Funding the Hand That Feeds You: Real Food and Wages in TDR

Haley Hawkins

Christine Hamlett-Williams grew up on a farm in North Carolina and was raised knowing that fresh food is good food. It’s better for your health and your taste buds, or, as she puts it, “frozen and processed—that’s not real food.”

This ideology led Hamlett-Williams and other AU campus dining employees to become activists in the Real Food Real Jobs campaign in 2012. The campaign combines advocacy for fresh, locally-grown food with an interest in fair employment practices in the food service industry.

These two issues go hand in hand. According the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, food service workers account for more than 15 percent of the US labor force, yet 86 percent do not make a wage high enough to maintain a normal standard of living and face high levels of food insecurity––meaning they may not know how they will get their next meal. According to a 2012 report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, more than 13 percent of food service workers are on food stamps, which is almost double the rate for workers of all other US industries combined.

In DC, the living wage is a topic sizzling with debate. According to The Economist, the District has an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent, higher than the national average of 6.9 percent.

In June, DC lawmakers approved a measure called the Large Retailers Accountability Act that would force large companies in the area to pay a 50 percent premium over the city’s minimum wage, meaning they would have to pay employees a baseline wage equal to 150 percent of the District minimum wage. Wal-Mart was one these companies, and the corporation threatened to withdraw its plans for retail locations in DC.

Mayor Grey has since vetoed this measure. The emergence of this type of legislation, however, validates campaigns like Real Food Real Jobs that advocate for a living wage and fair working conditions.

“We’re fighting for a fair wage,” Hamlett-Williams said. “Because if you get barely paid, you go home and you can’t even cook your children the quality of food [you] have at work, because you’ve got to buy something cheap.”

Last year, students and workers combined forces to improve working conditions. Samantha Ruggirello, a member of AU’s Student Worker Alliance, attested that conditions were poor under AU’s former contract company, Bon Appétit.

“[There were] large amounts of disrespect,” Ruggirello said. “There would be people who would be told to do three peoples’ jobs when they only had one.”

In one instance, campus dining employee Kevin Nelson, who now works at Elevation Burger on campus, faced severe repercussions of unfair employment practices under Bon Appétit.

Nelson, who worked in the Terrace Dining Room last year, was forced to work through his company-mandated break one day. Afterward, he asked his supervisor for permission to take food home since he hadn’t had time to eat. His supervisor granted him permission, and Nelson took food home. Bon Appétit subsequently fired him for theft.
After remarkable student upheaval, including signs and chalked messages on the sidewalk asking “Where’s Kevin?” Bon Appétit rehired Nelson within a matter of weeks.

As a result of these injustices, AU campus dining employees, with the help of the union Unite Here, came together last year to develop a contract protecting worker’s rights—a contract ratified by Bon Appétit.

“Being part of this contract renegotiation will hopefully make all of us more aware of our rights,” Nelson wrote in an article on Unite Here’s website. “Hopefully, we can use this force and momentum to carry this movement forward.”

The new contract carried over to this year when food service company Aramark became the official food provider of the university.

“Our employees at AU are represented by a union and covered by a collective bargaining agreement,” said Adam Fox, marketing manager for AU Dining. “We follow all terms and conditions of that agreement, which includes clear provisions for how to address sustainability and employment issues.”

Officially, Aramark has hired back every employee from last year, including Hamlett-Williams, who has worked at AU for over 30 years.

“I’ve seen food service change dramatically since I’ve been here,” Hamlett-Williams said. “From food being made from scratch to being processed.”

Jon Berger, the mid-atlantic regional coordinator for Real Food Challenge, an organization which mobilizes students to advocate for healthy and fair food service, echoed this point.

“There has been a general shift from fresh to processed, frozen foods,” Berger said. “This also means that food service workers become replaceable.”

In response to this trend, Aramark boasts goals of sustainability and local food sourcing.

“Many of our partner institutions are defining sustainable food and developing purchasing policies according to what is most important to their campus community,” Fox said.

“Here at AU, we work with a number of local, regional and national growers, producers and distributors,” Fox continued. “We aim to source as much food as we can locally, within a 250 mile radius and within the region when available.”

So are they living up to their promises? Hamlett-Williams said it’s too early to tell for sure, but she has seen some improvements, especially when it comes to voicing her opinions.

“I can speak up,” she said. “If I see something wrong, I speak up.”
To allow all AU dining employees this freedom, employees have already begun meeting with Aramark management to demand contract adherence, with support from students and faculty.

On Oct. 24, Anthony Johnson, an AU dining employee and activist with the Real Food Real Jobs Campaign, spoke briefly at this year’s Food Day, an annual celebration of grassroots organizations advocating for fresh, local-grown food and fair food service practices.

“We want to live up to our working potential,” Johnson said. “And we want to provide good food for the students because we really care about you guys.”

Like Hamlett-Williams, he believes employee autonomy is the foundation of a good work environment.

One of the most interesting aspects of the movement last year was the communication among campus dining employees, students and faculty. The AU community rallied behind dining employees, which is meaningful because students interact with the workers every day.

“All of us work for money, for a paycheck, but I’m not here just for a paycheck,” Hamlett-Williams said. “I love my job. I enjoy it. I look at [the students] as my grandchildren, and I would not want to send my grandchildren off to college and [have] that college say one thing and do another.” •