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Farm Out the Vote

What happens when the fall campaign season meets the harvest season?

By Stett Holbrook

According to a report in Nation's Restaurant News, the National Restaurant Association restaurateurs will need to fill 1.6 million jobs by 2012, but restrictive immigration policies adopted in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have drained the pool of needed workers.

The National Restaurant Association and other industry groups have hopes that a number of immigration-reform bills soon to come before Congress could offer relief for the first time in years. It's estimated that the 8 to 10 million undocumented workers believed to be living in the United States could offer a rich source of restaurant labor if they gained legal resident status. Of 12 million food-service workers, 1.4 million are believed to be immigrants, 500,000 of them Mexican, the NRA says.

Compound Fracture

In addition to immigration restrictions, the dearth of restaurant workers is being compounded by the lack of U.S.-born teenagers willing to flip burgers as well as the retirement of legions of baby boomers who currently man restaurant-service sector jobs.

The NRA has listed immigration reform as one of its Top 6 priorities this year and hopes the 109th Congress will bring the relief it's looking for. While the legislation is varied, Nation's Restaurant News reports that the provisions that have sparked the restaurant industry's hopes are reforms that would allow employers to hire undocumented immigrant workers for jobs shunned by Americans and the implementation of programs to allow longtime U.S. resident workers without documentation to acquire legal status.

Of course, how immigration reform will play out in a highly charged election year remains an open question.

Take Another Little Pizza My Heart Now Baby

In what may be one of the few positive achievements in his presidency, George Bush signed a child-nutrition bill this summer that will, among other things, create seed money to help start farm-to-cafeteria projects in U.S. schools. As American children grow fatter and fatter, farm-to-cafeteria programs replace the nutritionally inferior, pre-packaged, frozen and reheated fare typically served in public schools with fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers. Not only do the programs provide students with fresh, healthful produce, they give often-struggling local farms a much-needed market for their crops. The programs also serve up money for nutrition education, school gardens and equipment.

Some Bay Area schools like those in Berkeley and Hayward have already begun farm-to-cafeteria projects.

According to Anupama Joshi, California Farm to School program manager for the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College, the programs cost food-service departments fewer than 10 cents more per pupil than traditional food-service program. And because more students actually eat school lunches when the options are greater than Tater Tots and grilled cheese sandwiches, schools can increase profits and government reimbursement.

"[Schools] realize in the end it's actually beneficial to them," she says.

Now that the farm-to-school legislation has passed, it's up to Congress to fund it. Call, write or fax your local senator or congressmember and ask them to fund Section 122 ("Access to Local Foods and School Gardens") of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act. And let local schools boards know you'd like to see locally grown food replace sloppy joes and Pizza Hut in the cafeteria.

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From the October 13-20, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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