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Everybody Eats? Good Food, Good Jobs

By Minsu Longiaru

There’s an old, fiendishly catchy Sesame Street song that has been going through my head recently that goes:

“Everybody eats, / everybody eats / Meat and fish and cereal / Carrots, peas and beets / Everybody knows / That everyone he meets / Likes to eat / How do we know it’s so? ‘Cause everybody, everybody eats.”

While we would all like a world in which everybody eats a healthy diet, a recent survey of Detroit corner stores demonstrated that 38 percent sell expired food, 22 percent sell expired meat and 22 percent sell decaying fruit. What’s more, while all Detroiters are impacted by these violations, those most likely to be affected are neighborhoods with high numbers of children, high levels of poverty and majority concentrations of African American and Latino residents.

One of the great ironies in our food system is that the food service workers who clean, cook, serve and sell food in our communities are much more likely to experience food insecurity than the general population. Restaurant, retail and other food service workers often work long hours, doing unsafe work, many times for poverty wages. A recent national study of over 700 food service workers around the country found that food system workers use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce.

Sandy is one of these food service workers. She has been working in restaurants for over 20 years and says it is her “life’s passion.” She regularly puts in 10-hour days of prepping vegetables, making fresh dough, sweeping, mopping, cleaning tables, washing dishes and scraping pots. All of us hope that when we do our work we are paid fairly for it. However, in Sandy’s case, her boss orders her to punch out whenever she is doing any cleaning work. This makes Sandy one of the third of restaurant workers forced to work off the clock without pay.

We can do things differently. Over 35 percent of Detroit corner stores we surveyed did not have a single violation, and nearly 15 percent of food service jobs in our region pay living wages with benefits. While the majority of establishments play by the rules, those who ignore the rules have an outsize impact. In our surveys of corner stores, 7 percent of stores were responsible for 30 percent of the violations.

Fortunately, community leaders and public officials are taking notice. State and local officials are exploring ways to incentivize best practices. Bills like the Good Food, Good Jobs Act make sure government-granted development incentives and licenses, including liquor licenses, only go to places that have established a record of compliance with health, safety and employment standards that directly impact a community’s quality of life.

It is estimated that currently, Detroiters spend upwards of $200 million per year on food purchases outside the city. Meanwhile, unscrupulous employers who commit wage theft rob Detroit’s workers of millions of dollars per year that would otherwise circulate through our city’s economy for families’ basic needs like food, clothing and shelter.

The issue is not whether we can respect basic workplace and food safety standards, but how we can afford not to.

Minsu Longiaru is a member of Good Food, Good Jobs, a coalition of over 45 organizations working together for access to quality food and quality jobs for all Detroiters. She is also director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan (ROC-Michigan), an organization of 1,000 Southeast Michigan restaurant workers dedicated to improving opportunities for advancement for our region’s 134,000 restaurant workers. Visit www.rocmichigan.org for more information.

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