Bioethics Forum Essay

The Minimalist as Maximalist: Food Ethics and Workers’ Rights

Mark Bittman, the New York Times food writer who created the no-fail “minimalist” recipes affixed to many a locavore refrigerator door, is an ethical maximalist.  In his 1994 book, Thick and Thin:Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, Michael Walzer defines the “thick,” or maximalist, perspective as “idiomatic in its language, particularist in its cultural reference” and “historically dependent and factually detailed.” In yesterday’s blog posting Bittman offers a thick description of the workplace hardships of the nation’s low-wage food workers, focusing on the 10 million restaurant workers who (unlike less visible farm workers) may have zero degrees of separation between themselves and consumers.

Bittman calls on those of us who identify with the food movement, whether for ethical or aesthetic reasons (better care of animals, of the land, of our bodies, of our capacity to enjoy  the pleasures of the table, or some Portlandia esque combination of these reasons) to stand up for these workers by making ethical choices about where to eat out: “You can’t call food sustainable when it’s produced by people whose capacity to endure is challenged by poverty-level wages.”

For resolving dining dilemmas, he recommends ROC National Diners’ Guide 2012, produced by the national restaurant workers advocacy group ROC-U. According to ROC-U’s research, more than three-quarters of low-wage workers do not have health insurance through their jobs. The many undocumented restaurant workers face additional challenges, as they may be ineligible for public assistance or fearful of the consequences of advocating for better working conditions.

The Los Angeles chapter of ROC-U aims to support undocumented workers by partnering with a community health center in South Los Angeles to provide affordable health insurance. The ROC-MD program costs $25 per month and covers preventive, primary, and urgent care. As Bittman notes, when low-income workers can’t pay for basic health care, they are forced to rely on emergency departments, and “[t]hese are tabs we all pick up.”

Nancy Berlinger, a research scholar at The Hastings Center, is a co-director of a project on undocumented patients and their access to health care.

Posted by Susan Gilbert at 06/13/2012 04:20:01 PM |

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