It’s obvious that we value some foods more than others. Historically, this value system has been based largely on scarcity, nutritional content and even the trendiness of certain foods. But how does the labor that goes into food factor into its value?
At 516 ARTS’ current exhibit, Currency: What do you value?, artists are exploring why we value the things we do, and how those value systems might be skewed. “How do materialism and corporate interests take precedence over human and environmental concerns?” asks Josie Lopez, the curator of the exhibit, “How do debt and money impact art and creativity?” Creative work often goes undervalued (and underpaid), and only more so in an economy choked by student debt and steadily climbing housing costs. There is another kind of labor that often goes overlooked and taken for granted as well, though: the work that goes into harvesting and preparing our food.
Many of us have seen the recent photos of migrant farmers continuing to work in the fields in California even as wildfires raged nearby, while temperatures and air quality became unlivable. These farmers—some of whom are undocumented—have limited or no protection or recourse offered to them in times of crisis like this. Many of these workers have been forced to work without respirator masks, and overtime pay for California farmworkers only became mandatory this year. Even farmers who own or manage their own land face difficult financial decisions on a regular basis: Access to affordable land is the number one challenge faced by farmers, according to a report by the National Young Farmers Coalition.
And agriculture isn’t the only kind of food-related labor that’s often undervalued. Restaurant kitchen and service industry workers often face brutally long shifts, unsafe working conditions and environments of assault. Again, it is usually the migrant and undocumented workers who are the most taken advantage of in restaurant kitchens.
This is the labor that 516 ARTS wants to bring attention to in a catered lunch series they’re hosting on Thursday and Friday, Dec. 13 and 14 as a part of the Currency exhibit. Long tables will fill the entryway at 516, where visitors can buy a $12 lunch and eat together in the middle of the exhibit. The lunch, which is catered by Rosebar, a small farm-to-table catering company, will highlight some of the foods that have historically been used as currency such as potatoes, butter and eggs, “with an emphasis on eating local,” says Suzanne Sbarge, the Executive Director at 516 ARTS. Lunch is served starting at 11:30am each day until supplies run out.
Though they farm in the South Valley and source from other local farmers in their cooking, “We don’t cook New Mexican food,” says Marjory Sweet, one half of the farm and catering duo Rosebar. Rosebar’s food can best be described as simple, approachable and bright—they prepare many vegetable-forward dishes with colorful, acidic sauces, homemade breads and savory and sweet pastries. “It would be kind of weird if two girls from Maine came here and started serving New Mexican food. … We’ll leave that to the abuelas who know best.” Corinne Fay, the other half of the duo, can personally speak to the financial instability of working in the food service industry. She worked for several years in restaurants in Portland, Maine, where a very seasonal tourism industry makes for a dramatic drop-off in customers in the fall and winter—and often layoffs for restaurant staff. “It was pretty feast or famine out there,” she says.
Having access to nutritious, affordable food is immeasurably important, but it’s something we often take for granted. If the price of our food were to increase by just three percent, what budget cuts would you have to make in your life to afford the same food you typically buy? What about 15 percent, or 30? If all of our food was produced in a way that adequately compensated the people who make it, these are certainly the kinds of price increases we would see. The questions posed by the Currency exhibit challenge our notions of the imbalances in the economy we live in, and nudge us to examine how our own values are distorted. If people come for the food and end up walking through the exhibit as well (or vice versa), perhaps that speaks to how two undervalued industries can support each other in a harsh economy.