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Labor and Food Justice: a panel discussion featuring Esteban Kelly of Mariposa Food Co-Op, Fabricio Rodriguez of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, and Tyneisha Bowens of the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive Credit: Imran Cronk , Imran Cronk

On Thursday, Penn’s SLAP took a powerful swing at injustice in the food industry.

The Student Labor Action Project held a panel at Civic House, featuring experts from the food and labor justice movements.

“We want to talk about the intersections of labor and food justice,” said College junior Penny Jennewein, the event’s main organizer and a member of SLAP.

The panel discussed the complete spectrum of food justice, something many tend to forget. Although eating healthily and sustainably is something to recognize, people must also acknowledge the method by which food comes to their table. “There’s also another element with the workers who prepare the food. If they’re not paid minimum wage and they don’t have job security and things like that — that’s really problematic, and that’s something SLAP wants to open to the rest of the community.”

The first speaker, Esteban Kelly — owner of Mariposa Food Co-op — focused on a new “fad” in the food industry.

He claimed that some companies use the recent popularity of natural foods to market their products to wealthy households.

However, he added, these healthy foods are often not available to lower-income individuals.

Kelly, who has worked with the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, believes that a new system needs to emerge in which food can be made available to everyone, and the rights of workers servicing and preparing the food are recognized.

“For me,” he said, “food justice is a premise … against capitalism in its modern form in the way we understand it.”

Tyneisha Bowens, who represented the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive, shared the stage with Kelly, expressing the civic-mindedness of her work.

“Food justice is a community force … creating something that is accountable and sustainable, making new structures that are community-based,” she said.

The last panelist — Fabricio Rodriguez, workplace justice coordinator at the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Philadelphia — introduced himself with a moving story.

When Rodriguez was a young man, he worked with his father in a mine, where the employer would often reprimand his father for taking time off to eat lunch. In response, Rodriguez and his father lost their jobs by eating outside the employer’s office in protest, and in time, workers at this mine received lunchrooms, washrooms and eating times.

Rodriguez said this event sparked a change in perspective that would eventually change his life. Today, he organizes restaurant workers and assesses their needs with the ROC.

“We try to help the lives of restaurant workers bounce into the stratosphere,” he said.

In February, ROC will release a book titled “Behind the Kitchen Door.”

At the discussion’s end, the panelists agreed that in order to create a network and promote the food and labor justice movements, organization must occur.

“Organize where it makes sense,” Kelly said. “Do strategic assessment at Penn to make networks.”

“Leverage your privileges,” Bowens said, to “fight the system.” She reminded listeners there are many workers serving food to Penn students every day. “Engage with them. Have a conversation with them.”

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