Out of reach

How the sustainable local food movement neglects poor workers and eaters
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news@sfbg.com

On a sunny afternoon in Civic Center Plaza, a remarkable bounty covered a buffet table: coconut quinoa, organic mushroom tabouli, homemade vegan desserts, and an assortment of other yummy treats. The food and event were meant to raise awareness about public school lunches, although it was hard to imagine these dishes, brought by well-heeled food advocates, sitting under the fluorescent lights of a San Francisco public school cafeteria.

The spread was for the Slow Food USA Labor Day “eat-in,” a public potluck meant to publicize the proposed reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, national legislation that regulates the food in public schools. The crowd was in a festive, light-hearted mood. There was a full program of speeches by sustainability experts and a plant-your-own-vegetable-seeds table set up in one corner of the plaza.

A bedraggled couple who appeared homeless made their way through the jovial crowd and started scooping up the food in a way that suggested it had been a long time since their last roasted local lamb shish kebob. Their presence shouldn’t have been a surprise; most events involving free trips down a food table are geared toward a different demographic in this park, which borders the Tenderloin.

In a flash, an event volunteer was on the case, nervous in an endearingly liberal manner. “Sir,” she began. “This food is for the Child Nutrition Act.” And then she paused, searching for what to say next. I imagined her thinking: “Sir, this food is to raise awareness about the availability of sustainable food to the lower classes, not to be eaten by them,” or, “Sir, this good, healthy, local food is not for you.”

But there was no good way to say what she meant to convey. She knew it, and delivered her final line hurriedly before walking away. “If you could just, well, just don’t take like 25 things, okay?” Indifferent to the volunteer’s unspoken reprimand, the couple continued to eat, ignoring the whispers and stares of the social crusaders around them, who all seemed to take issue with their participation in this carefully planned political action.

It was a telling scene from a movement that has yet to really confront its class issues. Though organic grocery stores and farmers markets have sprung up on San Francisco’s street corners, it remains to be seen whether our current mania for sustainable, local food will positively affect the lower classes, be they farm workers or poor families.

Even iconic food writer Michael Pollan acknowledges the challenge the sustainability movement faces in widening its relevance for the poor, citing the high cost of local and organic food as just one of the issues that Slow Foodies and their allies must tackle before they can count the “good food” movement a success.

LOCAL ORGANIC LABOR

For the average heirloom tomato eater, the words “organic farm” often conjure up an idyllic agrarian picture: happy communes of earnest farmers growing veggies straight from the goodness of their hearts. In reality, a lot of the people who plant, tend, and harvest produce are poorly paid Latino immigrants. And it might come as a surprise that those who work on small or organic farms often face the same exploitative working conditions as those in conventional agriculture.

To learn how organic farm workers should be treated, consider Swanton Berry Farm, whose fields stretch out along the coastal highway just north of Santa Cruz. Swanton was the first organic farm in California to sign a contract with the United Farm Workers, a move that highlights the owners’ conviction that farm workers be viewed as skilled professionals. Employees are offered ownership shares in the farm and are provided health insurance, retirement plans, comfortable housing, and unlimited time off to attend to pressing family matters.

“Organic is a lot cleaner. Working with pesticides, you have to worry about wearing gloves and covering your skin.

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