Real Food, Real Jobs: An Interview with Chris Bohner

By Sheldon Yoder

Name: Chris Bohner

Affiliation: Director, UNITE HERE’s Sustainable Food Project

Bio: Chris Bohner has been a labor activist for 15 years, organizing workers in a wide range of industries, including food service, hotels, and casinos.  He is also a passionate cook, gardener, and amateur food pickler.  A few years ago, he started reading Michael Pollan and other food writers and realized that he was quite ignorant about where his food came from, how it was produced, and the health and environmental implications of our food system. He found it ironic that while calling attention to the deplorable working conditions of hospitality workers, he was not doing the same when it came to his food and those who prepare it. He didn’t see a way to marry his interest in food politics with labor activism until the president of UNITE HERE, John Wilhelm, pointed out that the Union had been active in a number of campaigns to connect worker justice with sustainable food. At Yale University, for example, the members of the Local 35—a union organized by UNITE HERE—played an important role in pushing the university to adopt what is now one of the leading models of sustainable food in higher education.  By organizing students, farmers, workers, and other concerned individuals, the Sustainable Food Project hopes to improve working standards for food service employees and access to healthy, sustainable food for all.

Location: Washington D.C. and nationwide

Image credit: Unite Here

What are the goals of the Sustainable Food Project and how do you go about accomplishing them? 

Our goals are similar to others working to create a sustainable food system.  For example, the Real Food Challenge, an amazing national group of students changing food at universities, defines real food as “food which truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the earth.  It is a food system—from seed to plate—that fundamentally respects human dignity and health, animal welfare, social justice, and environmental sustainability.” Our long-term goal is to make that vision a reality.

The only way to do this is to make new connections at the grassroots level with diverse communities who don’t normally work with each other but have a shared goal of changing the food system. Students, farmers, workers, and many others are all getting squeezed by the same constellation of powerful food (and financial) corporations. If we stay divided, it’s hard to imagine how this system will change. So creating spaces for diverse communities to find common ground is a key way to accomplish our goals, and that’s what we are doing.

A lot of your work has centered on food service workers in universities around the country. Why have you chosen to focus on universities? 

The higher education sector spent $19 billion on food service in 2010, so it has a large food footprint and impact on the food system and workers.  In my view, higher education represents the potential and perils of the politics of sustainability.  On the one hand, many institutions are embracing the rhetoric of sustainability, and some are making real progress towards sourcing food locally and incorporating environmental and social criteria into the food procurement process.  We support those initiatives.

On the other hand, the vast majority of campus food workers are working in poverty.  There’s a real contradiction between the rhetoric of sustainability used by many universities and the treatment of workers on campus.  Our goal is to lift the standards of campus food workers so that the reality matches the rhetoric.  As the largest union of food service workers (we represent members at over 100 campuses), we think we are well positioned to do that.

UNITE HERE says that it is working to transform the traditionally low-wage food service industry to an industry that provides affordable family health care, retirement security, and respect on the job. How does UNITE HERE work toward this goal?

Food service workers represented by unions earn 26 percent more than workers without a union, so we believe that the best path to improve working conditions is to incorporate more workers into the collective-bargaining process.  Obviously, that was the path that built the middle-class in the U.S., which is now under widespread attack by employers.  But we also support living-wage policies and efforts by worker organizations like the Restaurant Opportunities Center to improve working conditions through policy and litigation.

You mentioned in this PRNewswire story that “not only are food service workers among the lowest paid workers in America, but they also suffer food insecurity and diet-related illnesses at alarmingly high rates.” Is this a result of problems that are unique to the food service industry in the U.S. or problems that affect American workers in general? 

The research is pretty definitive that income is highly correlated with food and health issues, so this is a problem that disproportionately affects all low-income workers.  I think it is particularly acute for food workers not only because they rank at the bottom of the pay scale but also due to conditions that are unique to the food service industry.  For example, we know that many food service companies are not consistently serving healthy food, yet many food workers typically eat some of their meals where they work.  I recently heard a story about an airport that wouldn’t allow food workers to bring in their own food from home, so they had to eat from the airport concessions.  Our union worked to get that policy changed, but it underscores the special challenges food service workers face.

The idea of food justice comes up often when talking about the issues that you are dealing with but many might be unfamiliar with the term. As you understand it, what does food justice for food service workers mean?

I think it means justice where food workers live and where they work.  It means that food workers have sustainable jobs that allow them to access fresh and healthy food in their communities that is produced in a fair, humane, and environmentally responsible manner.

UNITE HERE just launched a new website –– that showcases the work it is doing for food service workers. What do you mean by “Real Food” and “Real Jobs”?

Real food is food that is cooked from fresh ingredients rather than processed items, is sourced locally and ethically, and utilizes production methods that are humane and respect our environment.

Real jobs are jobs that pay a living wage (with health and retirement benefits), that allow workers to disclose food safety or quality issues, and to form a union through a legal and democratic process of their own choosing without threats and intimidation.

What sort of changes for food service workers— at a local, regional, or national level—have you observed in your time working on the Sustainable Food Project?

The most important thing that has happened is the real connections made between college students and campus dining workers.  We held a series of gatherings at a dozen universities to talk about food and work, and it was inspiring how quickly people from such diverse backgrounds found common ground.  I think students were surprised how passionate workers are about changing a food system that forces them to serve processed food rather than food made from fresh ingredients, and how much pride they have when they can use their skills in the kitchen.  Conversely, workers were surprised by how much support students expressed for their struggle to improve working conditions on campus.  Making these types of connections is a powerful start to achieving the goal of sustainable food at U.S. colleges.

Sheldon Yoder is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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