By Carol Dreibelbis
In her new book, Behind the Kitchen Door: What Every Diner Should Know About the People Who Feed Us, Saru Jayaraman explores the political, economic, and ethical implications of eating out. Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and professor of public law at Brooklyn College, looks beyond the food production system to examine how food is prepared and served at restaurants across the United States.
Today, the U.S. restaurant industry employs 12.9 million workers—nearly one in 10 Americans—and produces more than $1.7 trillion in revenue each year. But, according to the labor organization the AFL-CIO, seven of the 10 lowest-paying jobs are in the restaurant industry, and 90 percent of restaurant workers lack paid sick days. Meanwhile, only 0.01 percent of restaurant workers are represented by a union, even though workers represented by unions are paid an average of 20 percent more than non-union workers and are more likely to have benefits.
Jayaraman uses the in-depth stories of 10 restaurant workers in cities across the country to paint a picture of the conditions that many food service employees face. In these cities—including New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Detroit, and New Orleans—the author follows employees who are paid less than minimum wage, sexually harassed, stolen from, unable to take sick days, and unable to feed their families.
As one Washington, D.C. restaurant worker says in the book, “Customers always ask us if this dish is organic or local, thinking that is what will ensure that they are having a healthy meal, a meal they can feel good about, but if they knew about what workers were dealing with…working with the flu, tips and wages being stolen by the owner, getting screamed at and abused by managers, being called racial slurs, getting groped by male workers—they would think twice about the quality of their food.”
Through stories like this, Jayaraman asks her readers to consider a broader definition of a sustainable food system—one that includes fair and supportive conditions for restaurant workers. For more information, visit the book’s website or view the book trailer.
How do you think fair and supportive working conditions fit into a sustainable food system? Please let us know in the comments section below.
Carol Dreibelbis is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture program.
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