"What does it mean to care for not only ourselves but for unseen strangers embedded deep in the trenches of our daily routines?" asks sommelier and activist Vinny Eng.

By Vinny Eng
April 01, 2020
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Landon Nordeman

During a recent job interview, a restaurant manager said to me, “This ship hums and there are a hundred little cracks everywhere. I wish I could slow down to patch each and every one up but there’s too much going on. We have to get through service, we must keep moving forward.” Every operator shares a similar sentiment, that running a food business has always been paddling upstream short of a paddle. It is a constant game of priority shuffling, often at the unintended neglect of the people who make food experiences possible.

As I drove through the Mission District recently, the air smelled remarkably different. On any normal day in San Francisco, this corridor would be bustling. The smells in the air from all manner of kitchens were transportive: grills firing, bread and pastries baking, and carts turning bacon-wrapped hot dogs on a griddle. But that morning, the prevailing smell was of rain drying on the pavement.

COVID-19 brought everything to a halt. This is not just a public health crisis. There is already tremendous economic and humanitarian fallout. The present and near future are bleak, and many lives are unraveling before us. Many of our colleagues and peers in the industry who are used to signal-switching and living in the shadows of our community are now retreating into the shadows of society. Normal support systems are failing everyone, but the impact will be disproportionately distributed—especially for those who are undocumented and for communities of color. This is particularly terrifying for those being xenophobically scapegoated for this crisis. We must make it a priority to take care of the workers who make our food systems possible.

We are being forced to confront a new reality: What does it mean to care for not only ourselves but for unseen strangers embedded deep in the trenches of our daily routines? How can we rebuild and reimagine food systems in the months and years to come with the choices we make in this immediate and critical moment? We are being commanded to lead with compassion and we must demand that our elected leaders govern with care.

Small businesses are important places where neighbors can come together. Locally-owned operations are on the front lines of many of our larger societal challenges: creating inclusive spaces where all feel welcome, supporting pathways for economic mobility for many who are unable to find work in other industries (in particular immigrants and formerly incarcerated people), and providing job security and financial stability for millions of Americans. These businesses are public spaces that build safe neighborhoods, and they are important venues for people of all backgrounds to come together and to remember that we have so much more in common than our race, identity, or orientation.

We must act swiftly to protect workers, especially those closest to harm and unable to ride out the storm. We have gone too long undervaluing the emotional and communal labor that makes growing, supplying, and eating food possible. These industries rely prominently on the labor of immigrants (many of them undocumented), women, and communities of color. Many of those workers are now not only lacking in wages, but also healthcare because coverage is tied to employment.

Millions of workers (along with their dependents) are out of work, out of wages, out of coverage, and out of access to social insurance programs or lines of credit. But they—and we—are not out of resilience. Our impacted friends have solutions, and they need to be at the table advising policy makers of how we move forward. We need to guarantee the health and well-being of everyone in our community and as we marshal resources and advocate for collective actions we can also eliminate structural iniquities in our food systems in this rebuilding process.

All government solutions must put workers and healing first, and the most effective way to do this is to guarantee income and access to universal health care right away. Small businesses need grants yesterday—not just loans with zero interest or deferred payments—to support a cash flow that can help them retain employees. Food service workers are providing essential services to our communities, feeding frontline workers and first responders, and helping to ensure that everyone sheltered in place can retain a small semblance of normalcy in these very uncertain times.

We have to imagine an outcome where no one gets left behind because we allow ourselves to be subsumed by individual fears, anxieties, or greed. These experiences are forcing us to focus our attention outwards, to the challenges faced by the most vulnerable in our community. Our most resilient solutions will be local. As we extend mutual aid (for instance via the SF New Deal) to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, we can begin to build a new infrastructure of community care. If our solutions are inclusive of impacted communities—those most vulnerable in this extraordinary time of need—we will go further, advance more quickly, and be more effective in recovering and restoring our communities.

"There’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers–at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be,” Octavia Butler wrote in an essay called "A Few Rules For Predicting The Future."

We are already changed by this global disaster. Be a helper and it will help you get through this. Butler envisioned this very dilemma we find ourselves in her novel Parable of the Sower. She wrote, “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you.”

How we meet this moment will define the future ahead and can lay the foundation for a new frontier where we make transformative, meaningful commitments to care for every person that makes our everyday lives possible, not just in food service but farmworkers, teachers, childcare providers, social workers, janitors, transit workers, nurses, and first responders. It is compelling us to reimagine a food system that we all can enjoy and acknowledges the worth that everyone brings to every endeavor, advancing dignity for workers in the form of proper wages, equity in return for their labor and meaningful access to a healthier existence. We all deserve a future now where we celebrate our interdependence, one where everyone thrives.

May love, science, and anti-racism guide us through our days, weeks, months, and generations ahead.

Vinny Eng is a 2019 Food & Wine Sommelier of the Year and a mental health activist.