Monday, September 1, 2014

My fast food confession




(Trigger warning: Sexual harassment and assault)

If you are thinking that this blog is going to be about how I sneak and eat McDonald’s French fries – sorry!

Food Empowerment Project has just put a new section on our website about restaurant workers. We do so not only because this issue is about food justice, but also because we fully support any effort to raise the minimum wage for ALL workers. Most importantly, we do so because everyone deserves to make a living wage to improve their quality of life, and living wages will help ensure that everyone has access to healthy foods.

For me, the issues of restaurant and fast food workers hit pretty close to home. When my parents divorced, my mom raised my two sisters and me by herself. Now and then, she worked both a full-time and a part-time job to help make ends meet. At times, these were at a fast food restaurant (hence my love of French fries, which I associate with my mom coming home late).

When I was in high school, I was already vegetarian, but I knew nothing about the beak trimming of chicks for eggs or the forcible separation of momma cows and their babies for milk. My sisters had gone off to college (it was very important to my mom for her kids to go to college, which she had not done), and it was just my mom and me. And, unfortunately, at that time my mom was not working consistently.

The only job that I could get that allowed me to be fully responsible for myself and that I could walk to was at a fast food restaurant. They sold burgers and some Mexican food (this was in San Antonio); eventually, while working there, I became an animal activist and went vegan, so this was incredibly difficult for me (in fact, painful). I worked the registers and the French fry fryers, and I was often asked what I would recommend. I would explain I didn’t eat animals and would recommend the bean tacos and French fries – they would, of course, oblige by then ordering a fish sandwich! (Not recognizing that fish are animals!)

Even though I was in high school, I was allowed to work about 60 hours a week, which I readily accepted so I could earn overtime (Saturdays and Sundays from 6 a.m. to midnight, 6 p.m. to midnight during the week). I continued to work there for a short time in college (in addition to a job on campus to pay for my tuition), but eventually my oldest sister helped me get another job.

The owners of the establishment were brothers – white – and all but a couple of the employees (one being the wife of one of the owners) were all people of color – Latino or Black.

I can say that, at the time, all of the workers got along pretty well; however, sexual abuse in this place was consistent.

One of the owners was in charge of a different location, but every time he came in, I could count on comments about my body, telling me to do certain things so he could watch me, and expressions of interest in my personal and sexual life.

Unfortunately, however, that was not the only kind of abuse: at one point, the manager of the store put my hand over the grill, telling me he was going to burn my hand until I told him I loved him. I was often shoved in the freezer (which I was not familiar with, as I would not go where the “meat” was kept), with one of the workers who would try to kiss and/or give me hickeys. This was the culture of this workplace: even the men who were uncomfortable would go along with it – sometimes getting me in the freezer and asking if they could just pinch my neck so it would look like they had done it.

These are those situations where I look back on and wonder, What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I quit? Why didn’t I report this?

I can tell you why, and I know without a doubt it is exactly the same reason why other women put up with this at food establishments and in the fields: you do not want to lose your job. You are scared and figure you can put up with it because you need the money. You need to survive.

It is not pretty, but it is true.

And this does not include injuries – I still have back pain due to a fall on the job, and, yes, I had no health insurance. During the rush hour, I would constantly be splashed with grease as I put the frozen French fries into the fryer.

My mom knew absolutely nothing about this. No one outside of there did. I was ashamed. Years later, I did tell my mom, as my experience there was impacting my relationships. Of course, she was heartbroken. But it was not her fault.

This is now my shame for having worked in a place that served animals as well as not speaking up about what was happening to me, but it was my reality and it is also still the reality of so many workers today.

I have fears about sharing this publicly; I can count on one hand how many people know about this. My shame and regret are real – I was able to stay and be vegan (creating some pretty creative meals and still attending protests and starting an animal rights group at my high school and college), but I served animals and, well, I also did not stand up for myself as a woman. Both of these realities make me sad to say. But I write all of this with the hope that people will have a better understanding of the predicament many workers are placed in, where they do not have the privilege of living their values.

And in case it is not obvious to some readers (and thanks to my friend pattrice for encouraging me to point this out more directly), there is a connection here. The same situation of workers (especially women) being put in positions of exploitation, violence, and sexual abuse is very similar to the animals whose dead bodies were being sold there.  All are animals who are raised for food and subject to horror of slaughter and being prevented from determining what they do with their own bodies.

We need to stop all of these horrors from taking place.

If you want to investigate additional problematic issues with fast food, you can read more on our website.

Even though I still struggle with feelings of shame from these experiences, I share them with the hope that people will try to have a more compassionate, full view of what happens behind the scenes, and also why sometimes people who are less financially privileged do what they do. Unfortunately, many times we pay a high price for what it does to our souls.