Peeking Behind the Kitchen Door: The Struggle for Food Justice in America’s Restaurant Industry

 Peeking Behind the Kitchen Door

by David J. Leonard

Last month, Michelle Obama visited a Springfield, Mo., Walmart to celebrate and highlight its efforts to help Americans eat healthier. Mrs. Obama announced, “For years, the conventional wisdom said healthy products just didn’t sell… Thanks to Walmart and so many other great American businesses, we’re proving that conventional wisdom wrong.” If only this neoliberal logic delivered as promised. As with Michael Bloomberg’s cola crusade, the narrow focus on food choices, individual behavior (“Get Fit”), and healthy lifestyles obscures the structural inequalities that contribute to health inequity.

While Walmart MAY have led to great access to organic foods or fresh fruits and vegetables in some communities, it also contributes to the very conditions that make “healthy living” difficult. Stacy Mitchell notes the deleterious impact of Walmart and other members of the food industry’s 1 percent:

The real effect of Walmart’s takeover of our food system has been to intensify the rural and urban poverty that drives unhealthy food choices. Poverty has a strong negative effect on diet… Walmart has made it harder for farmers and food workers to earn a living. Its rapid rise as a grocer triggered a wave of mergers among food companies, which, by combining forces, hoped to become big enough to supply Walmart without getting crushed in the process.

The fight over injustice is not limited to these mega companies. The destructive impact the food industry has on the health and well-being of people across this country (and beyond) extends beyond the fields and super markets. It is most certainly evident in the treatment of restaurant workers,

In a new book entitled Beyond the Kitchen Door, Saru Jayaraman highlights the harmful impact of the restaurant industry on the health, economic security, and lives of those who cook, serve, and provide for US. Jayarman paints a picture of a restaurant world defined by exploitation, mistreatment, and abuse. It is a world not simply of delicious foods and celebrity chefs, but of workers, moms and dads, scraping by just to make ends meet.

Saru Jayarman pulls the curtain back on restaurant work, highlighting the struggles endured on the dining room floor. Far from the glamorous world of Top Chef or the joys of being a foodie, restaurant work is both hard and poorly compensated. As of 2013, federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour. When tips don’t net the mandated $7.25 (current federal minimum wage), restaurants are supposed to make up the difference. Not shockingly, this doesn’t happen in many cases. According to the book (pg. 70), 13 percent of restaurant workers report managers stealing their tips. Others note how restaurant supervisors require them to report larger tip counts to create the illusion of an earned minimum wage. Jayarman tells the story of Claudia, a server at a pancake restaurant in Texas. Enduring racism from customers, she also did not receive sufficient tips on many occasions (one has to wonder how racism, sexism, and homophobia impact tips). The combination of her tip count and her wage left her income under the federally mandated amount. Instead of making up the difference, a manager told her, “If you don’t make enough tips to make up the difference, you have to report that you made the money anyway.” In other words, her poverty wages were often way below poverty level.

In another instance, one of Claudia’s tables walked out on their bill of $98 dollars. “She told me that it was my fault, and that I’d have to pay the bill. I had made $80 dollars in tops that night,” noted Claudia. “So after tipping out the bussers and the dishwater, the manager took all my tips and told me I still owed the restaurant $18. I had worked from 10:00 p.m. until 9:00 a.m. — though I clocked out at 7 a.m. — and instead of paying me anything, they were telling me I had to pay them.” It is no wonder that 80 percent of food service workers do not earn a livable wage (pg. 3); of the few that do earn a living wage, a large portion are white men who work at upscale restaurants (pg. 117). This is the American Dream; this is American poverty; this is restaurant work. These men and women are the 47 percent, the “takers,” who despite serving the 1 percent, alongside the rest of us, get little in return but grief, mistreatment, and disrespect.

Continue reading at Dr. David J. Leonard: Peeking Behind the Kitchen Door: The Struggle for Food Justice in America’s Restaurant Industry.

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