Bob is currently on tour in Arizona, where he is talking to food justice groups and activists across the state. Check out his piece in the Arizona Daily Star, Food bank can help you learn to grow and sell your own healthy food, and the Spanish language edition, Cultivando comida, creando empleos. You can also learn more about the work being done by the Community Resource Center of the Community Food Bank here or in the Groups & Orgs section of the website.

Check back soon for more updates from Arizona!

Here are some more highlights from Bob’s talk at Google! In addition to the photos, the talk was also filmed and can be viewed in the Videos section of this website. Be sure to read Bob’s “The Google Way” for more insight into the way Google runs their food service program!




Bob with Marvin Tse, head of Purchasing and Food Services at Google, on the left, and Scott Giambastiani, Executive Chef, on the right.



Bob, with Occidental College alumna Elissa Chandler, who is now employed by Google, and Chef Scott, as well as folks from ALBA who attended the talk.


One of the pleasures of doing presentations about the Food Justice book has to do with the venues where we’ve been able to present – and the range of food programs and initiatives we’ve encountered. That includes a recent presentation at Google headquarters in Mountain View and finding out more about how their food service operation works, some of which has been written about elsewhere. The Google identity is tied in part to how they’ve constructed their work environment and how the quality and nature of the food they offer ties right into the organizational culture they’ve sought to establish. The food – breakfast, lunch, snacks, into the dinner hour — is free. You can make your own cappuccino, if you missed the breakfast time. There is a diverse menu that includes a color coded label to identify how healthy the food is, as well as whether specific ingredients (e.g., gluten, high salt content, wine added, etc.) are present in each item. It’s a marketplace/cafeteria set up so you go station to station to select your food.

What we focused on, when we met with the sous chef and the head food buyer over lunch, was also how Google sourced their food. The folks from ALBA (the Agricultural Land-Based Training Institute, which facilitates farmworkers becoming farmers) had come to the talk and the lunch and they knew the folks at Google since ALBA Organics is a major supplier. Google has a goal of sourcing within 150-200 miles, and would like to go seasonal and organic where possible, so ALBA is a natural fit, with the farms located within that 150 mile radius. Google also sources from about thirty other small to medium size local farmers, several of whom go through local suppliers, like Veritable Vegetable or Bon Appetit.  They haven’t developed a policy on non-local (e.g., whether to go to a fair trade supplier for their coffee), nor have they identified a social justice/worker-related criteria for their sourcing (though ALBA, which qualifies for the local and organic criteria, could qualify if that were part of the food sourcing/procurement approach).

About 30% of the produce at their operation (quite huge when you factor in the number of marketplace food items, with the emphasis on fruits and vegetables, to serve the thousands of Google employees) now matches their local/organic criteria and 70% when all its products, including meat products, are taken into account. The Google Way, given the organizational size, clearly dwarfs other institutions and organizations like Kaiser that have begun to explore the local/organic route for their cafeterias. Their sourcing operation – and their technical capacity to identify how to incorporate their criteria into their supply chain approach and menu planning (knowing for example what’s available from which farmer or supplier and what’s seasonal and what weather factors might be at play) could be an enormous resource for those seeking to change the dynamics on food sources at workplaces and institutions and schools.

So what’s missing or rather what could be next? Google, as might be anticipated, operates as a kind of bubble, a very large, but self-contained operation. The food operation is essentially a workplace (and worker productivity) strategy, given the free and high quality food available, including some items, such as pixie tangerines, for 24 hours. Yet its impact is also importantly related to the local and regional farm economy and their suppliers who have been able to work with a large buyer and not be squeezed on price the way a Wal-Mart controls its supply chain operation. However, what Google does (“Do No Harm” – at least in the Bubble) could also become part of a broader agenda for change, particularly for those institutions that have neither the resources, the technical capacity, nor even the place to make such food available (like the neighboring low income K-12 schools that don’t even have a kitchen or refrigeration).

Can the Google Way become part of a community agenda? Hopefully it will be part of another subsequent conversation.

In meetings I had with folks last week at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit School, and also with ALBA (Agricultural and Land-Based Training Association) staff, a group we profile in Food Justice, I learned of yet another creative initiative that had at first been the brainstorm of a Jesuit priest and Santa Clara faculty member, Keith Warner, who is also the author of the MIT Press book Agroecology in Action. Keith’s idea was to initiate some kind of “farm to church” link and here’s how it has subsequently evolved, thanks to ALBA’s role in making it happen. One of the farmworkers-turned-farmers associated with ALBA has set up a type of mini-farmers’ market or farm stand on a Sunday at a Catholic Church whose parishioners are sympathetic to both supporting local farmers and having access to healthy, fresh, local food. As this continues to evolve a strong bond is being established between the farmer and the church goers, much as has happened when farmers become connected to schools and to the kids who learn about the farmers who provide the food for their farm to school programs.

There is a strong faith community interest in food justice that extends to several different faiths and any number of temples, churches, and mosques (and other faith-related groups). In the next several weeks, we’ll be giving presentations to several faith-related groups in places like Baltimore and Los Angeles and will share, in those presentations, what we’ve learned from Santa Clara.

Maybe something new is in the works. As Farm to School evolved it also led to Farm to College which led to Farm to Pre-School which has culminated in the broader Farm to Institution approach. Perhaps this newest approach, whether Farm to Church, or Farm to Temple, or Farm to Mosque – Farm to Faith – will spread, making connections, creating bonds, affirming faith in food justice.

More to come on this!

Check out this column that ran today in the San Jose Mercury News! And watch for Bob this week in the area, where he will be speaking publicly on Wednesday at Santa Clara University and on Thursday at UC Santa Cruz and at the Sustainability Academy in Monterey. Go to the Food Justice Book event page for more information.

Immigrants and food: another way to shape the national conversation

Special to the mercury news by Robert Gottlieb

How do we get beyond the hostility and negative associations regarding immigrants and shine a light on their contributions to our economy and culture? One way is to see how immigrants provide for a healthier and more diverse food system.
Immigrants and food are joined in the fields and at the plate. When it comes to agriculture, immigrants are our farmworkers, but they are also many of our new food growers. Many of them draw on their rich relationship to the land that they brought from their countries of origin.

In the past couple of decades, immigrant gardeners have been able to renew small slivers of unused or abandoned land and now constitute one of the most rapidly growing groups of food growers in the U.S.

Immigrant farmers have also swelled the ranks of those interested in farming here. Many of the new farmers in the U.S. are Hispanic and Asian immigrants. They have brought about the first increase, albeit modest, in the number of farms in the U.S. since the Census of Agriculture began to record what was happening to our farmland.

These are farmers like Guilebaldo Núñez, whose Núñez Farm in Las Lomas near Watsonville sells organic fruits and vegetables at 13 farmers markets.

Or María Catalán, of Catalan Farms, another Salinas Valley organic farm whose 14 acres provide direct-from-the-farm produce not only to Bay Area farmers markets but also to high-end restaurants in San Francisco.

Or Charlie Chang, one of the hundreds of Hmong farmers in the Fresno area, whose inspirational story about his love of farming is recounted in our book, “Food Justice,” among stories of other farmers who are part of the narrative about immigrants and food.

There are a number of reasons for this important shift, including how farming, for immigrants, connects to their food experience.

These are not simply the immigrants from Mexico, but also war-related or political refugees from places like Cambodia, Vietnam, Somalia, Burundi or Senegal, or economic refugees from Guatemala, Haiti, Togo, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Ecuador or the Dominican Republic.

A connection to the land, whether as farmers or backyard gardeners, has been part of their cultural and economic heritage. It’s also part of the continuing changes and diversity of our own food experience.

Perhaps what’s best about the American food experience today is its hybrid nature, its multiple and fusion cuisines, whether in the tiny community ethnic (read: immigrant) restaurants in Los Angeles, New York and San Jose or the new Latino and Asian cuisines that are beginning to follow the path of immigrants settling in places like Nashville, Tenn., or Portland, Maine.

These immigrants are also engaged in innovative food justice groups.

These include the Salinas-based Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, which is helping current and former farmworkers such as Guilebaldo Núñez transition to become farmers, and the National Immigrant Farming Initiative, for whom the connection between immigrants and food is at the heart of their agenda.

For those who are concerned about the food in our lives, immigration reform and immigrant rights should be part of the discussion. Immigrants should have the right to grow food and contribute to our food culture, increasing the capacity of a vibrant local food economy and a love of food that we can all celebrate.

ROBERT GOTTLIEB is professor of urban & environmental policy at Occidental College and co-author with Anupama Joshi of “Food Justice” (MIT Press He will be speaking at Santa Clara University’s Saint Claire Room at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday and and at UC Santa Cruz’s Oakes College Mural Room at noon Thursday. He wrote this article for this newspaper.

When the World Trade Center went down, one of the casualties was the Windows on the World restaurant, including 72 of its employees who died that day. But casualties also included the other restaurant workers who didn’t get back their jobs when the restaurant reopened, replaced by a lower paid, non-union restaurant work force. A new organization, the Restaurant Opportunities Center was formed, in part to help the displaced workers, though it quickly expanded to address a range of worker rights issues. In 2008, the New York organization further expanded to include affiliate groups in several other cities, including Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, Maine, and Michigan. One of the dates ROC highlighted, as part of its advocacy, was 2-13, related to the $2.13 federal minimum wage for tipped workers.

I participated at a press conference a few days ago, on Monday, Feb. 14th, where the L.A. affiliate of ROC released a study by several UCLA researchers entitled “Behind the Kitchen Door: Inequality and Opportunity in the Nation’s Largest Restaurant Industry.” The report documents how L.A.’s 265,000 restaurant workers have primarily “low-wage jobs with little access to benefits, and serious consequences for consumers.”

One consumer concern is that many of those workers can’t take time off when they’re sick. The national ROC group released a report in October entitled Serving while Sick that surveyed 4300 workers in several cities and found that two thirds of the workers “reported preparing, cooking, and serving food while sick with contagious illnesses such as the flu. Workers reported that they could not afford to take a day off, either because they would be penalized for doing so, or because their wages were so low that they could not afford to take an unpaid day or two off from work.”

The low wages and lack of health benefits presents another set of social injustices in this major industry in L.A. and other metropolitan centers. This is compounded by an additional race and class divide – the differences between the “back of the restaurant” (where the dishwashing, prepping, table clearing, and quick order cooking take place) and the “front of the restaurant” (waiters and waitresses and bartenders) are employed. The back end workers are predominantly immigrants and people of color, the front end are white. The overall wages are low for most everyone – back and front – but the lowest wages and poorest working conditions are in the back.

Then why should food justice advocates champion the efforts of the ROC to enable restaurant workers to have living wages, better working conditions, and basic respect for the work. I have a student who is exploring sustainability issues for restaurants and many of the restaurants that seek to be more sustainable (though not all) do not factor in the conditions of those who work in the restaurants. Similar to the issues around farming and growing food, those who work in restaurants and those who work the farms tend to be marginal to the agendas of good food, local food, and healthy food advocates.

Restaurant workers should be, need to be seen as an important food justice constituency. And worker justice has to be a core part of the language and action agendas for those focused on the food system. You can’t have healthy food, even if it’s locally sourced and organic, if the food is prepared and handled by someone who has the flu and isn’t allowed and can’t afford to take off from work.

Wal-Mart is on a healthy food offensive and that’s a good sign. But it also could bring bad news from a healthy food and social justice perspective.

Wal-Mart’s offensive went into high gear last week when company officials announced, with Michelle Obama at their side, that it would reduce by 25% the salt content and by 10% the sugar content in its processed products in the next five years. It also said that it would lower the price of its fruit and vegetables by “driving unnecessary costs from its supply chain.” And that it would build new Wal-Mart stores in “undeserved communities” or “food deserts.”

Wal-Mart’s announcement is indeed a good sign that shows that local and healthy food champions have been having an impact. The discussion about food has changed. More and more people are valuing local and fresh food, eating healthy, and concerned about where and how the food is grown, produced and sold. And that has resulted in new approaches and important changes such as getting sodas out of school vending machines and fruits and vegetables into school cafeterias through farm to school programs.

Wal-Mart needs to go on the offensive because it has long been associated with everything that’s wrong with the food system. It is the champion of cheap, processed food, much of which has little nutritional value. The country’s largest employer, it has been a leading contributor to the rise of a low wage work force, including those who have had to turn to food stamps and emergency food even when they are gainfully employed – by Wal-Mart. It’s a huge importer, including many of its food products. And it has been ruthless in how it controls its supply chain, using its size to dictate how its suppliers and even its competitors operate and then restructuring everything along the way -  from food growing and production practices to the overall food environment.

So now that Wal-Mart has embraced the healthy food message, what’s missing from what it says it will do.

It’s a good thing to lower salt and sugar content of its processed foods, but those are not generally healthy foods. If those products are still cheap and consumers feel that they are now eating “healthy” even though sugar, salt, and/or fat content are still substantial, then the signals are that it’s ok to eat those processed foods.

Wal-Mart, however, says it will lower the price of fresh fruits and vegetables and that’s a very good thing. It says it will do that with more changes in its supply chain, including creating more direct relationships with farmers. But when it decided to go local a few years ago, it also led to problems for the local farmers who now became subject to Wal-Mart’s dictatorial supply chain ways. In our book, Food Justice, we told the example of one Midwestern farmer who had worked out an arrangement to supply just one of the massive Wal-Mart stores with its watermelons. Due to the arrangement that Wal-Mart required, the farmer had to act as a broker, sourcing from other small and mid-sized farmers from several adjacent counties to meet Wal-Mart’s requirements. That meant that literally all the watermelons went to Wal-Mart, with none now available for farmers’ markets and other local venues. The price that the farmer received from the Wal-Mart sale was also far lower than he would have received if he had sold directly at a farmers’ market.

Finally, Wal-Mart says it wants to go into undeserved communities, which translates into being able to open stores in urban areas like L.A., Chicago and Boston where it has been shut out.  But when Wal-Mart moves into a community it almost invariably undercuts competitors, including driving some out of business. It can also abandon some of its own stores if bottom line considerations warrant it. That creates “dark” or “dead” properties; essentially vacant lands that further blight a community while reducing core needs, such as local food stores that might have been driven out of business when Wal-Mart came into that community.

Perhaps most importantly, there is no accountability in measuring and assessing Wal-Mart claims. This industrial food retailer is adept at promotional campaigns but not very forthcoming in being transparent about what it does, especially when it comes to its supply chain. When it had earlier launched an aggressive “Buy American” program, it quietly dropped its campaign when it was revealed that that clothes located in the section of the store with the “Made in the U.S.A.” banner were actually produced at a factory in Bangladesh that employed child labor; a factory considered one of that country’s most notorious.

Wal-Mart’s current healthy food offensive might be more adept than its previous ones, but it has yet to demonstrate – and be held accountable – that it has changed its role as the most dominant player in a food system whose products and practices are neither healthy nor fair.

Robert Gottlieb is the co-author, with Anupama Joshi, of Food Justice (MIT Press). He is a Professor of Urban & Environmental Policy at Occidental College. He will be speaking at the Commonwealth Club at 5:30 on February 9th.

The Sacramento Bee published a column today by Bob Gottlieb and Ann Evans, former mayor of Davis and a consultant on improving school food in California, that highlights how school food programs, like Farm to School, are providing healthy meals to children and boosting local economies. The column, “School food programs can transform how kids eat”, gives examples of successful Farm to School programs in Davis, Winters and Sacramento, where Bob will be talking about the book in the coming week.

Read the Sacramento Bee column here.

The bitter, divisive, and at times racist dialogue about immigration status was especially striking when it came to the debate about The Dream Act in December. On the one hand, opponents of the Dream Act argued that it didn’t matter the circumstances involving young people who had been in this country for many years and were attending College or were in the military. If they didn’t have legal status, that is, if they had entered the country without papers even as an infant, that identified them as “illegals,” or, for some of the more virulent opponents, having actual criminal status. No exceptions, no context other than the absence of legal status and rights.

Proponents of the Dream Act countered that young people who were in the U.S. “illegally, but through no fault of their own” (that is, they were not part of making such a decision since they were so young) were ultimately de facto citizens since in fact they had grown up “American” and, as College students or members of the military, they were fulfilling an essential American purpose of striving to achieve and succeed. To not allow them to come out of the shadows and achieve eventual citizenship would be, according to UC Berkeley President Robert Birgeneau, “a terrible waste of young talent — talent that this country desperately needs.”

The Dream Act seemed such a modest change to the immigration debates, providing, its proponents hoped, a more human face, a narrative about young people who ought to be considered “American.” But does the notion of “talent that this country desperately needs” have to be limited to the focus on young people in higher education and the military? I would argue that it can be – and should be – an argument of those who advocate for a healthier, more sustainable, more equitable, more just, and more diverse food system. Immigrants and food are joined in the fields and at the plate; and they represent an essential connection for how the food system can be changed.

The relationship of immigrants to food has in fact long been a central part of the American experience. During the period of large scale Southern European immigration in the first decades of the 20th century, immigrants constituted a majority of the restaurant work force and a significant percentage of restaurant owners, given the working class and immigrant associations of restaurants during this period. Farming has also had deep immigrant roots in many of the farm belt regions where Scandinavians and Germans among other European settlers established farms and became part of the local regional culture.

Immigrants have also been an important part of the urban gardening history in the U.S. The presence of immigrant gardeners in the U.S. could be seen as part of the desire of immigrants displaced from their land, particularly those coming from rural communities where farming and gardening had been part of daily life, to recapture a connection back to the land. Writer Patricia Klindienst, who has chronicled the experiences of immigrant and ethnic gardeners, argues that “garden metaphors have always been used to describe the experience of migration.” Instead of associating immigrants as “transplants” similar to plants who have been removed and replanted, Klindienst suggests we understand the immigrant “as a gardener – a person who shapes the world rather than simply being shaped by it.” In the past couple of decades, as the ranks of both documented and undocumented immigrants have swelled in both city and countryside, immigrant gardeners have been able to renew small slivers of unused or abandoned land and have in the process come to constitute, along with immigrant farmers, the most rapidly growing group of food growers in the U.S..

The immigrant farmer numbers coincide with the renewed interest in food growing. New farms that have been established between 2003 and 2007 average about 200 acres in size and have a small revenue stream. Many of those new farmers are women, Hispanic and Asian immigrants. What’s also striking is how farming, for immigrants, connects to their food experience. These are not simply the immigrant farmers from Mexican states such as Oaxaca and Sinaloa, but they are also war-related or political refugees from places like Cambodia, Vietnam, Somalia, Burundi or Senegal, or economic refugees from Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti, Togo, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Ecuador or the Dominican Republic. A connection to the land, whether as farmers or backyard gardeners, has been for many of these immigrant growers part of their cultural and economic heritage.

And it’s also part of the continuing changes and diversity of that food experience. Perhaps what’s best about the American food experience has been its hybrid nature, its multiple and fusion-like food cuisine, whether in the tiny community ethnic (read immigrant) restaurants in Los Angeles and New York or the new Latino and Asian cuisines that are beginning to follow the path of immigrants settling in places like Nashville, Tennessee or Portland, Maine.

Perhaps most importantly, many of the new immigrants are part of the very fabric of the food system, whether the most exploited such as farmworkers or restaurant workers, or those helping identify the pathway towards a different type of food system such as the new immigrant farmers and gardeners. Immigrants are also engaged in some of the most innovative food justice groups, such as ALBA in Northern California, Communidad de Communidad in western Washington, and the National Immigrant Farming Initiative, for whom the connection between immigrants and food is at the heart of their agenda.

For those who are concerned about the food in our lives, immigration reform and immigration rights needs to equal reforming the food system and establishing the right to food.

A series of recent studies, news articles, and legal actions involving honey provide a cautionary story about what can be considered the underside of the global food industry. This includes why honey is becoming an increasingly popular product; where the honey comes from and the state of the overall global market in honey; how honey is increasingly being altered; and what’s happening to bee populations.

First what appears to be the good news. Honey is popular and becoming more so. As one food industry consultant organization put it, the global market for honey is witnessing a major upswing due to “increasing awareness levels and health consciousness among the consumers, leading to increasing demand for healthy and natural food products.” There’s more honey being marketed as organic, there’s growing recognition that honey represents a more healthful sweetener than sugar or corn syrup, and there’s the continuing association of the honeybee producers with a natural and life giving process – the forgotten pollinators, as bee pollinators have been called.

But the projected growth of honey production and the demand for the product comes with a twist, however. It’s not clear where our honey is coming from and whether in fact it’s truly honey that you get when you buy it in the store. Beginning in the late 1990s, China was already emerging as a major honey producer, responsible for 40% or more of worldwide production. But much of the honey from China turned out to be contaminated with an antibiotic called chloramphenicol that could also be lethal to a small segment of the population. This caused the European Union to ban Chinese honey imports. This action in turn caused some Chinese manufacturers to disguise their use of the antibiotics by creating a distillation process that essentially “denied the honey of its essence,” as Australian journalist and honey chronicler Grace Pundyk characterized it. Other honey products became laced with cheaper sweeteners.

For the U.S., the response to the Chinese honey producers was primarily related to the problem of dumping and the low cost of the product that was undermining American producers, a problem not dissimilar to the issue of Chinese garlic. So a heavy tariff was slapped on Chinese honey which then lead to what Jessica Leeder, in a recent article in the Toronto Globe and Mail called “honey laundering.” Honey made in China was secretly laundered through other countries such as Indonesia, a process enabled by a consortium of companies and individuals from around the world, led by a German conglomerate. As this honey laundering scheme began to unravel, some indictments were made but the overall laundering operation has yet to be fully revealed.

The global honey market is also likely to be influenced by what is perhaps the most catastrophic piece of news about declining bee populations, highlighted by a recent study that pointed to an extraordinary decline of four species of bumblebees (up to a 96% decline) that have high infection levels and lower genetic diversity. The causes of the decline remain uncertain, though it seems possible that various environmental factors may be playing a role. 

What this adds up to is a tale of deceit, environmental catastrophe, and global food trade maneuvering that is turning honey into a symbol of the underside of the global food system.

-Robert Gottlieb