An Interview with Jose Oliva of Food Chain Workers Alliance

Interview by Rebecca Bacon Ehlers

A grocery store I frequent has a tiny store-within-a-store called the “naturals section.” Entering the naturals section involves passing through a subtle, nearly invisible barrier, where the white and green flecked linoleum turns into the kind that mimics wood, and the fluorescent lights overhead glow with a slightly warmer hue.  This is where the good people shop.

I feel guilty for not buying all of my food from the naturals section, even though this is in no way financially possible for me. Walking down the other aisles, I have the vague intuition that each product I see has probably hurt somebody at some point along its journey, and for all I know, that’s true: the factory-farmed meat, imported bananas, and hot pockets all come from somewhere, and there’s a reason they don’t put the feedlot/plantation/hot pocket factory on the label.

To learn about what it would take to build a food system built on nourishment rather than consumption, I sat down with food policy advocate Jose Oliva. When I asked Jose for his take on how we arrived at our current food-system reality, he explained that compartmentalization has had a profound fracturing effect. Growers, distributors, and vendors tend to operate within their own silos, and stratification is also increasingly pronounced on the consumer side.

Jose made a point of highlighting how rising inequality has brought us to a reality where there are essentially two food systems; my grocery store is not the only one with another store inside of it.  The industrial food system, which leverages our bodies’ natural response to fat, salt, and sugar into a tremendously profitable enterprise, is the only option available for most people. We have the industrial food system to thank for food deserts, high fructose corn syrup, hot pockets, and most of the products sold beyond the fake wood linoleum zone. Low prices come at a high cost, to eaters, to workers, animals,  and the environment. An added injustice is that these consequences tend to be experienced most acutely in communities of color, who make up a greater share of food chain workers and low-income eaters.

In recent years, people who have the financial bandwidth to pay for more nutritious, less mysteriously-processed food have propelled a new industry that positions itself as an antidote to the excess of the industrial food system. As a result, it’s become easier to find organic, fair trade, sustainable food—if you can afford it. As Jose described it, this parallel system is a mixed bag. There’s a limit to the benefits of having a more socially conscious food system when it is inaccessible to so much of the population, including the vast majority of people who actually produce, distribute, and serve food. So what is the way out?

From Jose’s perspective, the food system will not be saved by individual consumers voting with their dollars, or by piecemeal solutions that target discrete intervention points. Problems caused by hyperindividualism won’t be solved by more of the same.
So where do we go from here? Jose’s approach to organizing provides an alternative by addressing the food system’s inherent complexity as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. He became involved in food justice work because, as a frontline restaurant worker, he was directly impacted by the inequities of the status quo. After organizing with the Restaurant Opportunities Center, he partnered with LA-based food policy advocate Joann Lo to found the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA).

FCWA is a coalition of worker-based organizations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food. As a labor organization, it is unique in its holistic focus, and provides one of the few spaces where workers from different localities and different levels of the food system can collaborate. Their work to wages and working conditions all along the food chain creates a healthier, more sustainable food system for us all.

FCWA supports campaigns that are similarly holistic in their focus. One of its key partnerships is with the Center for Good Food Purchasing, which has pioneered a comprehensive set of food procurement standards called the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP). GFPP harnesses the buying power of large institutions to advocate for a healthier food system that better serves people, animals, and the environment.  In Chicago, Jose’s home base, FCWA has already successfully advocated for adoption of the program at the municipal and county level.

A big thank you to Jose Oliva for sharing his experiences and insights with Culturework!

Food chain workers alliance logo, which includes images of a restaurant server, farmer, and food processing worker

What do people need to know about the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP)?

So the GFPP is not intended to be a piecemeal solution to food system problems, it’s really intended to look at a system as a system.  When we tend to think about the food system I think we often have this narrative that runs through our minds that’s “oh my god this is too complicated there’s just way too many moving parts y’know there’s the suppliers, there’s the producers, there’s all these middle people that bring the food…”  And it’s actually not that complicated. When you think about the food system, you have to understand that just as we are all buying food when we are grocery shopping, we also buy food as a city. Our tax dollars are buying food for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and for any of the various programs in the city of Chicago that feed people.  CPS alone spends a little over $300 million worth of food every year. So it’s a lot of money that we are investing as taxpayers.

So, how does the program work?  It has five value categories. There’s human health, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, local economies, and labor.  None of these is not intended to be a standalone measure that you can separate away from the others. They’re all intended to interact with the others, and together you get a baseline of where that particular agency is in the context of these 5 value packs.  So the idea is that over time we’ll be able to actually make Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Park District, and the city as a whole purchase food that’s better for the environment, better for workers, better for animal welfare, so on. And that’s why those 5 value categories are completely intertwined, designed to be part of the whole that’s fueling the definition of what good food is.  

So that’s what I want to make sure people understand. For instance, if you look at businesses that are good to the environment, they often tend to be good to workers.  Why is that? It’s not just because the owner happens to be a conscientious person (although that might be the case), the reality is that if you’re not spraying all these chemicals on the fruits and veggies, that’s actually better for the human beings that are picking.  

At the same time, I definitely caution people in saying that something that is organic is automatically good to workers, because that’s not true.  Go to Whole Foods and hear people talking about, “Oh, this is grass-fed beef and therefore they must be good to their workers.” Actually, that grass-fed beef is processed by workers that are nonunion, and so they’re probably worse off than that other beef.  It’s not interchangeable.

What is important to know about Food Chain Workers Alliance?

Food Chain Workers Alliance is a coalition of 31 food worker organizations.  We represent roughly 350,000 workers in the US. And we started the Alliance because there was this growing food movement.  Everywhere I went people were talking about organic food or animal welfare, nobody was really talking about the people who actually work in the food system. It was a little bit disheartening and sad to feel like there are human beings who work in the food system, and you don’t hear about them or talk about them. You don’t lead your diatribe about the food system with workers.  And so that led us to create FCWA.

Once we created the Alliance, it was pretty clear that the food movement wasn’t just gonna “wake up to the reality” or “wake up to the pressure” that we were facing. We really needed to make sure that there were vehicles that we were leading and in control of in order for us to make sure that workers were at the center of these conversations.  Let’s put them at the center of anything that is going to be a policy about the food system, and the food purchasing program sort of emerged from those sort of conversations.

So now once we actually launched the Alliance, we knew that we couldn’t just be a group of–I’m trying to think of diplomatic way of saying this–we couldn’t just be another labor federation like the ones that already exist.  What I mean is that the current labor federations are led by people who don’t look like the frontline workers. They’re predominantly white, predominantly male, and the reality of our workforce is that’s just not what it looks like anymore, especially in the food system.  All you have to do is walk into any restaurant and look around and what you see is not at all how it looks. We knew that we needed to have a coalition of labor organizations that really truly reflected the workforce. And it wasn’t just about reflecting them, it was about them being in control of it–them being the ones who are actually making the decisions and running this Alliance.  And so what we set up is this coalition that would meet and make decisions about leadership, about who would be running the coalition, and who would be the ones doing what work. They would meet and decide on programs, what kinds of work we would be doing, and all of this continues to be the way that we operate.

When we started there were 8 organizations, so making those decisions was fairly simple.  But we’ve grown and we now have 31 member organizations, so we’ve had to develop systems to capture how decisions are made and do things that are a lot more experimental.  We want to make sure that we’re not just voting on things but that we’re landing on consensus, which is really not just about, “ok this is a decision that the majority of us wanted,” but rather, “we all want to do this together.”  How we come about it is really very different than a labor federation or a coalition that doesn’t have that kind of buy-in from their members.

What’s it like to bring together so many different groups of people who might not usually have a shared space, and what kind of cross-cultural stuff is happening in that context?

It’s really interesting to have geographic diversity. So one of my favorite things about the Alliance is that we have African-American members from Mississippi that will break bread with Latinos from LA or Chicago, and in the context of how the food system came to be what it is, oftentimes Latin American immigrants don’t understand the history of slavery or the role slavery played in the creation of the food system.  The fact that it was really slave labor that was the impetus that created the food system in this country. And so having those exchanges and being able to see the growth or the learning that happens in those spaces, the exchange that takes place because oftentimes also African American members don’t know why Latin American members are here. Like, “Why did you leave… Guatemala?” That’s a pretty typical question for folks to ask.  So anyway that to me is one of the most crucial roles of the Alliance is being able to provide the space for people to exchange those histories in the context of cultures because a conversation around strategy doesn’t lend itself for a conversation around, so what role did the civil rights movement play in your life? that’s a deeper conversation that happens in a cultural space, not in a dry space around strategy.

What are some aspirations that you have for the next 5 years or so?

The three most exciting things: one, we are going to continue to expand the GFPP. We currently have campaigns in Buffalo, NY; Washington, DC; New York City, Denver, CO; San Diego, CA; Cincinnati; the Twin Cities; and a couple of other places.  Those campaigns are going to come to a head in the next couple of years and I know a couple of them are an inch away from getting adopted. So that’s really exciting. We’re gonna continue to expand here in Illinois to the state level so that we would have GFPP at all of the state agencies.

Apart from that, there’s a campaign that we’re launching around increasing the minimum wage.

It’s different in the restaurant industry. People that get tips make a tipped minimum wage which is different from the regular minimum wage–the federal tipped minimum has been frozen at 2.13$/hr since 1991.  Farm workers have been excluded completely from the Fair Labor Standards Act, so the federal minimum wage doesn’t cover them either. One of the things we’re really excited about is a minimum wage initiative that we’ll be leading that will address both of those groups.  

So minimum wage probably doesn’t sound that exciting to most people. They can be like, “Oh yeah, whatever, I don’t make minimum wage, so who cares?” Well, the minimum wage is the floor of our economy.  That floor holds the entire economy together, and to the extent that we allow for the floor to be eroded or be taken away completely, we all end up in danger of having a freefall in terms of wages. It’s also one of these poverty check issues–to the extent that the minimum is higher, you are ensuring that people are making at least enough to pay the basic bills to make sure that they aren’t in abject poverty. So anyway that to me is really exciting.

There’s this political dimension to the minimum wage work around who supports it. We know for sure that minimum wage workers, women of color, people of color in general support the minimum wage. We also know that working class White people especially in rural economies support an increase to the minimum wage. The reason that that’s important is that that overlaps with people who support Donald Trump. In 2020 there’s gonna be a presidential election, and if we’re successful in moving minimum wage as an issue especially nationally, you’re going to have people in that Trump coalition who are gonna suddenly find themselves in a precarious situation, saying “Do I support this president, or do I want an increase to the minimum wage?” Because Trump is not gonna support an increase to the minimum wage and neither will the Republicans as a whole.  We’re a nonpartisan organization, so we don’t get involved in the electoral stuff, but it’s an observation that’s important to make because it really can have much broader implications–the bread and butter implications of improving people’s lives.

A third one that we’re working on that I think is gonna be something really cool is we’re starting to do research right now around high-road employers. That means people that are already paying livable wages and providing benefits. The research that we have done so far indicates that these high road employers also care about environmental issues, and animal welfare; they are good food providers in the true sense of that word.  But they’re not necessarily supplying to or supplying from other businesses that share their values. That gives us a pretty unique opportunity to think, what kind of networking can we do between and amongst these businesses? And what kind of business associations of the future can we create that actually propel the food system in that direction, that give people interconnectedness that they need in order to sustain their businesses and grow them? The research will power the engine.

Do you think we’re moving toward seeing an end to the practice of tipping?

No, I don’t think so, and I don’t think the increase to the min wage is an attempt to do that. I think what we want is the whole country to be like California or Minnesota, where there is no tipped minimum wage and people still tip.  I know a lot of people think tip workers are making a lot of money, and that’s true for some tip workers: I used to work at Francesca’s and I’d come out of that on a bad night with about $200 in my pocket, so I was doing OK. But I also worked at Shoney’s, and at that restaurant people thought it was OK to not tip at all, because they could go up on their own and get their food at the buffet.  So I’d oftentimes get a paycheck in the mail for zero dollars because all of my money would go to pay taxes. I worked a whole week and all I came home with was fifty bucks. All I had to pay the rent, the gas, the electricity was $50 for that week. I had to put it all away and hope that the next week was better. There’s no floor when you’re not making minimum wage, and $2.15 an hour means all of that is going straight to the IRS.

So that’s why the tipped minimum wage needs to go away, but it does not mean that tipping needs to go away.  Tipping as an institution has a mixed review. Most workers love it. I loved it. I remember when I left Shoney’s to work at Red Lobster, the difference in tipping was like night and day. I definitely didn’t want my tips to go away, but I definitely wanted a stable income.

The other reason the sub-minimum wage is bad is that there’s a gender equity issue.  Most tipped workers are women. If you know that tipping is literally your means, and you have a table sexually harassing you, you’re more likely to tolerate that than if you have a stable income.

So anyway, there are a lot of issues that have to do with how the tipped minimum wage has been abused.  Right now consumers are subsidizing employers by paying the wages of the workers. It’s the only industry that does that!  You don’t go to a car dealership and pay the workers for the car that you’re buying.

Jose Oliva holding a fish

How do you find space to access nourishing values and practices within the organization?

That’s a deep question.  As an organization, we are pretty dedicated to making space and time for staff and members to learn about the history of the movement, the history of the struggle, the history of the various communities represented in the food system, with particular emphasis on immigrant communities from Latin America and African American communities. There’s a special status to those two communities, not just in the food system, but in the history of this country, which shapes who we are now as a people, as a country.

So that space and time that I’m talking about manifests itself in a couple of ways. We do staff retreats where we are very intentional about how we dissect where we are as an organization and how that is connected to this history and the legacy of both slavery and forced migration of people from Latin America, and how that is leading us to something that we want and need, which is liberation.  Now we try not to get stuck in the analytical, in this space of just thinking about the past and how that shapes where we are, but we try our best to really make that a roadmap for where we need to go. It’s really important as far as I’m concerned to be grounded in the history in order for us to look forward and know where we need to go and why.

So that’s organizationally and like I said with our members we do a ton of activities–quarterly trainings and annual full meetings when hundreds of members come from all over the country, and we do a pretty exciting set of dynamics, a lot of popular education. So we have a  particular process by which our various perspectives on how we are oppressed shapes what we think is our path to liberation. My particular oppression is different than yours, and by exchanging our experiences, by you telling me what it’s like to be a woman, and me telling you what it’s like to be Latino, we can arrive at an analysis of a common oppressor and then devise a strategy for ensuring we overcome that oppressor.

To us it’s really important for our members to think about those analyses together, not just in silos, not just in their organizations, but in these places that are also multisectoral where they can see the whole food system and understand their place in it, but also the whole food system and the other people who are there with them, and how together they can actually arrive at solutions for the problems in that system.

How do you find ways to access nourishment in your own life?

Personally, it’s been interesting. I went on a sabbatical because I was feeling hurt. I was feeling like I had been pushed to the brink. I struggle with depression, like, clinical depression, and I had not had an episode in many years. There were a series of events at the Alliance that triggered depression for me, and I was kind of at my wits’ end. I was in this space where I was thinking, I probably need to leave. I probably need to stop doing this work altogether. But instead of leaving, my co-director convinced me to take a sabbatical. In that time, I came to this realization that the reason I was pushed into this hole, this depression, was because I felt like the Alliance was mine, I had ownership of the Alliance, I created it, I’m the founder of it, so it’s mine, and how dare anyone come and tell me how it should be run?  Which leads to ego. It’s not just ownership, it’s also this sense of you’re attacking me. The Alliance is me, and by you telling me that this is the problem with the Alliance, you’re telling me there’s something wrong with me, something wrong with the core of who I am, especially because the Alliance is such a fundamental part of who I am.

And the struggle is not just that there’s ego there or that there’s ownership there, the struggle is that there has to be ownership there, because if there is no ownership there, then I become like one of these professional organizers that’s just doing a job, and who cares about the Alliance, right? So there has to be a certain level of ownership, and, at the same time, flexibility to let other people have ownership. Because otherwise, what the fuck am I doing, right?  I’m organizing people into an alliance that’s mine only and they have to listen to me, like a dictator? That’s not what I want either. So there has to be flexibility for me to own it, and to also let other people own it. And to let those other people’s visions actually lead. And my role is not to create the vision and lead with the vision but to execute the vision that other people give me, that my members give me. And then taking that and internalizing it, and feeling like I’m OK with that and it’s not just an intellectual knowledge of that having to happen, but that I actually am practicing it. And that’s where I’m at right now. I’m trying really hard to not feel offended when people criticize something.

There are times when for the benefit of the organization you need to be able to put your foot down and say, “No, actually that would hurt the Alliance.” And then there are times when actually it’s OK to let people make mistakes, and actually they should, because that’s the only way that they are going to learn, right? And it’s OK for that mistake to happen, even if it’s at the expense–to some extent–of the organization. For the sake of that person’s growth, they need to learn that on their own. You can’t tell them that this is what’s going to happen, they have to see it themselves.  

That’s the other thing that I’m trying to learn–this sort of Zen Buddhist detachment. Being able to trust that things will be ok, even if you don’t know the outcome. I’ve been in other organizations with very strong leaders that certainly acted like they knew exactly what they were doing at all times, and you had to follow their lead. In some of those organizations, there were healthy processes–or open, transparent processes–for that person to say this is what we’ve got to do, im the boss and we’ve got to do it. In other organizations there were unhealthy, manipulative, passive-aggressive processes, and so I learned a lot from that. I don’t think either of those are healthy. Of the two, of course, the transparent one is healthier, but it’s still unhealthy, because you have this hierarchical dynamic where you are locked in a relationship with someone who is essentially just telling you what to do. So that’s what I’m trying not to replicate. I’m trying to let things happen without acting like I know what’s better, while holding on to the reality where there are situations where I do know what’s better–I’ve seen it before, and I have enough experience to know that this will lead to this other outcome. So it’s tough. It’s this exercise in my mind: how do I feel at peace with decisions that are out of my control, even when I know what the outcome is going to be?

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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