Foodies disconnected from reality? Perish the thought

Chef Jamie Oliver Cooking for the poor

Chef Jamie Oliver
Cooking for the poor

You would think the missionaries have converted all of the uninformed in a foodie paradise like California, but celebrity chef Jamie Oliver believes there’s a lot of work to be done among those of us who have yet to get the message.

Oliver, a food mogul and star of Food Network’s “The Naked Chef,” was in Sacramento Tuesday to promote healthy cooking and eating among the masses through his Food Revolution campaign, which aims to promote culinary education globally and take processed foods out of cafeterias.

The 40-week teaching tour of California (his Big Rig Teaching Kitchen will be at Sacramento Charter High School in Oak Park through Feb. 7) is designed to bring healthy eating to the poor among us.

“You’ve got to get people cooking, regardless of what they can get ahold of,” Oliver said. “When you have poverty and no knowledge, that’s when you have the sort of diseases that we spend the day talking about.”

Oliver’s food empire, which reaches through Europe and soon into Asia, has made him one of the wealthiest Britons under 30, according to an annual list compiled by The Sunday Times. How much of his fortune was earned on the backs of low-paid food workers is a question he may not want to address.

Everybody knows that fast-food workers barely make minimum wage, but many don’t seem to realize that the people serving you in this week’s trendy restaurant couldn’t afford to eat there. The gap is getting so bad, San Francisco restaurant owners have complained that high rents in the city are making it difficult for them to recruit line cooks and other food workers.

This has not raised a lot of concern in the food movement, where some critics suspect foodies care more about the treatment of the animals they eat than the workers who prepare and serve them. Still, some people are starting to feel guilty about employees at places they don’t patronize, fast-food joints.

“The food movement can get sidetracked into wealthy, upper-middle-class people caring about food as status, caring about food as pleasure,” Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation,” told the San Francisco Chronicle recently.

“I am a huge supporter of animal welfare,” he added, “but the compassion for the abuse of animals is so much more excessive, I think, than for low-wage workers in the country.”

The UC Berkeley Labor Center reports that 52 percent of fast-food workers’ families get public assistance, compared to 25 percent of the work force as a whole. There’s been a call for an increased minimum wage, and some fast-food workers have staged strikes to demand more money.

Foodie icon Michael Pollan has a starring role in an email blast from MoveOn.com trying to generate support for improved fast-food worker pay.

“If we are ever to right this wrong, to produce food sustainably and justly and sell it at an honest price,” Pollan wrote, “we will have to pay people a living wage so that they can afford to buy it.”

But don’t expect any miracles. Author Anna Lappe, a long-time critic of the fast-food industry, said, “One of the effects of inequality is that people who have resources are isolated and often don’t see the depths of poverty in this country. Frankly, I think a lot of Americans are out of touch.”

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