Posted June 17th 2011 at 9:44 am by
in First Person Policy, Food

Know Your Onion: The Shakedown Café at Pitzer College

In this post, college student Megan Hazen tracks her journey from Subway sandwich-maker to local food procurement-maven for a campus eatery.

The summer after my senior year I worked at a Subway restaurant in Maui, where I’m from. I went from loyal customer to “Sandwich Artist,” getting a behind-the-scenes look at how America’s preeminent sandwich chain operates. All of the ingredients arrived pre-packaged, shipped via cargo boat from some outside source that was unknown to me, to most of my coworkers, and probably all of our customers. I wasn’t really bothered by the disconnect; I focused my attention on memorizing things like how many slices of ham, turkey, and roast beef go on a Subway Club.

At the end of the summer I left Subway to attend Pitzer College in Claremont, California. After moving into my dorm room and registering for classes, I faced the task of finding a part-time job to help pay my tuition. I got an email from the Shakedown Café, a student eatery that was looking for new employees. I applied and was hired, along with everyone else who applied.

In my second semester at Pitzer, I took a class called “Social Stratification” taught by Jose Calderon. For our final paper, Professor Calderon asked us to write about a place that either perpetuates stratification or attempts to reduce stratification in some way. I chose to write about the Shakedown.

The Shakedown Café is student-run and uses only organic, locally grown ingredients. Four Pitzer students founded the eatery in 2007, and authored “The Shakedown Bible,” which outlines the Café’s ideology and includes practical instructions for running it. They wrote:

The Shakedown is an opportunity to embody a socially just food system and to promote community food security by supporting small-scale organic, local farmers who nourish our environment in the same sustainable manner that our environment nourishes us.

Page 8, The Shakedown Manifesto

 

There are many benefits that come from supporting local organic farmers. First of all, the local economy is sustained: money is circulated within the community as opposed to flowing out of the community and into the pockets of large corporations that perpetuate social inequality. Secondly, the sustainable farming methods used by local organic farms are much better for the environment than methods used by large agribusinesses. Local organic farms do not use harmful pesticides or chemicals, and they keep the soil nutrient-rich by planting different crops that vary by season, whereas large commercial farms may plant one crop continuously, which drains the soil of its nutrients and eventually makes the land unusable. Another benefit of buying from local farms is supporting humane working conditions and decent wages for the farm workers, as opposed to supporting corporations that mistreat their workers and often completely ignore workers’ rights.

As consumers, we have the power to support ethical businesses, but the impact is even larger when institutions (such as the Shakedown) consistently do business with local farms. As the Shakedown has worked to make that institution-level impact, it has hit some roadblocks and learned some valuable lessons.

The food industry in America is dominated by a handful of large corporations—Monsanto (a multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation), Dole (the world’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables), and Nestlé, to name a few—that perpetuate inequality on many levels. They perpetuate class inequality by providing their employees with terrible working conditions, low wages, and few or no benefits. These corporations are responsible for large-scale pollution both in the U.S. and abroad. They are also characterized by a general lack of ethics. Monsanto was actually ranked as the #1 least ethical multinational business by the Swiss research group Covalence.

The list of Monsanto’s transgressions is virtually endless. Here are just a few examples:

•  Since 1997, Monsanto has filed lawsuits against 145 individual U.S. farmers for seed patent violations. The analyst for The Center for Food Safety has stated that many innocent farmers settle with Monsanto because they cannot afford a time-consuming legal battle with the powerful multinational corporation.

•  Monsanto introduced the use of rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone), a synthetic hormone that increases milk production, into the agriculture industry. It has been shown to accelerate cancer growth in cows, and is associated with breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer in humans, yet it is still being used by non-organic dairies.

•  Monsanto routinely discharged toxic, carcinogenic waste into a creek in Alabama outside one of its factories for 40 years, affecting residents in the surrounding area. They suppressed information from their research that showed that the chemicals they were dumping caused tumors in rats and killed the fish in the creek within ten seconds of submersion. One internal memo concluded with “We can’t afford to lose one dollar of business.”

 

Nestlé and Dole have also been found guilty of a range of unethical business practices. Regardless of the numerous controversies surrounding these corporations and the public’s knowledge of their wrongdoings, they continue to turn enormous profits and shut out small businesses.

Part of the Shakedown’s mission is to reconnect people to the food they eat. A fast-food epidemic has swept the nation and food is looked at as a necessary fuel, “something that we have no choice but to eat, so we better do it as quickly and cheaply as possible,” as The Shakedown Manifesto states. The Shakedown’s philosophy emphasizes the need to connect with the farmers who have produced our food, to use ingredients that are in-season locally, to know where our food comes from, and to eat consciously and purposefully.

But there have been times when ideology clashes with reality at the Shakedown. Although the Shakedown Bible states: “Getting food from the farmers market is a central part of The Shakedown Café and is extremely important towards putting our philosophy into practice,” shortly after the founders graduated the new managers realized that buying from the farmer’s market was too costly, causing the Shakedown to lose money.

The Shakedown stopped buying from the farmer’s market, but still exclusively serves locally grown and organic food. We gets our ingredients from a few different sources. We order some items through United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI), an independent national distributor of natural and organic foods with a focus on corporate social responsibility. We get specialty ingredients from local stores, including The Cheese Cave.

Finally, some ingredients come through the Pitzer dining hall food service, Bon Appétit. There have been a few issues with this source: if an organic ingredient we ordered is not available, Bon Appétit will sometimes give us the non-organic equivalent. When this mistake is caught, we return the ingredients and get reimbursed, but it can be a major inconvenience. Some employees are concerned that ordering through the dining hall strays from the Shakedown’s founding philosophy of reconnecting people with their food. Neither Shakedown managers nor workers know exactly where these ingredients come from, though we do know that the farms have been checked out and verified by Dennis Lofland, general manager of the Pitzer dining hall.

At a planning meeting for the Shakedown’s next year, we discussed the possibility of slowly reducing our ordering through the dining hall and transitioning to buying directly from local farms, namely Amy’s Farm in Ontario. This move would bring the Shakedown back to the vision of its founders. It would also eliminate the middleman (the Pitzer dining hall), so we would have more control over what ingredients we receive.

My experiences working at the Shakedown as well as writing my research paper have made me realize how important it is to eat purposefully.  When you order a burger from a fast-food restaurant, chances are you have no idea where the meat  — or any of the ingredients — came from, how the cow was treated, or how working conditions were for the farmers who harvested the tomatoes that went into the ketchup.  Americans have become disconnected with their food.  The Shakedown is a small example of the global effort to change this.  I can’t wait to go back for another year as a Shakedowner in August.  It’s no longer just a job for me, but a philosophy I can take stock in and a project that I am proud to be a part of.

Post by Megan Hazen.

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2 Responses to “Know Your Onion: The Shakedown Café at Pitzer College”

  1. M.C. Bissell says:

    I enjoyed this blog immensely as it really gave me “food for thought”, no pun intended. I am a supporter of the “slow food” movement and am receiving new information almost on a daily basis of how important it is to know your food, i.e. know the source. Thank you so much for posting this well written, thoughtful essay.

  2. Certainly the sins of the big food providers are serious enough to convince us all to buy our food from local growers and cook it ourselves in our own kitchens. Thank you for your contribution to our growing understanding of the problems we all face at mealtime.