Co-authored by Saru Jayaraman
Food movement leaders tend to stick to their specific issues, whether it's advocating for healthy food, fighting for workers' rights or curbing marketing to children. For each of these issues, there are numerous food corporations that need to change. But there is one organization that conveniently provides us with one giant target for all of them: the National Restaurant Association.
The "other NRA" employs 750 staffers and spent nearly $4 million on lobbying and campaign donations in 2012 alone. The trade group representing some 52,000 members was named a "Heavy Hitter" by the Center for Responsive Politics for being a top corporate player in Washington, D.C. No wonder, with board members that include the nation's largest chains such as McDonald's, Wendy's, Starbucks, and Darden (the restaurant conglomerate that owns Olive Garden and Red Lobster), among others.
NRA Vs. Public Health
The National Restaurant Association has had a negative impact on a wide range of issues that foodies tend to care about. Do you think chain restaurants should provide basic nutrition information to their customers? Is it really too much to ask to disclose the calorie count for dishes like the "Five Cheese Ziti" or the "Steak Gorgonzola-Alfredo" at Olive Garden? The NRA thinks so, as the group lobbied against menu labeling laws for decades, until they "gave in" by stripping states of their right to enact such laws. The NRA hated New York City's menu labeling rules so much that the group filed a lawsuit to stop implementation. They lost.
But that didn't stop NRA lawyers from filing another lawsuit against New York City when lobbyists didn't get their way again, this time to oppose limiting the size of sugary soft drinks. (That case is still pending.) Science and plain common sense tells us that consuming sodas out of bucket-sized containers is probably not good for you. Yet the NRA and its members demand their right to keep selling these disease-inducing beverages by waging an aggressive astroturf and media campaign in cahoots with the soda industry to manipulate public opinion.
Other public health policies the NRA has vigorously opposed include soda taxes, trans fat bans and lowering sodium levels, which are sky-high in chain restaurants. But there are a few policies the NRA is actually in favor of, such as expanding the use of food stamps for fast food. They also led the charge for "cheeseburger bills," which aim to shut the courtroom door to customers harmed by unhealthy fare.
NRA Vs. Children
An especially important issue on the NRA's menu of obstruction is marketing to children. Despite decades of advocacy efforts aimed at getting the food industry to stop targeting children as young as age 2, we've come up mostly empty. A few years ago, the NRA helped kill an effort by four federal agencies to improve the industry's notoriously lax voluntary guidelines on food marketing to children. The NRA also lobbies to make sure that children continue to be targeted with toys in unhealthy meals. All the while, the NRA pretends to care about kids by inventing a public relations scheme it calls "Kids LiveWell" purporting to help parents find healthy food for their children when dining out. Too bad the evidence shows almost all of such meals are of poor nutritional quality.
NRA Vs. Animals
Not content just to be an enemy of public health, the restaurant lobby also takes aim at those advocating for sustainable food and farm animal welfare. One of the NRA's favorite mouthpieces is the notorious lobbyist Rick Berman, who revels in his nickname "Dr. Evil" and mounts aggressive campaigns against labor organizations, nutrition groups, and animal welfare advocates while his clients keep their noses clean. Berman has penned articles published in the industry trade paper, the Nation's Restaurant News, for example, criticizing recent restaurant industry pledges to raise pigs humanely and calling on restaurants to fight back against animal activists, warning: "Operators need to roll up their sleeves before it's too late." Berman also loves pink slime and mercury-laden fish. Berman misses no opportunity to slam advocates of sustainable food, touting "modern technology for maximizing the efficiency of [food] processing." He's even attacked Michelle Obama for calling on restaurants to serve healthier options for children and families.
NRA Vs. Workers
If all of that isn't enough evil-doing, the NRA's main agenda is to keep workers down by spreading fear about the alleged economic doom that would bestow the restaurant industry by meager increases in worker wages and paid sick days. The federal minimum wage is stuck at $7.25 an hour. Can you live on that? As I write this on February 13, I see a reminder that the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is only $2.13 an hour -- it's been stuck there since 1991 -- or, more accurately, the NRA and its members have kept it there. The NRA wants the restaurant industry to stand alone in not having to pay its own workers -- claiming that we, the customers, pay their workers' wages for them through our tips.
The restaurant industry loves to whine about how it cannot possibly afford to raise worker wages. But as author Anna Lappé recently pointed out, Darden (the leading sit-down restaurant chain) pays its top five executives more than $16 million a year. McDonald's paid its CEO more than $13.8 million in 2012, even with declining sales. With that kind of money to throw around, leading restaurants can more than afford to pay their workers a living wage.
NRA members would still have plenty of money left over for other business improvements, such as sourcing more sustainable food and insisting their meat suppliers stop engaging in cruelty. Some changes wouldn't even cost them money, like no longer exploiting children. That change would save restaurants money; money better spent on workers' wages and paid sick days. It's time for the food movement to come together and fight this common enemy.
Saru Jayaraman is co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Center United and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. See ROC's latest video and #LivingOffTips campaign here.
Originally posted at Corporate Accountability International.