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Do Foodies or Chowhounds Care about Workers?

This article from Salon.com suggests that foodies are not terribly fussed about workers' rights. My sense is that the same goes for many (although not all) chowhounds despite the great pride many (US) hounds take in their tipping practices. Or is that 'because' since tipping is a practice that seeks to make subsistence an issue of philanthropy rather than justice?

What do you think?


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  1. Personally, I think the issue is a relevant one and first began to know something about it when Bittman's Op-Ed was published a few weeks ago (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/... ). One is either a thoughtful consumer or not and issues like those raised in the Salon piece are factors to be considered in making dining choices. Sadly, the problems are basically the problems inherent in the division in out economic and political systems. The treatment of minimum wage workers by the largest food corporations is, however, something that consumers can attempts to influence. Avoiding taking meals at Olive Garden or Red Lobster not only means you eat better, but perhaps will begin to deliver the message that over exerting the employer's leverage upon workers is unacceptable.

    3 Replies
    1. re: MGZ

      You probably shouldn't have picked Olive Garden/Red Lobster as examples, since they treat their waitstaff very well, offering health insurance and other benefits, and are very concerned about treating their employees fairly as any big corporation should be. Of course I understand what you're saying, but chain restaurants aren't inherently evil either. Nor somewhere that "foodies" eat very often!

      1. re: coll

        According to both of the articles cited in this thread, and the ROC-U guide cited therein, the Dardin Restaurant Group is a poor employer:


        1. re: MGZ

          OK to tell the truth I worked there when it was owned by General Mills, but I don't see mention of no health benefits in this link, which was a big reason a lot of people worked there; it was free if you worked over 20 hours or you paid if you worked less. Darden Group was some kind of internal takeover right after I left, so I imagined if any changes, they were for the better. I started in the kitchen, and less than six months later was promoted to manager, so there was plenty of room for advancement. Anyone who showed a little initiative got offered management, not just me. I do see they think no sick days is some kind of terrible thing, but for the last 20 years I've worked in sales, and if you didn't sell, you didn't make money, so that doesn't phase me either. But this is a union, no? I can't really tell where they're coming from. So guess they see things differently that I do. BTW I never eat at chains since then really, I'm just piping up with what I know (knew?)

    2. I always tip with cash left on the table. That's about the extent of it.

      1. I care about workers in that I always treat them with respect, tip when appropriate and try to never say anything to anyone in a food establishment that makes it seem like I am their superior, because I am not. I come from a lower middle class background, worked in restaurants for years and have had my own food business. I am fortunate enough to have risen a bit above my meager beginnings but that in no way has made me forget how difficult it is to earn a living by washing the dirty dishes from which others have eaten.

        I will say that from some of the things I have seen people post on this site, I do believe there are many people out there whose thinking runs directly opposite to what I have said.

        4 Replies
        1. re: ttoommyy

          "I will say that from some of the things I have seen people post on this site, I do believe there are many people out there whose thinking runs directly opposite to what I have said."

          Sadly, I've seen that too.

          1. re: MGZ

            I see it often as well, but I feel that those attitudes are held by the minority on this site.

          2. re: ttoommyy

            There's no shortage of people who feel a need to look down their nose at somebody.

            1. re: ttoommyy

              You summed up my feelings perfectly. I can't add a thing. Well said.

            2. I suspect few consumers are particularly concerned about the employees of companies they come into contact with. It is not restricted to foodies. Nor to companies within the broad food industry.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Harters

                Entirely agreed. Issues of economic and labour justice are not foremost in many minds. But given that foodies are so preoccupied with issues of food, including (especially) provenance, this is worth asking.

                1. re: Lizard

                  I sometimes feel that some Hounders disrespect those that don't have the same tastes as they do. I have been put down several times over teh years, once just today!

              2. A quote from the article:
                "In fact, so-called foodies who are outraged at the idea of inhumanely raised pigs are remarkably uninterested in the inhumane work conditions of those who help get their pork to the table."

                My gut reaction - It has little to do with foodies. Or chowhounds. Rather, Americans by and large aren't concerned about the treatment of food workers. I don't really know why foodies are being singled out here, aside from the opportunity it presents for the author to take pot shots at hipsters and farmers markets. Everybody eats.

                I'm all for some serious discussion about the plight of food industry workers. I don't think this article helps the cause though. It's needlessly and foolishly divisive. (also, just to nit pick - the scare at the NC Olive Garden was hepatitis A not C. C is bloodborne, and you're not going to get it from eating at a restaurant)

                Of note however, this topic dovetails with another topic that came up a little while back about why Slow Food USA's $5/day food challenge created such a fracas:
                I think part of the reason that particular challenge pissed off a bunch of people in the slow food movement was largely because people in the movement ARE concerned about the conditions and pay of food workers, and the challenge was seen as opposing their ideals.

                3 Replies
                1. re: cowboyardee

                  I saw the appeal to "foodies" as more of a clarion call than a chance for pot shots. Awareness of these issues needs to be raised and where better to start than with a subgroup that has already displayed the ability to act about issues related to their consumption? Perhaps those who are willing to pay an extra dollar or two for humanely-raised pork would be willing to do the same for a humanely treated human. I mean, one has to admit that some of the basic facts are pretty foul - two bucks an hour? the rate of food stamp assistance?

                  It seems to me that if ever there was a group in need of collective representation, it is the modern, corporate food worker. Sadly the political and media power of management has made this nearly impossible. Having not entered such a restaurant in a decade, I have had no experience or interaction with people working under such conditions while they were working. I cannot imagine they are happy, more likely just surviving. I don't see how the situation can make for a pleasant night out for any thoughtful diner.

                  1. re: MGZ

                    "I saw the appeal to "foodies" as more of a clarion call than a chance for pot shots."
                    Foodies in general - and especially foodies whose buying choices already have an ethical dimension - would certainly seem to be a good group to appeal to, one of the likeliest groups to take up the cause,

                    But the tone of the article was all wrong if that was the intent. It seemed more geared toward making fun of said foodies for their perceived hypocrisy and insincerity.

                    1. re: cowboyardee

                      As noted, I read Bittman's piece a month or more ago. Quite honestly, the Slate essay is fundamentally the same though with a bit "younger" voice. Perhaps I missed some of the nuanced tone as a consequence of having been exposed to the same theories and facts by a better source. Either way, it's a sad state of affairs.

                      BTW - I thought the Hepatitis testing seemed odd. Made me wonder what might have happened to the sick guy while he was in the kitchen.

                2. "In fact, so-called foodies who are outraged at the idea of inhumanely raised pigs are remarkably uninterested in the inhumane work conditions of those who help get their pork to the table."

                  That's quite a theory. How about the non-foodies? Another ridiculous article.

                  1. I think that supporting workers' rights by avoiding patronizing businesses notorious for union-busting or having ownership that funds anti-union efforts and politicians is more important than whether or not food animals are being raised humanely.

                    8 Replies
                    1. re: FoodPopulist

                      I think they're both part of a mindset though. We should have humane practices, period. And fair wages, safe working conditions...

                      Maybe the tone of the article would be improved and more credible if diners/foodies had been interviewed and their reaction reported instead of inferred/speculated upon.

                      1. re: FoodPopulist

                        Regardless of which is more important, there is no reason you can't support both ideals at the same time. They're not at odds with each other.

                        1. re: cowboyardee

                          I have my priorities. I would never cross a picket line. I don't feel an obligation to make sure the beef I buy is grass-fed or that chickens are free-range.

                          1. re: FoodPopulist

                            I have my priorities. Numerous. Including grass fed meat and humane farming practices.

                              1. re: MGZ

                                I don't understand choosing just one... and inhumanity tends to manifest itself across areas.

                        2. re: FoodPopulist

                          @ FoodPopulist: why should this be even remotely an either/or? There is one principle working here: neither people nor other animals should be treated as mere commodities, period. A pig is more than mere pork, and a worker is more than a production unit. We may accept that a worker may have to be let go, and that the pig will be killed for food, but both need to be treated as individuals with certain necessary habits and needs that must be respected.

                          1. re: Will Owen

                            I think one's more important than the other. If waterboarded chicken tastes better (it doesn't), then I would be for torturing chickens. I would encourage people to avoid brands from companies notorious for anti-union practices. I leave it up to people as a matter of taste on whether or not they want to support certain agricultural practices.

                            I expect people to disagree with me on that, but I just want to put my point of view out there.

                        3. Singling out "foodies" for this is a distraction. Who's making consumer decisions with an ethics dimension built in--those clothes or computers from China and Bangladesh, those service workers from Haiti or Latin America, those ridiculously cheap goods at the big box stores, and on and on. The only difference for foodies is their concern for the "humane' slaughter of the animals they''re about to eat.

                          1. Where can I get line caught halibut with organic peas for only $22? Must be a tasting menu portion. ;)

                            And, as we've been through before and will be through again, states where tips count as wages and tipped staff make $2.13 an hour are in the minority. Some count tips as wages but have a higher minimum. Several states do not count tips as wages, such as Washington, where minimum wage is $9.04 an hour, which includes all of the restaurant staff but probably not agricultural workers. Just last week my bartender was commenting on a coworker's frustration with some tables, and essentially said that the $40-$50 an hour they bring in during service should be well worth putting up with annoying customers. The food workers that most foodies interact with in our culinary travels are not the ones we need to worry about.

                            That said, of course there is hypocrisy. I don't think even Alice Waters has said much about the ag workers, she is too busy crying over her baby lettuces. (But I don't pay Alice much mind, so I could be wrong.) And nobody ever seems to want to address the fact that the success of US agriculture relies on illegal immigrants. Farmers in states where they are trying to drive out the illegals can't find anyone to pick their crops. Americans try to do it and quit after a day. Farmers are ripping out high-labor crops and replacing them with things that can be mechanically harvested. Who do you know who has the stamina to pick asparagus or cherries for 10 hours a day?

                            It is indeed an odd disparity, because we are SO concerned with tipping enough, with the higher, visible end of the spectrum. Is it because those are the people we see and interact with directly? Is it because so many people have worked in restaurants at some point and they can sympathise, but they can't relate to an illegal resident who speaks another language? How would anyone be able to afford to eat if all the farm workers were paid $9 an hour?

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: babette feasts

                              "How would anyone be able to afford to eat if all the farm workers were paid $9 an hour?"

                              How then do you expect farm workers to be able to afford to eat?

                              1. re: babette feasts

                                I completely agree with the idea of people in general responding more to the people and 'commodities' (the food on the plate) that are directly interacted with versus the people/commodities that aren't visible. For every person who supports anti-immigration law and deportations - how many of them check to make sure all the dishwashers in the restaurants where they eat are in the country legally?

                                Also - while there is always that line "for one or two more dollars, you could purchase local/fair trade/organic/etc product/service" - there does end up being a personal cost to that. By the end of the day if all of your food, clothing and other commodities are produced ethically, your bills are going to rise significantly - which gives the argument a snobby classist tone and makes the point of "for a dollar or two more" sound insincere.

                                I'm sure most of my clothing is produced in sweatshops with working conditions that would make me ill. But if you told me how much I'd have to pay to ensure that all of my clothing was produced ethically, I'd probably get cranky about how much less that'd mean I'd be able to buy (if even enough to replace worn out items). Or that I'd need to have a job in an "unethical industry" to make the money to afford that lifestyle.

                                Where I feel that such articles and soapboxes can reach the most people and alienate the fewest people is if they are followed with practical suggestions. Care about agricultural workers rights? Do x simple action, support y brand of food, these grocery store chains supports unions/those don't, etc. The masses can't "care about everything" - and the more they're told that they're not caring (or made fun of for caring about one thing and not another), you will alienate them. However, by making folks aware of an issue and then saying "these are some simple ways to help", the tone can be more inspiring.