Tom Philpott - August 2014

40 Percent of Restaurant Workers Live in Near-Poverty

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

It isn't just fast-food empires that rely on a low-paid, disempowered, and quite-often impoverished workforce. As a stomach-turning new report (PDF viewable here) from the Economic Policy Institute shows, the entire restaurant industry hides a dirty little labor secret under the tasteful lighting of the dining room.

Here are some highlights:

• The restaurant industry is a massive and growing source of employment. It accounts for more than 9 percent of US private-sector jobs—up from a little more than 7 percent in 1990. That's nearly a 30 percent gain.

• The industry's wages have stagnated at an extremely low level. Restaurant workers' median wage stands at $10 per hour, tips included—and hasn't budged, in inflation-adjusted terms, since 2000. For nonrestaurant US workers, the median hourly wage is $18. That means the median restaurant worker makes 44 percent less than other workers. Benefits are also rare—just 14.4 percent of restaurant workers have employer-sponsored health insurance and 8.4 percent have pensions, vs. 48.7 percent and 41.8 percent, respectively, for other workers

• Unionization rates are minuscule. Presumably, it would be more difficult to keep wages throttled at such a low level if restaurant workers could bargain collectively. But just 1.8 percent of restaurant workers belong to unions, about one-seventh of the rate for nonrestaurant workers. Restaurant workers who do belong to unions are much more likely to have benefits than their nonunion peers.

As a result, the people who prepare and serve you food are pretty likely to live in poverty. The overall poverty rate stands at 6.3 percent. For restaurant workers, the rate is 16.7 percent. For families, researchers often look at twice the poverty threshold as proxy for what it takes to make ends meet, EPI reports. More than 40 percent of restaurant workers live below twice the poverty line—that's double the rate of nonrestaurant workers.

• Opportunity for advancement is pretty limited. I was surprised to learn that for every single occupation with restaurants—from dishwashers to chefs to managers—the median hourly wage is much less than the national average of $18. The highest paid occupation is manager, with a median hourly wage of $15.42. The lowest is "cashiers and counter attendants" (median wage: $8.23), while the most prevalent of restaurant workers, waiters and waitresses, who make up nearly a quarter of the industry's workforce, make a median wage of just $10.15. The one that has gained the most glory in recent years, "chefs and head cooks," offers a median wage of just $12.34.

Industry occupations are highly skewed along gender and race lines. Higher-paid occupations are more likely to be held by men—chefs, cooks, and managers, for example, are 86 percent, 73 percent, and 53 percent male, respectively. Lower-paid positions tend to be dominated by women: for example, host and hostess (84.9 percent female), cashiers and counter attendants (75.1 percent), and waiters and waitresses (70.8 percent). I took up this topic in a piece on the vexed gender politics of culinary prestige last year. Meanwhile, "blacks are disproportionately likely to be cashiers/counter attendants, the lowest-paid occupation in the industry," while "Hispanics are disproportionately likely to be dishwashers, dining room attendants, or cooks, also relatively low-paid occupations," the report found.

• Restaurants lean heavily on the most disempowered workers of all—undocumented immigrants. Overall, 15.7 percent of US restaurant workers are undocumented, nearly twice the rate for nonrestaurant sectors. Fully a third of dishwashers, nearly 30 percent of nonchef cooks, and more than a quarter of bussers are undocumented, the report found. So a huge swath of the people who feed you pay payroll taxes and sales taxes yet don't receive the rights of citizenship.

Thus you can't opt out of supporting deplorable labor conditions for the people who feed you simply by refusing to pass through the Golden Arches or to enter the Burger King's realm.

So what can you do? One thing is to seek out restaurants that explicitly pay their workers a living wage. Two I can think of offhand: Austin's Black Star Co-op, a cooperatively owned gastro-pub that's managed by a "workers assembly" as a "democratic self-managed workplace." Another is Chapel Hill's excellent Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe. I'd love to hear about more examples in comments.

But these examples are vanishingly rare. The only real solution to the industry's bottom-feeding labor practices are legislative, the EPI report makes clear. That means reforms like a much higher minimum wage and a path to legal status for undocumented workers. Anyone who wants to learn more about working conditions in our nation's eateries should read Saru Jayaraman's outstanding 2013 book Behind the Kitchen Door. (Read the Mother Jones review here.)

And just for fun, here's the Mother Jones fast-food wage calculator, which will give you a sense of what some workers are up against:

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Read the Emails in the Hilarious Monsanto/Mo Rocca/Condé Nast Meltdown (UPDATED)

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 8:55 PM EDT

Last week, Gawker uncovered a hapless tie-up between genetically modified seed/pesticide giant Monsanto and Condé Nast Media—publisher of The New Yorker, Bon Appetit, GQ, Self, Details, and other magazines—to produce "an exciting video series" on the "topics of food, food chains and sustainability."

Marion Nestle was offered $5,000 to participate for a single afternoon.

Since then, I've learned that Condé Nast's Strategic Partnerships division dangled cash before several high-profile food politics writers, in an unsuccessful attempt to convince them to participate.  

Marion Nestle, author of the classic book Food Politics and a professor at New York University, told me she was offered $5,000 to participate for a single afternoon. Nestle almost accepted, because at first she didn't know Monsanto was involved—the initial email she received only referred to the company in attachments that she didn't open, she said.

"It wasn't until we were at the end of the discussion about how much time I would allow (they wanted a full day) that they mentioned the honorarium," she wrote in an email. "I was so shocked at the amount that I had sense enough to ask who was paying for it. Monsanto. End of discussion."

James McWillams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and a pundit on food issues whose work appears in The Atlantic and other publications, got offered even more, in a conversation with a Conde Nast rep on Aug. 6. "They were not evasive or misleading" about Monsanto's involvement, he told me, "just not immediately forthcoming…within a question or two it was clear that this was a PR project."

He wouldn't tell me on the record how much they dangled, but described it as "more money than I've ever been paid to talk" and "considerably north" of Nestle's offer. He declined.

Apparently, the infamous gender gap in pay lives on, even in the market for corporate flackery. I would have thought that snagging Nestle, a longtime industry critic, would be worth much more than bagging McWilliams, who has written favorably about GMOs. Nestle, who is quoted frequently in major media articles on food topics, also arguably has a considerably higher public profile than does McWilliams.

Then there's Anna Lappé, author of the book Diet for a Hot Planet and prominent critic of the agrichemical industry. She forwarded me an August 4 email a representative of her Small Planet Foundation received from someone identified as "Senior Director, Strategic Alliances, the Condé Nast Media Group." The email, printed below, invited Lappé to participate in an "exciting video series being promoted on our brand websites (i.e: Self, Epicurious, Bon Appetit, GQ & Details) and living on a custom YouTube channel," centered on "food, food chains and sustainability." It didn't mention Monsanto, but added that "[c]ompensation will be provided, along with travel two/from the shoot location." It contained no mention of Monsanto, or specifics on the compensation offer.

Coincidentally, Lappé was already wise to the Monsanto/Condé Nast tie-up. Back in June, she had been forwarded an email about a forthcoming web-based TV show sponsored by Monsanto and produced by Condé Nast, in search of experts to appear as talking heads. Lappé wrote critically about the project in an Al Jazeera America column published August 1, just days before the Condé Nast rep approached her. "I guess they didn't read the column," Lappé says.

She replied to the Condé Nast proposition on August 7, complaining that "it was misleading to approach me about participating without divulging the series is being funded by Monsanto." She never heard back.

That same day, Gawker came out with its post, which contained a leaked email from another Condé Nast employee to unnamed charity group, which contains similar language to the one Lappé received. "We are contacting you to see if there might be a person at [charity group] who could speak to one or two of the episode subject," the email states. (The email also names documentary film maker Lori Silverbush as someone Condé Nast hoped would be part of the panel. Silverbush's husband, the famed New York City chef Tom Colicchio, later tweeted, "Lori declined the Monsanto 'opportunity' when it was first offered, for reasons you can imagine.")

The series' host, the email continued, would be Mo Rocca, a famed comedian and correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning. Lappé, McWilliams, and Nestle were also informed that Rocca would appear as the show's host. "When I looked up Mo Rocca, he sounded like fun," Nestle told me.

Soon after the Gawker item appeared, Rocca wrote a note to the publication denying his involvement. "Yes, I was pitched that project but before I gave my answer a letter went out suggesting I was signed on," he wrote. "That's not the case. I'm not involved with it."

I've reached out to Condé Nast for comment, and will update this post if the company gets back.

UPDATE: Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and the most high-profile US food-politics writer, was also invited to participate in the project, he informed me Friday. In a July 22 email to Pollan's lecture agent, a Condé Nast rep talked up an "exciting video series being promoted on our brand websites," centered on "food, food chains and sustainability," but didn't mention Mo Rocca or compensation. Nor did the email mention Monsanto—as with the case of Nestle, the company's name only appeared in an attachment. Pollan's agent "declined before money was mentioned," he said.

Here's the email Lappé's associate got from Condé Nast:

And here's Lappé's response:

 

The Toxic Algae Are Not Done With Toledo. Not By a Long Stretch.

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
The algae bloom that swallowed parts of Lake Erie in 2011. Toledo sits near—and draws its water from—the lake's southwest region, where algae tends to accumulate.

Last weekend, Toledo's 400,000 residents were sent scrambling for bottled water because the stuff from the tap had gone toxic—so toxic that city officials warned people against bathing their children or washing their dishes in it. The likely cause: a toxic blue-green algae bloom that floated over the city's municipal water intake in Lake Erie. On Monday morning, the city called off the don't-drink-the-water warning, claiming that levels of the contaminant in the water had fallen back to safe levels. Is their nightmare over?

One expert said he could "almost guarantee" that the conditions that caused the crisis, i.e., a toxic bloom floating over the intake, would recur this summer.

I put the question to Jeffrey Reutter, director of the Stone Laboratory at Ohio State University and a researcher who monitors Lake Erie's annual algae blooms. He said he could "almost guarantee" that the conditions that caused the crisis, i.e., a toxic bloom floating over the intake, would recur this summer. But it's "pretty unlikely" that toxins will make it into the city's drinking water. That's because after the weekend's fiasco, a whole crew of public agencies, from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to the US Environmental Protection Agency to the City of Toledo, have been scrambling to implement new procedures to keep the toxins out. "I think they have a pretty good plan in place," he said. But "you can't guarantee [there won't be a recurrence] because you can't predict "how bad the concentration of the toxins going into the plant [from the lake] is going to be."

Reutter added that he "anticipated" that the new system for protecting Toledo's drinking water would be more expensive than the current one. Back in January, local paper the Blade reported that Toledo "has spent $3 million a year battling algae toxins in recent years, [and] spent $4 million in 2013."

And those hard realities highlight a hard fact about our way of farming: It manages to displace the costs of dealing with its messes onto people who don't directly benefit from it. The ties between Big Ag and Toledo's rough weekend are easy to tease out. "The Maumee River drains more than four million acres of agricultural land and dumps it into Lake Erie at the Port of Toledo," the Wall Street Journal reports. More than 80 percent of the Maumeee River watershed is devoted to agriculture, mainly the corn-soy duopoly that carpets the Midwest. Fertilizer and manure runoff from the region's farms feed blue-green algae blooms in the southwest corner of Lake Erie, from which Toledo draws its water.  

And those blooms don't just tie up oxygen in water and push out aquatic life, creating dead zones. They also often contain the compound that triggered the water scare: microcystin, a toxin that can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, severe headaches, fever, and even liver damage. Apparently, a particularly noxious chunk of algae floated over Toledo's water intake equipment, causing the microcystin spike.

Back in early July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Michigan delivered their forecast for this year's bloom on the western part of Erie: It would likely be much smaller than it was in 2011, when a record 40,000 metric tons of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) accumulated, but likely much higher than the past decade's average of 14,000 metric tons—the researchers forecast a 2014 bloom weighing in at 22,000 metric tons. The blooms don't peak until September, which is why Reutter is convinced that the condition that created last weekend's troubles will likely re-emerge.

Here's a chart from the report:

Chart: NOAA and University of Michigan researchers

The bottom half of that chart tracks the flow of phosphorus, the component of fertilizer and manure that triggers freshwater algae blooms, into Lake Erie. Of course, farm runoff isn't the only way phosphorus makes its way into the lake. Municipal sewage and industrial waste play a role, too. But reforms imposed by the Clean Water Act in 1972 minimized those sources, pulling Lake Erie from the brink of death.

The below chart, taken from a 2013 Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force report, shows the sources of Lake Erie phosphorus over the past several decades. Under pressure from the Clean Water Act, pollution from "point" sources like wastewater treatment plants and factories have been severely curtailed. But the CWA doesn't regulate "non-point" sources, mainly agriculture. "Harmful algal blooms were common in western Lake Erie between the 1960s and 1980s," NOAA notes. "After a lapse of nearly 20 years, blooms have been steadily increasing over the past decade."

Chart: Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force

Climate change plays a role, too—both because longer, warmer summers give algae more time to build up, and because warmer mean temperatures are also likely driving a steep increase of heavy rains in the upper Midwest, which force more phosphorus off farm fields and into waterways. Changes in the way farmers apply fertilizers are also apparently making phosphorus more mobile as this 2012 article by Jessica Marshal for the Food and Environment Reporting Network shows.

Of course, western Ohio isn't the only Corn Belt region encountering toxic algae. "A reported chemical spill on the Des Moines River above Saylorville Lake Wednesday turned out to be a blue-green algae bloom," the Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported in late July. More recently, the Army Corps of Engineers issued an advisory against swimming in two beaches of Lake Red Rock, Iowa's largest lake, "in response to the presence of a significant blue-green algae bloom which has the potential to impact the health of humans and their pets."

The website Toxic Algae News tracks blooms nationwide. Here's its latest map. Red pins in a state mean harmful algal blooms recur annually in "many" lakes; orange pins mean they recur in one or two lakes.

And phosphorus isn't the only fertilizer component that feeds algae blooms. Nitrogen does to saltwater what phosphorus does to freshwater—and every year, the Mississippi River carries titanic amounts of nitrogen into the Gulf of Mexico, more than half of which comes from corn and soy farms. These flows feed a vast algae bloom that creates an aquatic dead zone that can reach the size of New Jersey—blotting out a wild, abundant source of high-quality seafood, in order to grow crops that mainly go to feed livestock, cars, industrial-cooking fats, and sweeteners. This year's dead zone clocks in at 5,008 square miles—"roughly the size of Connecticut and…three times larger than the 2015 goal established by a task force specifically created to address the problem," the Mississippi River Collaborative announced Monday.

Such sacrifices are what economists call "externalities"—the costs of doing business that don't show up on the bottom lines of farmers, or the companies that buy their goods for animal feed and ethanol, or the firms that sell them the seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers that facilitate mass monocropped plantings.

Residents of places like Toledo are left holding the bag. Many people there are questioning the safety of their water supply and turning to pricey bottled water instead, USA Today reports. And now, the city's taxpayers (or some public entity) will likely be paying more than ever to keep algae toxins out of the tap water.

Tom's Kitchen: ¡Ceviche!

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

I'm reading Paul Greenberg's superb new book American Catch. In it, Greenberg teases out Americans' weird relationship to the sea. "We are a nation of coasts," he writes, in which "nearly half of the population chooses to live less than ten miles from the sea." Yet on average, we eat just 15 pounds of fish and shellfish annually per capita, vs. 100 pounds of red meat. Don't even get me started about how growing loads of Midwestern corn, mainly for livestock feed, takes out huge swaths of the Gulf of Mexico, the mainland US's greatest fishery. Of the fish we do eat, a startling 91 percent is imported—much of it farmed under dodgy conditions and barely inspected by food safety authorities. Meanwhile, we export nearly a third of our own abundant wild catch.

Contemplating these contradictions made me want to eat some damned fish. So I went to Austin's stellar old-school fish monger Quality Seafood to see what I could get from the seascape nearest me, the Gulf of Mexico. The display included a gorgeous stack of black drum filets, a firm white fish subtly streaked with red—and rated a "good alternative" by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, which scrutinizes fisheries based on their sustainability. Contemplating the brutal heat outside and my stash of produce at home—tomatoes, a red onion, serrano chiles, limes, etc—inspiration hit me: ceviche, that sublime, no-cook Latin American answer to sushi. Well, it's not exactly like sushi—the acid in the lime juice breaks down the fish, effectively cooking it. Which beats the hell out of firing up the oven on a hot day.

So I snatched a filet of black drum and got busy with the cutting board. Here's what I did. This dish brings together a lot of sharp, bright flavors in a lovely way.

Simple Ceviche
1 pound filet of a firm white fish—preferably from a nearby source—cut into ½ inch chunks
1 red onion, cut into 1/4 inch chucks
Sea salt and black pepper
4 limes, juiced; and at least one extra, in case
1 ripe tomato, cut into ½ inch chucks
1 clove of garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced into a fine paste
1 hot chile pepper, such as serrano or jalapeño, minced fine<
A little extra-virgin olive oil
1 avocado, cut into ½ inch chucks
1 small head of cilantro, chopped

Put the fish, the onions, and a good dash of salt and pepper in a bowl. Add the lime juice and toss. There should be enough juice to fully submerge the fish. If not, juice another lime and add it to the bowl. Let the fish/onion/lime juice combo sit in the fridge, covered, for an hour or so (here's an excellent Serious Eats guide to how long to let ceviche marinade based on your taste).

To finish, add the tomato, the garlic, the chile, a lashing of olive oil, and the avocado and cilantro (if someone in your crew hates cilantro, parsley and even mint work great). Toss, taste for salt, and serve with chips.

40 Million People Depend on the Colorado River. Now It's Drying Up.

| Mon Aug. 4, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Science papers don't generate much in the way of headlines, so you'll be forgiven if you haven't heard of one called "Groundwater Depletion During Drought Threatens Future Water Security of the Colorado River Basin," recently published by University of California-Irvine and NASA researchers.

But the "water security of the Colorado River basin" is an important concept, if you are one of the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River for drinking water, a group that includes residents of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, and San Diego. Or if you enjoy eating vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach during the winter. Through the many diversions, dams, canals, and reservoirs the river feeds as it snakes its way from the Rockies toward Mexico, the Colorado also provides the irrigation that makes the desert bloom in California's Imperial Valley and Arizona's Yuma County—source of more than two-thirds of US winter vegetable production.