.Food Workers, in Their Own Voices

A new oral history project attaches a face — and a voice — to the people who feed America.

“I fell for it,” says Dominic Ware, his voice tinged with sarcasm. “For that brief moment, I was like, okay, this is how you get the American slice of the pie.”  

Ware, an Oakland native, is talking about his first days as a cart-pusher at the Walmart in San Leandro, and he’s having a conversation with a new acquaintance, Luis DeLeon, a cook on a cruise ship. DeLeon chuckles, probably because he has heard this kind of pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps narrative all too many times: “You hear so many stories of people working nine days a week and doing it, and then they become — ten years from now — really successful.”

The conversation is part of “Voices of the Food Chain,” a new oral history project produced by the Food Chain Workers Alliance and Real Food Media in collaboration with StoryCorps, whose tear-jerking, minute-long segments are beloved by so many longtime NPR listeners. The multimedia project, which also includes a short video and gorgeous black-and-white portraits of food workers, officially launches at VoicesOfTheFoodChain.com on November 18.

Joann Lo, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, explained that the project gets to the heart of the work of the alliance, which was founded in 2009 under the belief that a coalition of food-worker organizations would, collectively, be able to wield more influence on all sectors of the “food chain” — big industrial farms, meatpacking plants, supermarket chains, and restaurants. The problem, Lo explained, is that many people who work at the lowest levels of the food industry are essentially voiceless.

At a retreat in Washington, DC for labor organizers in the food industry, Lo and her colleagues paired together people who had worked in different sectors of the food industry. In one audio clip, a cook in Virginia and a bartender in Cincinnati commiserate about their respective employers’ sketchy — and highly illegal — labor practices. In another, a woman who now helps run a camp for the children of migrant farmworkers recalls, movingly, the time when she and several other children were badly burned when she was a young child of migrant farmworkers.

The story that Ware, the Walmart worker, shared was bittersweet. Despite the company’s promises that hard work would allow him to move up the ladder from his minimum-wage position, his hours were slashed again and again — for no particular reason he knew of. Eventually, though, Ware found a sense of purpose when he became an organizer for Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), the workers’ advocacy group whose efforts helped push Walmart to raise the wages of its 500,000 lowest-paid workers earlier this year from $8 an hour to $9 an hour — and to $10 an hour by next year, the company has promised.  

The goal of the project, Lo explained, was to allow these different workers to find common ground and allow listeners to “relate to a worker as a person — not just an anonymous food worker or restaurant worker.” And so Ware and a handful of other current and former food industry workers will be on hand to participate in a star-studded — and sold-out — dinner and panel discussion that will take place at Berkeley’s David Brower Center on Wednesday, November 18, and will serve as a formal launch for the “Voices of the Food Chain” project. Speakers at the event will include some huge names in the sustainable food movement: Alice Waters, Anna Lappé (the sustainable food advocate behind Real Food Media), and noted journalist and Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser.

But Schlosser, for his part, said he hopes the focus will stay on the stories of the workers themselves. In an interview, Schlosser said the importance of a project like this is that “it takes a statistic and turns it into a human being.” Often, he said, the food movement focuses — rightly — on animal rights and sustainable agricultural practices, but gives too little attention to the human rights issues inherent in the exploitation of workers throughout the food industry.

The Berkeley dinner, along with the rollout of the StoryCorps project, will help kick off the fourth annual International Food Workers Week, which the alliance has traditionally organized right around Thanksgiving. This year’s multi-pronged, November 22–28 celebration will include an online petition that urges Darden Restaurants — the Orlando-based mega-corporation that owns Olive Garden and several other national restaurant chains — to adopt more sustainable practices, both in terms of ingredient sourcing and the company’s treatment of its employees. On November 27 — Black Friday — activists will have a day of fasting and protest at Walmart locations around the country in an effort to pressure the company to pay its workers a $15 minimum wage.   

The timing of these actions is deliberate, Lo explained. “It’s a time to give thanks. We should also give thanks to the workers we depend on to have food on our table.”


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