Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Saru Jayaraman, Co-Founder and Co-Director of ROC United, who will be speaking at the summit.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?
Saru Jayaraman (SJ): On September 11, 2001, 73 low-wage immigrant workers died at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, Tower 1, and about 300 workers lost their jobs in that restaurant. Shortly after the tragedy, I was asked, along with the head waiter from Windows, to start a temporary relief center for the survivors in New York City, the Restaurant Opportunities Center. Along with the Windows on the World workers, we embarked on a longer journey to accomplish a much bigger vision to transform the restaurant industry, one of the largest and the absolute fastest growing sectors of the U.S. economy that employs more than 11 million workers.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
SJ: I think it is to push against corporate power with regards to both wages and other food democracy issues while simultaneously lifting up high road food companies that are standing with us on these issues.
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
SJ: I am most excited about innovations that are about systemic change, not just creating alternatives. This includes innovations in organizing and campaigning to limit the power of food corporations.
FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?
SJ: 11 million low-wage restaurant workers and my two kids who will mostly like be restaurant workers at some point during their life
FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?
SJ: 1 in 3 working Americans lives in poverty and by 2020 it is expected to be 1 in 2; that growth is entirely due to the growth of low-wage food jobs. Our parents and grandparents did not have to deal with a failing economy where half of Americans couldn’t afford to eat.
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
SJ: Income inequality.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
SJ: They can join Diners United, ROC’s consumer association; urge restaurants to leave the NRA and join RAISE, ROC’s employer association; and communicate with legislators the need for eliminating the lower wage for tipped workers via our One Fair Wage.
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
SJ: That the people who touch the food and make the food can afford to eat the food.
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