Anyone in Portland can tell you that we've been experiencing a huge increase in restaurants and bars this year. What we sought to find out in this episode was whether that same increase has meant more opportunities and financial stability for food service workers—the people who form the backbone of our growing service economy.
In part one of our episode, our interviewees, graduate assistant Jamaal Green and professor Greg Schrock, speak to us about their recent study which attempts to answer that same question. The second part features a field trip our producer, Alan, took to one of the classes offered by the Portland Kitchen, a local nonprofit that teaches culinary vocational skills to low income and at-risk youth.
Links du jour
- Portland’s Food Economy: Trends and Contributions by Jamaal Green, Greg Schrock, and Jenny Liu
- Every Forthcoming Restaurant and Bar in Portland via Eater
- High-End Food, Low-Wage Labor via Dissent
- Mark Wahlberg’s burger chain, Wahlburgers, sued for alleged wage theft via USA Today
SOLEIL HO Welcome to Racist Sandwich, the podcast about food, race, class, and gender. I'm Soleil Ho.
ZAHIR JANMOHAMED And I'm Zahir Janmohamed.
Soleil, you're back in the host chair. Welcome. Welcome back. We missed you.
SOLEIL I know. I guess I'm on this to make sure that at least a significant ratio of this episode isn't just dudes.
SOLEIL And by the way, thank you everyone, for coming to our event this past Sunday. It was really awesome and also really warm and made more so by all the generous wine pours.
ZAHIR Today, actually, we have a two-part episode. It's a first for us, but they both address a similar theme, which is the subject of class. We've talked about wanting to focus more on these issues, and this is first step.
So, we're talking about the food economy in Portland. On part one, Alan and I interview Greg Schrock and Jamaal Green. They're both at Portland State University, and they published report about the food economy in Portland. In part two, we pay a visit to a cooking class at Portland Kitchen.
SOLEIL Yeah, so, the report from Portland State University lays out how there's a huge food market in Portland, and we hear a lot of rhetoric about how Portland is a big food city now, right? There's more restaurants opening. There's more jobs.
ZAHIR Part of why I think we were so interested in having them on is it punctures some of these myths about the Portland food scene. Portland is still a great place to eat; there's still a lot of affordable food. But Greg and Jamaal really dive into some of the economics behind the choices restaurants are making and who's doing which jobs and for how much.
GREG When we talk about the food economy, it's not one thing, but actually, it's four different pieces of the economy. There's the food production, there's what we think of as agricultural production, food processing--which we think of as manufacturing and the transformation of agricultural commodities into the food we eat--the distribution component, and food services. I think we all knew that all of those were important parts, but just seeing how different they are in terms of their geography, where they're growing in the region, who works in different segments of the economy, the differences in job quality across the food economy: Those were, at least to me, some of the surprising things, just how much variation there is when we think about the extent to which there are living-wage jobs across these different sectors.
ZAHIR The other day I was over by the Portland Mercado, and I heard some of the people from Hacienda CDC that created the Portland Mercado saying that that might be planned as an international corridor. So, you have over in the 80s, you have the Jade Market, and then the Portland Mercado's over on 72 and Foster. And then you have a lot of people from Eastern Europe as well too, who are considered--by some--people of color here as well too, by the Communities of Color Coalition. So, it seems like there's that ghettoization. Is in many ways food contributing to this ghettoization? Did you see that in your study? Is it sort of pushing people out where the jobs are? How is it affecting where people live, perhaps? Or maybe it's not.
JAMAAL The kind of forces that are pushing out low-income folks, and in particular, certain communities of color from the more central parts of Portland are the same forces that are pushing certain kinds of food establishments also outside of the Central Eastside here. For example, I mean look. Food processing is still a really spatially extensive thing where you need to have a decently large building and warehouse and specialized vents and all that other kind of stuff. And if you happen to own that warehouse, and you can charge maybe $5 or $6 a square foot, and you are at Burnside and 8th, and you if you convert to condos, you can get like $100 or $200 per square foot. I mean, it just doesn't make sense to keep a bakery or a coffee roaster there. That's going to push out certain kinds of-- So, there is an elevated risk of having those companies being pushed out of the Central Eastside. And there's not necessarily a guarantee that those companies are going to stay within the city of Portland or even within the region.
ALAN But the minimum wage in Oregon, as you both know, is about to go up in increments to $14.75, I think, in Portland in 2022. I don't remember exactly for non-urban areas; it's lower. How do you think this will affect the food economy that you're talking about?
GREG I think it'll have a significant effect. I think the impact that it will have, especially given that it's a gradual phase-in, we'll give restaurants a chance to adapt. We're already seeing this in Seattle, the impact of the increasing steps. And especially for smaller restaurants, I think it'll be--and food service establishments--it'll be very interesting to see not just how they organize work and how the front of the house and back of the house, how that gets changed. But also, importantly from an equity perspective, how does that change who employers hire?
GREG I don't think that a $15 minimum wage is gonna change, in a fundamental way, the dynamics of racial and gender segmentation in the labor market. So, who gets, as food service jobs become better jobs, as some jobs become relatively more attractive, more privileged segments of the workforce will view those as more attractive jobs. And so, they will outcompete, or they will, in many ways, have privileged access to some of those jobs. So, I think that will be interesting to see. Does the face of the food economy change as the quality of the jobs increases?
ZAHIR I was in Miami recently for a conference. I went to a bar, and I asked what I always do here, which is "What's local?" And they gave me this look like, "What do you mean? What's local? I'll tell you what's good." And it's so interesting 'cause you go to New Seasons, and you see tortilla chips. They'll say the actual family locally. So, what do you think that says? Consumers want local goods. How is that changing the economy here?
JAMAAL We definitely have a cultural preference in Portland for goods that are made here, and we try to continually try to support and grow our own thing. I think that a more interesting set of strategies and questions here for cities is this kind of growing recognition that food is not just growing and not just restaurants, and that there's this entire middle set of processing and distribution and production that is vital to trying to create a really local, excuse me, trying to create a really healthy local food system. And Portland, I think, is slightly ahead of the curve in trying to recognize that. And I think that our report really tries to highlight the fact that it's like, hey, the fastest-growing segment in food processors for us was actually in coffee roasters, right? And we are a coffee town, but I don't think that folks think about roasting coffee as this manufacturing or a kind of industrial process precisely because the vast majority of folks, when they go and buy a coffee, they see a small roaster and then a point of sale. And they're not necessarily thinking that hey, there's also 4,000 square feet behind this.
ALAN You see a bag that says, "Guatemala" on it.
ALAN And then you drink it, and that's it.
JAMAAL Right, yeah.
ZAHIR So, what happens in between then, that most people don't think about?
JAMAAL Right, yeah, exactly.
ALAN You were talking about this food economy, and you emphasized the middle part, the parts of food production that aren't growing and putting stuff on your plate. And that one thing that seems useful, especially now in a time of high growth and high inequality, to think of all these steps as part of the same system.
ZAHIR It seems like Portland is heading towards a serious situation on its hand, right? Because according to your report, the fastest growth of jobs is in the food industry. And a lot of these are poor-wage, low-wage jobs, like at $26,000. Another report--not by you guys, but someone else--about average housing prices has just crossed $400,000. People are getting priced out, you know? And I see all these new restaurants being built, and I think hmm, who's gonna be taking those jobs, and where are they gonna be living? Transportation is also, it's great, but it's not that good here, right?
ALAN So, with all of that in mind then, what does a healthy food economy look like to both of you?
GREG Healthy food economy is one that creates broad-based opportunity. I mean, that the simple answer to it. And across a variety of different sectors of the food economy, within the food service economy, that as the quality of jobs goes up, as the minimum wages go up, that there's still access. There's still access to those jobs. And I think planners tend to think of these things as spatial, that the jobs are here, and the poor people are over there. But actually, it's much more institutional. Who has access? How do employers recruit? What are the ways that people get access to information about where the jobs are?
So, I think I would say a healthy and equitable food economy has different pathways in to different points in the food economy. Whether it's working in manufacturing jobs, whether it's working getting access to financing to start a restaurant or to start a microenterprise, and getting access to the distribution channels, whether it's through New Seasons or through different famers' markets. You're building institutions for access so that it's not just about the informal channels, who knows whom. And unfortunately, that's how inequality gets reproduced in lots of different arenas, but especially in the job market. Who's in the know?
ALAN Who knows who? Yeah.
JAMAAL I also think another large part of the institutional question is really trying to offer up protections for both employers and employees, right? I mean, look: Food work, particularly in the restaurant business, is incredibly risky. I mean, we're talking about a thin-margin, high-risk kind of job. I think that we tend to recognize that a lot more for folks who try to open up and manage these spaces and not necessarily for the folks who actually end up trying to work in them. The people who actually cook and serve our food are not necessarily as protected or as respected as the people who have their name on the restaurants.
So, I think that dealing with questions of being able to have access to good benefits and health insurance, but also things like real, robust protection from wage theft is actually a huge, huge issue that is not really talked about as much as something within the food economy. And we know from a variety of surveys and also just from talking to people who work in the food service industry that wage theft and tip stealing and things like that is absolutely rampant.
ZAHIR It's very common?
ZAHIR By wage theft, can you explain? Sorry. What does that mean?
JAMAAL Oh, yeah. At the most extreme level, quite literally non-payment for work. The vast majority of times, folks are asked to work additional hours, and they aren't paid. Tips being stolen by supervisors and front of house folks is also a really common thing too.
ZAHIR In terms of for people of color--just wrapping this up--sometimes I go out to dinner, and I see all the diners are white, and the wait staff is white. The other day, my partner and I happened to sit at the bar. So, you look into the kitchen, and you're like, wow! Everyone on that side is a person of color. So now, how could people of color be more equitably distributed across the food economy, especially into these higher income jobs?
GREG It's a great question. I mean, I think a lot of it comes down to how people get the kind of know-how and access and really apprenticeship, as it were, in the food business. The pathways to starting a restaurant, I would say to a lesser extent occur through the back of the house. I don't know if there's an easy lever to pull to get access and to expand access to break down some of that racial segmentation that occurs within restaurants. I don't have an easy answer to that.
JAMAAL Yeah, no, I also don't have a really easy answer to that also. To a certain extent, we as consumers could probably do a better job of trying to take certain restaurants to task about that kind of thing. But also trying to ask, again, hey, why are the wait staff only young, attractive white people, right?
JAMAAL You know? There's a clear logic as to why that occurs, and it probably makes people more money. Except it's not really a good thing. And we could be better at trying to challenge that or ask people why have they decided to try and run their businesses in that way, I guess. But again, I don't know if there's a major policy lever there that we could really pull.
GREG Yeah. I don't know to what extent it is a function of who actually can afford to work in part-time, relatively instable jobs. They may be targeting wait staff type jobs toward people who are students or people who are part-time workers. I think that is what we in the business would call a hypothesis. In other words, informed speculation. But I think asking that question of restaurateurs, they may not even think about it. It may not even occur to them that the way that they recruit, which may be largely through informal channels, may be reproducing a set of racial segregation logics that may not even occur to them but yet may have really significant implications for who gets the kind of informal training and apprenticeship that leads to people starting a new restaurant.
GREG So, I think there's an informal process that occurs in a lot of different sectors, and we hear this a lot, for example, in the construction industry that people start businesses by getting access to particular types of not just laborer positions but by getting access to, being foremen, being relatively higher-level positions where you begin to see the business as a whole. And you're not just working in a particular narrow role. And I think seeing that kind of pathway is, I think, really important to understanding change.
ALAN What you're talking about reminds me a little bit of, I was visiting my family in the Philippines, and I saw a job posting outside a restaurant saying, "We're looking for a waitress. They need to be under 30."
ALAN You would never see that explicitly written out here, but I think all that's happened is that those biases have gone from formal to informal channels.
ALAN They're just now unwritten.
ZAHIR [chuckles] Thank you guys so much. This has been great. Jamaal and Greg, can you tell all of our listeners where they can find more about you? Jamaal?
JAMAAL Yeah, so if you check out the website at Portland State University in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, I believe I have an account up there. You can follow me on Twitter @surlyurbanist.
GREG And you can find me at Portland State. My website is web.pdx.edu/~GSchrock.
SOLEIL That was Jamaal Green, a Graduate Assistant and Fellow at Portland State University, and Greg Schrock, a Professor at Portland State University. He just got a promotion.
ZAHIR Coming up after the break, we pay a visit to a cooking class at the Portland Kitchen.
SOLEIL We'd like to take a minute to thank you all again for donating to our crowdfunder. But we want to especially thank Bertony Faustin.
ZAHIR Bertony, we can't thank you enough. You were our first guest, before we had a website, before we had a logo. That was, I think, back in April or something. He didn't know who we were, and he just came on our show. It was phenomenal. So, thank you, Bertony.
SOLEIL Yeah, he was very generous with his space and his time and his wine. So, we'd just like to extend a heartfelt thanks.
ZAHIR He's also an exceptionally cool guy, too. Remember he showed up on a motorcycle?
SOLEIL [laughs] Yeah, yeah.
ZAHIR That was kinda cool.
SOLEIL Welcome back to Racist Sandwich. We just talked about the kinds of jobs people get in the food industry. On part two of our show, we take a look at one organization that's trying to get more people into that workforce.
ZAHIR We first met Joy Church, the director of the Portland Kitchen, at our first meetup. They also reached out to us on Twitter. So, we sent our producer, Alan, to one of their classes in SE Portland. Here's what he brought back for us.
ALAN Hi, this is Alan Montecillo. Or as Zahir and Soleil call me, Producer Alan.
One thing we're trying to do more of at Racist Sandwich is to have different kinds of audio. So, a few weeks ago, I paid a visit to the Portland Kitchen. It's in a church basement on SE 112th Avenue and Prescott, right here in Portland, Oregon. The original plan was to interview their director, but then we realized it would be a lot more interesting for us, and for listeners, to actually go to one of the classes and talk to a bunch of teenagers as they cook their dishes. So, that's exactly what I did.
You'll hear from many different students, and I enjoyed talking with all of them. But the first person you'll hear is Joy Church, the Executive Director of the Portland Kitchen. From there, I went downstairs and just talked to as many people as I could.
[voices talk in the background]
ALAN Where are we?
JOY We are at 11229 NE Prescott. We are in the basement of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, and this is the Portland Kitchen. We've been in this space for three and a half years, and because we are so close to these two schools, we're gonna continue to stay in this space. The church has been very kind to us, so we don't pay a huge amount in rent.
ALAN What was your name?
ALAN Great. What are you making?
STEPHANIE Well, I'm making a salad with tomatoes and Brussels sprouts and bacon. And then, I'm gonna have two different salad dressings. One is gonna have mayonnaise, and then, the other one's gonna have something different and spicy.
ALAN I have still not figured out how to make good salads. What's something I should know?
STEPHANIE Wash your produce really well. And just a little teeny bit of salt, just a little teeny bit. Add what you like. Don't be nervous or scared about it. Try something different. That's what I would have to say.
ALAN What was your name?
ALAN Here. I still am not great at making salads. What should I know? Any tips?
NICKI Google have everything.
ALAN Do you cook much at home?
NICKI No, normally I watch my grandma, and my mom cook Vietnamese food at home. So far, my grandma taught me how to cook ribs in this Vietnamese style and rice, and that's it.
ALAN What's your favorite food?
NICKI [sucks teeth] I will say pizza.
ALAN Nice. What kind?
NICKI Oh, you’re putting me in class now!
ALAN Yeah [laugh].
NICKI I like... I think my most favorite would be pepperoni and sausage and mushroom.
ALAN Are you hoping to--Joy was telling me a lot of this program, a lot of people try to get jobs after this--are you hoping to get a cooking job after this program?
NICKI I was maybe thinking of working at a restaurant, or I don't know, something that kind of involve food and talking to new customers, I guess.
What was your name?
ALAN What are you making?
ISAAC We're making carrot cake and roasted carrots.
ALAN Ah. How long have you been in Portland Kitchen?
ISAAC Starting this summer, five weeks ago. This is the first time I've done the Portland Kitchen.
ALAN Nice. How did you hear about it?
ISAAC I heard about it from my friend's mom who was talking to my mom about some summer programs. Because she's gonna be busy this whole entire summer, and same with my dad. So, they needed me and my sister to do some things to occupy ourselves. And she mentioned the Portland Kitchen, and so, we signed up. Then we got it.
ALAN Do you cook at home much?
ISAAC Yes, I cook at home a lot. Last night, my mom wanted me to make some pan-roasted chicken breast, and it turned out pretty well. I was happy with that, yeah.
ALAN What's your favorite thing to cook?
ISAAC Favorite thing to cook: Indian food.
ISAAC Like curries, mainly, 'cause I like all curry, and curry's my favorite. So, yeah.
ALAN I guess, one more quick thing. Are you working in a team for this, or are you doing it by yourself?
ISAAC Yeah, I have a team. So, what we are doing right now is Ariel gave us some vegetables under a bowl, and we're supposed to make something out of it, out of the vegetables. It could be anything that we want to be. Like, we're making carrot cake. Other groups are making salads or other roasted things. And we're also supposed to make a poster marketing our vegetable in some way that's fun and creative and interesting.
ALAN Cool. So, you're not assigned like you must make this dish?
ALAN You're given the ingredients.
ISAAC Yeah, just, "Here's a vegetable. Go make something out of it."
ARIEL My name is Ariel Clark. I'm the Culinary Director for the Portland Kitchen. So, we started our day off with a nutrition lesson from one of our partners at New Seasons Market. We talked about marketing claims and understanding how to read food labels. And then we moved into the cooking segment, which students learned different cooking techniques used in vegetable preparation, ways that aid in keeping nutrients in the food and also making them visually appealing. 'Cause we eat with our eyes first. And then the other part was they had to come up with their own marketing scheme and slogan to try and convince us that this vegetable was good. I think that with a lot of young people, vegetables are often the things that get left on the plate. And oftentimes, it's because we haven't really encouraged them to think about the benefits and take the time to play and get creative.
ARIEL Yeah, I didn't really love vegetables so much growing up. It's definitely something as I have-- When I moved to Oregon, my grandmother was a gardener, and so, I got to really go out and learn about how food grows. It gave me some kind of ownership over it. So, I think that that started my love for vegetables. Yeah.
ALAN How's it going?
ALAN What are you up to now?
ISAAC So, we changed from the carrot cake to carrot cake muffins, and we're gonna put on some toasted coconut on top of the muffins.
ALAN Nice. So, you're toasting the coconut right now. Cool. Why carrot cake muffins?
ISAAC I don't know. I think it's because we just wanted to do something different, not just what pretty much everyone else is doing is just mainly base and vegetable. But something sweeter. And since carrots can be used, in sweet and savory manners--
ALAN You gotta take advantage of your vegetable. You gotta stand up from the competition.
ISAAC Yeah [chuckles].
ALAN Awesome. Cool. So, that's gonna go in the oven, and then you'll sprinkle that on top?
ALAN Nice. So, I see a poster. What are you up to?
NICKI Since our main ingredient that we got to work with is carrots, so our poster had to revolve around carrots. I decided to draw a dancing rabbit with a top hat and a little bow tie dancing with a carrot with glasses. Because our logo is, "A carrot a day keeps the eye doctor away."
ALAN Do you like carrots?
NICKI I mean, they're all right.
ALAN And finally, I'm also trying to cook more Filipino food at home because I'm Filipino, and I don't really know how to make my parents' food. So, I'm trying to do that.
NICKI Speaking of Filipinos' food, do you heard of this one food with the little egg, and then when you crack it, there's a little duck embryo? Yeah.
ALAN Yeah, it's called balut.
NICKI Balut. Yeah. Have you tried those?
ALAN I haven't. My mom used to eat it all the time growing up, but I haven't tried it.
NICKI I mean, at first I didn't like it because it look weird, but now I kinda like it. I mean, the bird doesn't really taste much, but the water's good.
ALAN Wait. Where did you have balut?
NICKI Well, in middle school, there was this Asian Youth Society. And once a while we talk about the food of an Asian culture. Like the king of fruits; I forgot what it's call.
ALAN Yeah, durian.
NICKI Durian. And then the person who wants it, bring the actual food and let us try and taste it.
ALAN So, you got to eat durian as well? How'd you like the durian?
NICKI I like it. I ate it when I was a little kid, so I'm used to it.
NICKI Most people didn't like it because the smell was like--
ALAN Yeah, their fated smell, yeah.
JOY What's interesting with the public schools, the original intention had been to be a part of the after-school programs in the public schools. Apparently, that was quickly decided that that wasn't gonna work. In investigating that further, the public schools have a bit of a different mission than we do. So, they would prefer it if we turned our students away if they didn't attend class on a given day, and that's not something that we are willing to do.
So, for us, if a student will at least show up for class at the Portland Kitchen, that's better than them not showing up for anything. If we can get them to our class, and we find out that they didn't attend school, then we can be a conduit to getting them to their Guidance Counselor, talking with their parents, talking to their teachers. We can help get the student back to class.
ALAN One thing I remember us talking about on the phone is that you really wanted to emphasize that this was a serious culinary program. Had you run into any issues with people thinking that it's not that?
JOY You know, it's interesting. It does come up that people tend to think well, it's not educational because we're not in class, doing math, science in a traditional format. We're tucking those things into this program, in the kitchen. So, you're learning a lot about science when you're blowing things up in the kitchen, and you suddenly have hands-on experience! And then with math, we have a way in which we teach kids about measurements. OK, so, when we remove the one-cup measuring cup, and the recipe calls for one cup, what do you do? Oh, well, you use two half-cups instead. So, we tuck those things into the program without kids really realizing it.
But when it comes to writing grants, let's say, around education, that does come into question. People say, "Oh well, you're not really about education." We certainly are, but it is not in a traditional way.
And then, sometimes when we're talking about arts too, there are a lot of arts grants out there. And culinary arts are not something that are typically included in arts grants. They're much more traditional in that it's about dance, or it's about poetry, those very traditional arts pieces. And I think that's something that we need to work to change, because certainly culinary arts has all kinds of artistic pieces to it. But that can be an issue. I think sometimes people think, "Oh, isn't that cute? The kids are learning how to make a pancake or something." And this is truly a culinary program. So, kids are learning life skills, but they are learning that through cooking. They're learning about teamwork, dedication, commitment, really through culinary arts.
ZAHIR That was a piece from Alan. Thank you for doing that. And thank you all for listening to Racist Sandwich.
If you like the show, please tell your friends about it, and send us any feedback you have. We're on Facebook and Twitter @RaceandFood and firstname.lastname@example.org.
SOLEIL Our show is recorded at KBOO Community Radio in SE Portland and produced by Alan Montecillo.
Jen Tam designed our logo. You can find more of her work at www.JenTam.com.
ZAHIR Our music comes from AF THE NAYSAYER and Blue.Sessions.
We'll be back in two weeks. Thanks again for joining us.
SOLEIL Thank you!
Transcribed by Storyminders