are four steps you can take to eat just in 2013:
Tip 1: Eat at worker-friendly restaurants
The Restaurant Opportunities Center has published a National Diners Guide, also available via a smartphone app, to help you find the restaurants and chains that pay their workers a living wage and provide basic paid sick days and other benefits. You can use this guide to make just choices when eating out.
Tip 2: Encourage restaurants to do better
If a restaurant gets a poor score in the National Diners Guide, or isn’t listed at all, talk to the management. Tell them that as a customer, it’s important to you that everyone who works in the restaurant earns a living wage, gets at least seven paid sick days per year and has the opportunity to move up the job ladder. We’ve even produced a consumer toolkit to help you and your friends have these conversations. This is the same way we all got restaurants to start serving local, organic food. Restaurants listen when their loyal customers ask for change.
Tip 3: Demand Congress do better
At the request of the National Restaurant Association, a lobbying group of fast food companies and big chain restaurants once headed by Herman Cain, Congress passed a law in 1991 that said restaurants don’t have to abide by the same minimum wage laws as other businesses. So in 1991, the minimum wage for workers who receive tips was set at $2.13. It hasn’t gone up since. And while some workers earn more because of tips, many don’t — and they struggle to take care of themselves and their families earning just $2.13 an hour. Take a minute and sign this petition to demand that Congress raise the tipped minimum wage and require that all businesses in America pay a living wage.
Tip 4: Educate yourself
Take a look behind the kitchen door. What you learn will surprise you! Talk to the workers at your favorite restaurants. And order “Behind the Kitchen Door”, a new book coming out this February which looks at the stories of restaurant workers across America and what we must do, as consumers and as voters, to improve their working conditions. You can watch a stunning trailer about the book and order your copy here.
It’s one thing to try and lose a few pounds in the New Year. It’s another thing to lose our conscience as diners and as a nation. That busser who cleared your table? Odds are he’s taking home $2.13 an hour — if his employer is even paying him on time. And odds are he’s relying on food stamps to feed himself and his family, since food system workers rely on food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce. The people who work so hard to put food on our tables can’t afford to feed their own families. That reality is sickening enough to make you want to skip dinner altogether.
But don’t. Don’t stop eating and don’t stop eating out. Make your eating part of your activism and demand that the restaurants you go to do well by their workers. Tell the restaurant owners what matters to you as a customer. And pretty soon, if we all do it, we won’t just see locally raised hormone free beef on the menu but worker’s justice, too — making the experience of dining out healthier and happier for workers, for our economy and for you.
Happy New Year, America! It’s time to eat just!
Saru Jayaraman is the co-founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the Director of the Food Labor Research Center, and the author of Behind the Kitchen Door, forthcoming from Cornell University Press. Fekkak Mamdouh is co-founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a 17-year veteran of the restaurant industry, and former worker at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center.