Let’s talk about the other, darker side of food

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Crystal Price and her kids at a protest against her firing from a Greensboro Wendy's after Price's union activity.
Crystal Price and her kids at a protest against her firing from a Greensboro Wendy’s after Price’s union activity.

by Eric Ginsburg

There are times, not too infrequently, that turning in a story on my dining exploits feels self-indulgent. In my pursuit of breaking news about new restaurants or breweries opening, there are moments the whole thing feels frivolous.

I’m well aware that most people can’t afford the luxury of eating out with any sort of regularity. More likely they’re pulling something out of the freezer and heating it up, or eating fast food in the car between places they need to be. Most of the time, that’s what my dining habits look like, too.

With this in mind, I intentionally pick places to write about that, for the most part, are on the more affordable end of the spectrum. Because if it’s at all possible, I want for you to be able to enjoy these small pleasures along with me.

SONY DSCDuring these moments of self-doubt, I convince myself that restaurant-based news and reviews have their place, and I believe that. Sometimes I salt in stories about the people in the kitchen, the ones who made your coffee or dreamed up your cocktail. That human element adds some much-needed texture, variety and life to the mix. But I also, once in a while, want to stop and shift gears to address other less sexy and more forgotten aspects of our food systems.

Likely the most important thing to keep in mind is that the Greensboro-High Point metro area is consistently rated as one of the worst — right now it’s at No. 1 — for food insecurity in the nation. It’s a statistic that everyone should already be aware of, but also a horrific figure that we must relentlessly commit ourselves to fixing.

We try to keep the issue at the forefront, frequently highlighting positive efforts to alleviate the problem in all three Triad cities in our news section, soliciting ideas for additional solutions in a cover story earlier this year and we plan to write about food deserts for the cover before the end of 2015. We too, can do more, and it’s about time the crisis graced our food section as well.

But there are other, less sensational or widely recognized components of the local food system and people that remain invisible who deserve recognition.

SONY DSCFood service is precarious work. I’ve barely worked in the industry — a summer of making smoothies at a local shop, a few shifts unpacking boxes at a local grocery store and a brief stint working under the table at a local café — but I did long enough to run for the door, and I’m glad I found one.

Though they deserve much more, let’s take a brief moment to acknowledge the labor of immigrant farmers, poultry processors, truck drivers, warehouse workers, cleaning crews, restaurant servers and hosts, line cooks, third-shift supermarket stockers and countless others who bring food to us. Think of the strained backs from lifting boxes, the exhaustion from standing on your feet all day, the sunstroke from working in the fields and tendinitis from repetitive labor. Not to mention feeling overwhelmed by ungrateful customers, unforgiving bosses, unlikely workers comp and benefits, and unreliable schedules.

And remember, if you can’t afford to tip at least 20 percent when you go out to eat, you actually can’t afford to go out at all.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what people eat and where they do it. In considering who my audience is, I inevitably consider who it isn’t. Are you that woman working at the Guilford County Courthouse I overheard asking her coworker if there is anywhere to eat on High Point Road besides Carrabba’s or Chili’s? I’m trying to reach you. Are you a local Ralph Lauren employee with enough income to eat out but who dines at the company’s cafeteria? Please, keep reading.

Aramark — the food-service business that provides dining services at many colleges, and recently posted an opening for a grill cook at Ralph Lauren — also supplies the Guilford and Forsyth counties. I’m guessing the menu is pretty different than the collegiate and corporate campuses it services.

It’s a good reminder of how food connects all of us. And it’s worth thinking about the people sitting in our jails who are buying snacks from the commissary and creatively assembling their own burritos, cakes and other meals tastier than what’s provided. Some of them, like a friend of mine who was confined to the jail in downtown Winston-Salem for almost a year, will be released when their charges are dropped.

Maybe then they’ll pick up a copy of this paper and decide where to go on date-night based on a profile I’ve written. But more likely, I’m guessing, they might thumb through a copy from the other side of the counter while running a mid-afternoon register.

Next week I’ll return to your regularly scheduled program, but it’s important for all of us to pause once in a while and think about the bigger picture. In food we find family and community, history and heritage, culture and connection. We also find deep pain, hardship and struggle. Let’s keep both realities of this connective tissue present in our minds as we take our next bite.

 

The money that would’ve been spent on a food article this week will go towards buying lunch for someone experiencing homelessness instead.

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