First lady Michelle Obama has captured the nation’s attention by calling for more fresh produce in American homes and school lunches, correctly pointing out that a shift toward locally sourced and all-natural foods will promote both health and environmental sustainability. But an equally important problem endemic to the American food industry goes largely unnoticed: Many food service workers are grossly mistreated.

The American food service system relies on the public’s silent consent to low wages and scant benefits along the entire chain of production. The cruel irony of our food service system is that the workers who prepare our food are among the highest-risk groups for hunger and food insecurity. The percentages of food workers who must use food stamps, receive Women, Infants and Children benefits and rely on free or reduced school lunches for their children are all around double that of national averages. Only half of American food workers have any kind of private health insurance. The occupational group most at risk for diet-related illnesses in the United States is food workers.

America’s unsustainable food service system has consequences not only for workers but also for the consumers they serve. By forcing workers to rely on government programs to get by, companies pass off their responsibilities to the already-burdened public. Taxpayers support these programs because our neighbors sometimes need help in facing difficult circumstances, not because billion-dollar corporations need help paying their full-time employees a living wage. The food industry’s blind cost-cutting also has damaging effects on the food it produces, as evidenced by the unhealthy and unsustainable foods that have flooded the market and contributed to both massive environmental damage and epidemic levels of obesity.

Colleges and universities have long been among America’s leaders in promoting justice and progress, but they too fall short when it comes to their treatment of food workers. The billion-dollar-a-year campus food industry pays its workers a median wage substantially below the federal poverty line, even though food workers account for less than 1 percent of university wages. Universities are a center of activism for local, organic and sustainable food models, but a truly sustainable food system will not be achieved until both the food and the jobs involved benefit the entire community.

Yesterday, I attended a march organized by UNITE HERE, a labor union representing food service workers, including the employees of O’Donovan Hall. UNITE HERE is in the midst of its Real Food Real Jobs campaign, a movement led by food workers and their allies seeking to improve working conditions and bring more sustainable food to cafeterias across D.C. Food service workers from Verizon Center, Nationals Park, several government buildings, Georgetown, American, Howard and several others were all represented. Speaking to food workers at meetings leading up to the march, I heard over and over again that these workers were concerned not only about their job situations, but about the food they prepare and how it affects their respective communities. The employees of multiple university cafeterias told me that they see students as part of their family, and they strive to serve students food that they would give to their own children and grandchildren. They were concerned that the food they prepare, which increasingly consists of pre-prepared and heavily processed ingredients, fails to meet that standard. The workers were standing up for themselves, to be sure, but they were also standing up for us — the students whom they take care of and care about.

Reflecting on my experience at the Real Food Real Jobs march, I was drawn to Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that “all men are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Since we are all customers of the food service industry from the day we are born, we all suffer when food is unsustainable or unhealthy and we all feel the effects of unjust employment practices. Conversely, calling for a just food system will benefit all of us. By treating food workers with respect and giving them the necessary resources to prepare food that they can take pride in, investing appropriately in the American food system represents an opportunity to create a healthier nation.

The entire community must come together to address the unjust practices that have resulted in our broken food system. At the Real Food Real Jobs march, I witnessed firsthand the power that a movement of workers and consumers has to bring change to an industry. Working together, the communities of Georgetown and D.C. — a university and a city that pride themselves on leadership — have the opportunity to live up to the values that they proclaim and call for change that will benefit the entire community.

Caleb Weaver is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service and a member of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee.

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