Five Questions with Saru Jayaraman of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United

Michael Halper

Food Tank, in partnership with The George Washington University, is hosting the 1st Annual Food Tank Summit in Washington D.C. on January 21-22, 2015.

This two-day event will feature more than 75 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policy makers, government officials, and students will come together for panels on topics including food waste, urban agriculture, family farmers, farm workers, and more.

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Saru Jayaraman, Co-Founder and Co-Director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, who will be speaking at the summit.

Food Tank (FT): What will your message be at the Food Tank Summit?

Saru Jayaraman (SJ): Working together. Food movement communities — people who care about local and sustainable food, food security, junk food marketing to kids and public health, and GMO labeling — should also include workers and labor issues. We have common enemies in groups like the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which deal with the Monsantos and the Grocery Manufacturers Associations of the world. When we target our common rivals and let our elected officials know that their obligations are not only to huge food corporations, that’s when we demonstrate power and that’s when we win.

FT: How are you contributing to building a better food system?

SJ: Many people use the word "sustainable" in food movement work. True sustainability will not only include what we eat and where it comes from (local, organic, free range, etc.) but it also the people who touch our food. ROC United works with workers, consumers, and employers to improve the wages and working conditions of restaurant and food chain employees. We have a national cross-sector, multi-racial, cross-class initiative looking after the interests of one of the largest and most marginalized work force within the United States.

FT: What are the biggest obstacles or challenges you face in achieving your organization's goals?

SJ: The biggest challenge is the size, scope, scale, and power of the opposition. The restaurant industry is the second-largest and fastest-growing private sector employer in the U.S.; but is also one of the lowest-paying employers, with 7 out of the 10 of the lowest paying jobs. That is entirely due to the power of the NRA. They’re the most powerful employer lobby in the U.S., and the 10th most powerful lobbying group. The NRA paints the picture of a guy working at the fancy steakhouse or the fine dining restaurant rolling in tips. Unfortunately, many consumers in the food movement eat at those kinds of restaurants and believe the NRA's message. In fact, 70 percent of restaurant workers are women, and they largely work at Applebee’s, IHOP, Denny’s.

FT: Who is your food hero and why?

SJ: Your favorite server. It's not as easy as some people may think. If you have a favorite, you should know they are special people.

FT: In 140 characters or fewer, what is the most important thing we can all do to help change the food system?

SJ: Eliminating the tipped minimum wage for tipped workers.


The event is SOLD OUT, but interested participants can sign up for the live-stream HERE. Or JOIN US for dinner and a reception to celebrate Food Tank's two-year anniversary on January 21st at 5:30pm EST. This event will also sell out fast, REGISTER NOW.