Maya Chandra

The Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies welcomed students, activists, farmers and restaurateurs from around the world to the fifth annual Food Systems Symposium on Feb. 23 and 24.

Attendees gathered in Kroon Hall to discuss the pressing issues in the food industry — from sustainable food sourcing to labor rights — and to enjoy catered meals from five local restaurants. Over 250 people participated in the 2018 conference, which focused on the theme of resilience, said Tasneem Islam FES ’18, one of the event organizers. According to Islam, the team wanted to highlight the ways communities and individuals are working to create change, often on a local level.

“If we are what we eat, what exactly are we?” asked Meredith Abarca, one of the speakers at the event.

Abarca went on to partially answer her own question, adding, “If what we eat is constantly changing, we must be constantly changing as well.”

According to Islam, the organizing team made an effort to emphasize communities that are often underrepresented in conversations about food, from indigenous peoples globally to food service workers in the United States. The organizers invited a diverse array of speakers, including keynote speaker Saru Jayaraman, an activist and the founder of restaurant worker advocacy organization Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

The conference comprised seven panel sessions and two keynote addresses, as well as lengthy snack breaks. Panel sessions covered topics ranging from sustainable seafood to food safety and social change. Many of the speakers drew on overarching themes in the industry, such as workplace culture, poverty and climate change.

Jayaraman, who travels the country advocating for better working conditions and the implementation of the nationally recognized minimum wage for food service workers, gave her keynote on Friday, shortly before dinner. She spoke at length about her clashes with what she refers to as the “other NRA,” otherwise known as the National Restaurant Association. The National Restaurant Association, a trade association that comprises over 500,000 restaurant businesses, wields considerable political power in the U.S., she continued. For years, Jayaraman said, she has butted heads with the Association and the politicians it supports, as the group attempts to downplay the disastrous levels of sexual harassment and worker exploitation that occur in restaurants across the country.

Jayaraman, who was Amy Poehler’s plus-one at the 2018 Golden Globes, said that the #MeToo movement has raised the profile of many of the issues Restaurant Opportunities Centers United has been working on for years in the American consciousness. The food service industry logs the highest levels of sexual harassment in America, which Jayaraman attributes in part to fact that food service employees often do not receive a standard wage, instead relying on customers for tips.

For many young women, Jayaraman continued, this system means enduring sexual harassment to ensure a paycheck that covers their costs of living. In one particularly emotionally charged moment, she said that “the customer is always right, because the customer pays your bills — not your employer.”

At one point, Jayaraman posed a challenge to the audience, many of whom are advocates for sustainability and climate-friendly practices in the food industry.

“By 2021, half of all Americans working full time will be living in poverty,” she said. “If you want to build any political will on an issue you care about, you cannot do it if half of America cannot afford to eat.”

Jayaraman was not the only speaker to call for systemic changes to the food industry. Michelle McCabe, a panelist on an urban food access panel, voiced her anger at the Trump administration’s proposed replacement of food stamps with a standardized box of nonperishables, telling the audience that “food is being used as a mechanism of control.”

Conferencegoer Jana Lohrová SPH ’18 said she was impressed by McCabe’s presentation and that she took particular interest in McCabe’s examination of the culture around food pantries and the “shocking” power dynamics involved in that kind of charity work.

Meanwhile, at the concurrently running indigenous food sovereignty panel, speakers discussed the impacts of corporate agendas on indigenous communities in countries such as Guyana and the United States.

Conferencegoers interviewed picked up on the emphasis on social justice at this year’s event, praising the organizers for inviting speakers who could draw attention to the issues affecting marginalized people.

“This year, many of the speakers are focused on the people, while in previous years it was more on the food itself or the technology involved,” said Stephen Chin-Bow ’86, one of the conference’s volunteers. “I think it’s important for Yalies to not simply congratulate ourselves on what we have achieved in the past year, but to look forward to see how we can become more engaged, so that we can improve the world.”

Islam said attendees flocked to the gymnasium from as far as Brazil, California and Arkansas. Ting-Wei Hsu, a graduate student at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, said she sent in an application to speak on a panel at the conference about her research on food safety in China after hearing about the opportunity from one of her professors. She was surprised to hear her proposal had been accepted, as she had previously assumed that the conference would focus on America-centric topics. But because China is the largest food exporter in the world, she added, the nation’s food safety practices have global implications.

Since the event was a food conference, organizers thought that it was important to provide attendees with good food from ethical sources, Islam said. Between panel sessions, conferencegoers enjoyed catered meals from Koffee?, Ninth Square Market Too Caribbean Style, and Edge of the Woods. Around midday on Friday, volunteers set up a small table with mini bean pies from Mmm Pies and Gourmet Desserts. During these breaks, attendees gathered to exchange perspectives on the day’s speeches and presentations.

By the end of the first day alone, attendees had consumed upwards of 32 gallons of coffee and 12 gallons of tea, in addition to the massive quantities of food the organizers ordered for the event, Islam said.

Maya Chandra |