If not now, when?

The Food + Entrepreneurship Conference opened yesterday in San Francisco at The Village on Market Street. The conference is hosted by La Cocina, the local food-business incubator is in its second year and yesterday’s events were well attended. The outcome of the election last week was on everyone’s mind, and so the discussions took on an urgency. I think if the elections had gone the other way, the tone would have been one of possibility. Now the mountain may be harder to climb.

I attended the breakout sessions that addressed activism in the food business because I’ve been deeply curious about how to run a small food business with an eye to social justice. I ran my own businesses with the intention of taking care of my employees, my community and the environment. I look around and see so many businesses answering that same call and I want to learn how they do it profitably. I mean the nuts-and-bolts of it. What do their balance sheets/income statements look like?

I will write more about what I learned and what inspired me about the day, but one moment really stood out for me.

After lunch, I listened in on a panel discussion let by La Cocina’s Leticia Landa called “Activist Owner: Can you Fight Social Issues & Run a Good Food Business?”. The speakers were Cristina Martinez from South Philly Barbacoa, Anthony Myint (The Perennial) and Shakirah Simley (Bi-Rite Businesses). One common thread the messages: Begin with an intention to fight social issues, plan your business culture and profitability around that, and all else will follow. Cristina who spoke through an interpreter, said she has created community through her food and her employees, paying them better than most restaurants in Philadelphia, and so drawing loyal talent to her kitchen.  Shakirah and Anthony both spoke to providing living wages to workers, providing training and support, and giving back to community.

All day, I had been thinking about how we need to extend this conversation across the country, and how California needs to share this message to other states. A young woman raised her hand to ask a question. She was from Foodlab Detroit(I think, that was the name…definitely Detroit). She explained how hard it is to encourage her clients, new food entrepreneurs, to do all these things that one needs to do to be responsible business owners. it felt like she was saying,”This is all fine and good for you folks but that’s just too much to ask of someone who is trying to build something for themselves.” She was passionate. I, for my part, have always wondered as a white, middle-class woman, where do I get off telling business owners that they should rethink profitability? This is hard enough to make money without having to think about activism.. So am I trying to impose my own vision of the way things should be without being realistic about the hardships of being a food-entrepreneur?

Look, I understand what it is to be a food industry worker and a food entrepreneur. I know that this is an industry which lags far behind in doing the right thing by its employees. Living wages, sexism, racism. All issues screaming for reform in our industry.

We need to begin.  We, of all the folks,  know what it’s like to struggle on minimum wage, to work without health insurance, to endure sexual harassment and hostile work environments. We are the ones who know this. That is why we have to be be the ones to CHANGE this. It has to start from us.

We should want to take care of each other and set an example for entrepreneurs everywhere. Our work is to nurture in every way.

As the Jewish prophet Hillel the Elder said, ” If not us, who? If not now, when?”




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