Last week, a coalition of environmental, social justice and animal welfare groups launched a campaign asking Olive Garden and its parent company Darden Restaurants (the nation's largest employer of restaurant workers) to adopt better labor and sustainability practices, including putting more plant-based, local and organic food on its menu.
With more than 1,500 restaurants serving 320 million meals every year, Darden’s purchasing and menu decisions have a huge impact on health and our environment — as well the working conditions for the people who produce and serve our food.
On the Good Food Now! campaign’s launch day, March 24, thousands of people called the company and hundreds wrote comments on Olive Garden’s Facebook page. In response, the company repeatedly wrote:
“We're committed to providing our guests with nutritious, quality and responsibly-sourced food, supporting and developing our team members, giving back to our communities and protecting the natural environment.”
Hollow company rhetoric just won’t do
The company told us the same thing in a rote response to a letter sent last November from 51 diverse organizations urging Darden to adopt better purchasing practices. In its letter, Darden directed us to its 2014 Citizenship Report, “People, Planet & Plate.”
Unfortunately, neither the letter nor the report adequately addresses our specific concerns — exposing a huge gulf between the $6.7 billion company rhetoric on social responsibility and its actual practices. In a letter back to the company, we detail how the company is falling short on implementing its good citizenship promises.
When a company holds itself up as a model citizen as Darden does, it should be accountable for making good on those ideals.
That’s why a historic coalition has formed to ask Darden to set a new industry standard by adopting “Good Food Principles” for at least 20 percent of its food purchases by 2020. Fixing our broken food system won’t work if we only focus on one part of the problem. By adopting the following principles Darden can turn its citizenship ideals into meaningful action for customers, communities, farmers, the environment and thousands of Darden restaurant employees.
A valued workforce
One in every five Darden employees earns the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, and tens of thousands of Darden’s workers earn a dismal minimum wage while only hired to work part-time. Low wages make it hard for many to meet their families’ basic needs, let alone afford healthy food for themselves. Darden should ensure a living wage of $15 an hour (which would cost customers less than 35 cents a meal), offer more full-time work opportunities, and provide paid sick leave.
Darden recently announced a partnership with Feeding America to help end hunger in its communities. While commendable, it isn’t enough when at the same time their own employees are on food stamps. The real solution to ending hunger in Olive Garden’s communities is to increase worker wages. This would spur other restaurants to do the same, helping bring thousands of families out of poverty so that they, too, can enjoy good food.
Darden's approach to measuring reductions in its water and carbon footprint is focused on its restaurant operations, rather than its food footprint. A sincere effort to reduce energy, water use, and other environmental impacts must include a focus on its menu items, especially meat and dairy products, since these animal foods constitute the vast majority of Darden’s energy, water, and carbon footprint.
Darden’s large portion sizes of meat and cheese aren’t only bad for our waistlines, they’re bad for the planet. By reducing portion sizes and meat and dairy purchases from factory farms as well as increasing plant protein options, Darden can reduce its environmental impact while achieving many of the company’s other goals, including improved health and wellness, reduced food waste, and cost savings.
We also urge the company to source more organic food, which is better for people and the planet. Not only does organic food reduce consumer and farmworker exposure to toxic pesticides, farming organically helps protect pollinators, soil, and water and reduces greenhouse gas emissions and energy use.
Darden is a major purchaser of meat and dairy — and should use that purchasing power to demand that its suppliers employ better animal welfare practices. We are asking the company to purchase at least 20 percent of its meat and dairy from more humane livestock producers that are certified by reputable third-party organizations, including Animal Welfare Approved, Global Animal Partnership (at least step 2) or Certified Humane Raised and Handled. By sourcing more humane meat and dairy, Darden will attract consumers concerned about the treatment of animals.
Support for local economies
By committing to source 20 percent of its food locally and regionally, Darden would increase opportunities for small-scale producers, strengthen local and regional economies growth, provide fresher food, protect precious farmland, and support a more resilient food system.
Better health and nutrition
Darden should include generous portions of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, and reduce salt, added sugar, fat, and red and processed meat. It also should require that its suppliers stop using routine antibiotics in meat production for animals that aren’t sick in order to compensate for overcrowded, filthy conditions, since this leads to antibiotic resistant bacteria that infect humans. Subway, Chick-Fil-A, and In-N-Out Burger have already committed to eliminating antibiotics from their entire meat supply over time — and it’s time that Darden do the same.
Adopting the Good Food Principles is not only the right thing to do, it is a smart business response to growing consumer demand, especially among millennials, for healthier, just, locally grown and more sustainable food.
Please support the campaign even if you don’t eat at Olive Garden or other Darden restaurants!
The Good Food Now! campaign is a partnership of Friends of the Earth, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, Green America, and the Animal Welfare Institute. Learn more at good-food-now.com.
Kari Hamerschlag is a senior program manager with Friends of the Earth’s Food and Technology program, where she carries out research and implements market and policy campaigns aimed at reforming animal agriculture and promoting sustainable, fair, healthy and resilient food and farming systems. Hannah Hafter is Senior Program Leader for Activism at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a human rights organization powered by grassroots collaboration with a focus on economic justice, environmental justice, and rights at risk.