Think first, eat second. That was the guiding principle of the sliding-scale community meal held October 4th, hosted by COLORS and The People’s Kitchen at the restaurant in lower Manhattan. A large crowd gathered at COLORS, which is New York City’s only cooperative restaurant, for a night of talks on food and labor justice, storytelling, live performances and a sliding-scale community dinner. The meal focused on encouraging people to critically engage with topics of food accessibility, restaurant labor conditions and food policy — before biting in.
The dinner was organized as a way to literally bring discussions of food justice and labor justice to the table. Participants were encouraged to answer a question on a poster board before dipping into the communal platters of food. Questions ranged from “What makes a restaurant decolonized?” to “What does food justice mean to you?” To spur discussion, participants were also asked to tell their own “food story” by completing a fill-in-the-blank style questionnaire about how they came to understand the relationship between food, culture and others.
COLORS opened in 2006, owned and staffed by former restaurant workers and 9/11 survivors that had worked at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the top floor of the World Trade Center. As founder members of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United), initially designed to provide job placement services to displaced workers from Windows on the World, ROC-United has seriously extended its scope. ROC-United has since spearheaded the effort to successfully increase the statewide minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers, provide job training and job placement services for restaurant workers, and helped 40 restaurant workers to launch their own cooperatively-owned restaurants. ROC-United also provides policy reports on restaurant labor conditions across the country, including insufficient benefits, gender discrimination, sexual harassment and health insurance breaches so common in the industry.
Now, ROC-United has extended its membership to more than 10,000 restaurant workers in at least 26 states, all working towards orienting the restaurant industry industry towards a more mutually beneficial relationship, both for and by the people.
For the event, COLORS partnered with The People’s Kitchen, a sliding-scale community restaurant based in Oakland that partners with social justice organizations every month for local, organic community dinners. The People’s Kitchen is working towards reshaping or “decolonizing” the restaurant industry from top to bottom, placing workplace labor justice, race and gender discrimination and local food at the forefront of their community-led project.
The team behind COLORS provides an example of urban resilience from a different kind of traumatic event. It’s fitting to see them set a guide for community as people around the city begin to seek out more ways to connect.
For more information about future community meals, visit www.peopleskitchen510.org.