Like it or not, students had no say on tomato ban

Two weeks ago, Bon Appétit announced that it would stop serving tomato wedges and slices on campus. This policy change was enacted due to an agreement that Bon Appétit’s national management signed with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which represents tomato pickers in Florida. Since the tomato ban was announced, students have commented—both in these editorial pages and elsewhere—about its righteousness and efficacy.

We feel that the dialogue sparked by the ban raises broader questions about having Bon Appétit as the sole food provider (with the exception of Subway) for which undergraduates can use their meal points. One of the primary complaints voiced by upset students is that the decision—though supported since its inception by Students for Fair Trade and others whose politics align with it—did not take into account students’ viewpoints. But how could it? After all, Bon Appétit serves more than 400 locations in 29 states. Wash. U. students form a minuscule portion of its customers. Though Dining Services has been incredibly responsive to student input this year, there is no way for students to influence national Bon Appétit policy.

It’s worth noting that the ban is public by design: Bon Appétit has built into its brand an ethos of environmental responsibility and social consciousness, from its local “Farm to Fork” initiative to its adoption of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guidelines for sustainable seafood. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a powerful alliance that has previously won concessions from Taco Bell and McDonald’s, and Bon Appétit’s support of the CIW—whatever its implications for fair trade—represents an immense public relations victory. And—at least on this campus—the tomato ban is only a minor risk, since students often don’t have the option of not eating Bon Appétit food.

There are numerous issues of fair trade and employee rights involved in the provenance of almost every food—especially those we import—and tomatoes represent only a small aspect of the larger questions involving food and social justice. The burden for deciding which foods are socially just to eat still largely lies with the consumer. For example, many consider eating meat to be socially unjust due to the state of factory farms in America, but a Bon Appétit ban on serving meat is hardly feasible, especially as the company is the food provider for an entire campus.

Not eating tomatoes, though, isn’t a lifestyle change in the way that vegetarianism is, and given that grape tomatoes are still available, the ban’s implementation might not rankle you—in fact, you may even support its ideals. Student Union, for its part, symbolically passed a resolution praising Bon Appétit for its decision to “only purchase tomatoes from providers who meet this standard of fair conduct regarding workers.” To the extent that such a resolution reflects the greater opinion of students, SU is right to pass it.

What we eat forms a big part of our lives, and the diets of students who have mandatory meal plans are necessarily centered on Bon Appétit offerings. Ideally, we’d have a choice whether or not to support this ban, in the form of purchasing power. Were we able to spend our meal points at any of the many eateries around campus besides Subway, we’d be able to opt into or out of this policy as we personally saw fit. Such a de-monopolization of meal points has been achieved by several of our peer institutions, and perhaps it’s time for our University to consider rethinking its policy. And while we are well aware that no such decision will be enacted with Bon Appétit’s contract still in place, we lament that we have no say in such issues, regardless.

  • anonymous

    bon appetit just did this to prove to all of their current and prospective college clients that they have the power to adapt their policies to social/environmental issues. that’s what sells from their pov.

    if you as a consumer want more of a say in what you’re buying, that’s a completely different issue that you need to take up with big corporations, not just bon appetit and wustl dining services.

  • http://www.jeromebauer.com/victory.htm Jerome Bauer

    Correction to my post above: that’s April Welcome, not April Weekend.

    Some libertarians set up a counter-demonstration, a tent city with signs proclaiming the SWA “whiners,” a code for supporters of organized labor. Others took part in the demonstrations outside the occupied Admissions Office, in solidarity with the Sit-In participants. Libertarians may be right or left, and they certainly have diverse and nuanced views on these issues.

  • http://www.jeromebauer.com/victory.htm Jerome Bauer

    Check out this staff editorial, from March 23, 2005, “SWA needs to target Wash U’s wallet”, http://www.studlife.com/archives/Forum/2005/03/23/SWAneedstotargetWashUswallet/

    I quote:

    “Recently the Coalition of Immokalee Workers forced Taco Bell and its parent company, Yum! Brands, to agree to a one-cent increase in the wage for its tomato pickers, which almost doubles the pay rate per bucket. The coalition, which worked with students (including Washington University’s Student Worker Alliance), faith-based groups and farm labor unions, showed true power in numbers to force the change….”

    “While the SWA has seen great success as part of the coalition and other national partnerships, progress on campus has been less fruitful. The living wage campaign forced the chancellor to appoint a task force to explore the issue but as of yet has not changed wages on campus. To its credit, SWA plans to use new tactics in the future to continue to fight the issue, hoping to frame the issue in comparison to recent tuition increases and using an SWA Week to focus attention on the issue of living wage…”

    The “SWA Week” seems to have been a reference to the imminent Living Wage Sit-In in the Admissions Office, during April Weekend.

    The article concludes:

    “But it seems that what really worked for the Taco Bell campaign was a national coalition that not only raised public awareness but also created bad press and economic pressure on the company to force change. Unless SWA plans on boycotting all University food, cleaning and landscape services, it seems unlikely that its living wage campaign will be as successful as the “Boot the Bell” campaign.”

    “Hopefully, members will learn from their own success instead of changing tactics in the face of an impressive victory. SWA has shown it can raise awareness of an issue; setting up a system of economic incentives for organizations to have responsible social practices, Washington University included, is the next step.”

    Apparently, the Student Life Editorial Board was more radical in Spring 2005 than they are now: “To its credit, SWA plans to use new tactics in the future to continue to fight the issue.”

    In hindsight, it seems clear they were endorsing the imminent Sit-In, while seeming to endorse only a continuation of the SWA’s alumni boycott, in which alumni were urged to use their status as consumers of a VERY expensive product–, a WashU education–, to petition the University to provide a living wage for all its workers. Many libertarians, even the ones who papered our campus bulletin boards with flyers challenging the concept of “living wage” on economic grounds, were not in principle opposed to the latter (I know, because I invited the leadership of both the SWA and the College Libertarians to speak to my Freshman Focus seminar).

  • http://www.jeromebauer.com Jerome Bauer

    The question in the post above is not rhetorical. With a three second window of opportunity, how do I change somebody’s heart and mind? What do I say, that is not a slogan? How do I follow up, without a script?

  • http://www.jeromebauer.com Jerome Bauer

    “Don’t you know the tomato pickers are enslaving each other, and the tomato growers are getting the blame?” If somebody asks me that, out on the street as I hand them a flyer, what do I say, as they turn away?

  • http://www.jeromebauer.com Jerome Bauer

    I am ready to sign a petition and join the boycott, but before I stand out in the cold handing out handbills for hours on end, I need to know more about this, in case somebody challenges me to explain it. Russell makes a good point: we don’t know the people involved in this. There are as many sides to any story as there are people to tell it.

    Which side are you on? I hope we can keep this discussion going, so we can all learn enough to choose sides, and give a good account of ourselves.

  • http://sfalliance.org Tom Joad

    Just a clarification, Russell: The working conditions that the CIW speaks of are not pulled out of the air by the CIW; the US Department of Labor (not exactly a worker-friendly entity, especially over the past eight years) describes farmworkers as a “workforce in severe economic distress” and estimates their yearly earnings at $7500-$10,000. Furthermore, the cases of modern-day slavery are well-documented, successfully prosecuted cases in Federal Court and those documents are available for everyone to see (for example, http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2008/January/08_crt_034.html ) And finally, as students I think part of our responsibility is to be critical thinkers. We need to let go of the notion that there are always “two sides” to a conflict whose perspectives and opinions have equally valid legitimacy, given that we live inside a social order defined by obvious and stark imbalances in wealth, power, and access to political and economic enfranchisement. Or, as Albert Camus once said, “It is the job of thinking people, not to be on the side of the executioners.”

  • Russell

    If Bon Appetit management saw what they were doing as an action supporting human rights to fair living conditions, freedom, etc., then I certainly hope they wouldn’t nix the idea because some (as yet unknown) percentage of their consumer-base (i.e. students) weren’t interested in volunteering away their rights to an extra condiment.

    The actual situation of tomato-pickers in Florida does seem to be a complex one, with FTGE and CIW representing two sides of that issue, but the position Bon Appetit has taken seems pretty tenable to me. And even though consumers may disagree, there’s a case to be made that society could stand to gain a lot if proactive policies were *not* seen just as decisions to be made on a person-by-person basis. Change at the corporate level can have much more immediate effects, and frankly if I were a business student headed toward a career in management, I would be very troubled to think that my ability to make choices on clearly moral issues might be subject to the whims and convenience of my end-consumers.

    And while I agree that not having sliced tomatoes is an inconvenience, it’s a long way short of injustice on the scale that *may* (my information on the situation in Florida isn’t much to speak of, but it seems unlikely that all is entirely well) be taking place at the other end of the tomato-distribution system. After all, we can still buy tomatoes from Schnuck’s (a short distance from the 40), enjoy grape-tomatoes, get tomatoes at Subway, have salsa and tomato-based sauces, etc. To radically overstate the situation in the words of Tennyson, “Though much is taken, much abides.” …I’m pretty sure we can cope. :)

  • j

    your statement:

    “For example, many consider eating meat to be socially unjust due to the state of factory farms in America, but a Bon Appétit ban on serving meat is hardly feasible, especially as the company is the food provider for an entire campus.”

    it is not fair to compare the mistreatment of animals with the mistreatment of humans.

  • http://sfalliance.org Tom Joad

    The editorial makes some good points, but I think discounts how much student input was involved in Bon Appetit’s decision. Taken as a whole, the entire campus foodservice industry is, of course, unaccountable to students. Corporations like Aramark and Sodexo hold secretive and highly lucrative contracts with hundreds of campuses around the country. Despite how much these corporations (and our schools) profit from these arrangements, students on average have no to very little say about the terms and duration of these contracts, including basic questions such as where the food that is served on our campuses comes from and under what conditions it was raised and harvested. What sets Bon Appetit (and its parent company Compass Group) apart, I think, is the fact that they have signed an agreement with a grassroots farmworker organization from Florida — source of 90%+ of winter tomatoes in this country — to help improve the deplorable, degrading, retrograde conditions that still exist in Florida’s fields. What’s more, Bon Appetit did not make this decision on its own; although (perhaps) no students at Washington University were involved at the time, Bon Appetit was led to make this decision by a movement being led by workers (http://www.ciw-online.org) and, most importantly, students themselves (http://www.sfalliance.org/foodservice.html). Thus, this is actually an example of a large corporation acting in an accountable and responsible fashion in response to student concern. (We also need to keep in mind that the decision to not serve a certain type of tomato any longer was a decision make by Bon Appetit and was not part of the demands made by the workers and their student allies). The good thing is that as of now, there is an opportunity for students at Washington U to get involved in this campaign and to contribute to the national conversation around students having more of a say in campus dining procurement policies, and to support the human rights of the people who harvest the food all of us enjoy on a daily basis.

  • Kim C

    Talking about monopoly…wow; how many other student papers are published on campus??? so students and community can have variety of opinion. Should never throw stones when you live in glass houses