02/11/2013 01:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Working for Sustainability: Can Multinational Food Service Corporation Sodexo Measure Up?

On February 5th, I had the opportunity to lead a delegation in support of cafeteria workers who are asking to be able to cook real foods again. We delivered 1,600 pledges signed by community members to Sodexo, a multinational corporation that contracts dining at Howard University.

With rising food prices, money doesn’t buy fresh fruits and veggies the way it used to. Cafeteria workers at Howard, in addition to asking for a wage level that will allow them to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, are asking to be given the time and resources necessary to cook fresh foods for students. Finally, workers are asking to be given a seat at the negotiating table in order to press for sustainable foods, “real” foods, on campus.

As it turns out, Sodexo is one of the largest food providing corporations in the country. And their website makes an eloquent appeal for sustainable food and corporate citizenship.

Now, I’m skeptical of multinational corporations with slick branding. Try googling “Coke social responsibility” if you’d like to read some Coke-bought social responsibility reporting. But I know that I myself am in the process of learning to live up to my own food and sustainability standards. And because I believe that being a responsible global citizen, just like becoming a good person, is a gradual process that is never finished, I want Sodexo to take a step in the right direction and do as Bon Appetit recently did at American University: take care of their workers as well as the earth.

What invites my enthusiasm rather than my skepticism is my involvement, along with six other people from sustainability/food justice organizations, in Unite Here’s delegation. Organizations included Bread for the City, Food and Water Watch, Common Good City Farm, Food Day, Union of Concerned Scientists, and my organization, the
Quixote Center. It’s clear that the movement for sustainability and just wages is not just for workers, and our delegation’s composition expresses that.

We represent a growing coalition of individuals and organizations that are concerned about the ways that our food system is shaped by profit motives rather than the health needs of both workers and customers.

And, of course, we have to find pressure points. In campaigns to reform corporate America, we choose one company and pressure it to change. Then we move on to the next. And the next. Until we’ve changed the market. Which is why we're joining with UNITE HERE to bring some accountability at this strategic intersection of workers, educators and community members.

You see, we know that our industrial food system is sickening us. The toxins we press into the soil twines into our bodies, just as the casual exploitation of food workers twines into our souls.

The movement for sustainability is not just for workers, because it is ultimately our children who will be dealing with food shortages on an earth dessicated by climate change.

Unsustainable wages are not just a worker’s problem: wages limit the opportunities for workers to participate in healthy and sustainable food economies. As food prices soar thanks to a drought which scientists say may be linked to global warming, food service workers are less and less able to buy the fresh foods that are cornerstone for both health and sustainability.

It's fundamental that we support workers organizing for healthy wages in addition to supporting sustainability measures.

And so, I invite you to sign the Real Food Real Jobs pledge and become a part of the movement for worker-led sustainability, and join us in contemplating what shalom means in the global food economy.