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Q&A: Ari Hart on Food Justice and Flaum Appetizing

I recently found myself deep in conversation with Ari Hart, co-founder of the Orthodox social justice movement Uri L’Tzedek. By using Torah as a lens through which to view contemporary issues, Uri L’Tzedek empowers the Jewish community to act as leaders in fighting for justice. The group is currently pressing Flaum Appetizing, a Brooklyn-based food production and distribution company, to compensate a group of former employees over $260,000, in compliance with a National Labor Relations Board mandate.

Flaum, which produces appetizer salads and distributes Tnuva dairy products and Bodek cut vegetables throughout the New York area, dismissed seventeen workers in May 2008 after they organized to protest unfair treatment and underpayment. When the case went to court in February 2009, the NLRB ruled that the firings were illegal and awarded the workers close to $260,000 in backpay. Flaum has yet to remunerate its former employees and is attempting to exempt itself from payment altogether.

Yael Greenberg: This case seems a little more complicated than one company’s refusal to pay its workers. Can you explain what is going on?

Ari Hart: Flaum is arguing that they can’t be forced to pay the settlement because the workers are undocumented. But this is unscrupulous — undocumented labor is a two-way street, and immigration status was a non-issue for Flaum for several years while they were employing these workers. Though it is illegal to work without proper documentation, it is also illegal to hire undocumented workers or to pay anyone below minimum wage. Flaum is not contesting whether or not they were in the wrong, just whether they can be forced to pay. It is our belief that the company took advantage of the workers’ status and should pay the penalty the court assessed.

What is Uri L’Tzedek doing to help?

What we’re trying to do now is impact the enforcement of the judgment. We are asking consumers of Flaum to let the company know that they should pay the workers the money owed. We’ve been having conversations with people in front of grocery stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn, asking them to make purchases that reflect their commitment to justice for the most vulnerable in the community. As a result of that, many consumers are refraining from purchasing Flaum products until this is resolved, and a number of stores have also decided to stop stocking their products for the time being.

Just in the past few weeks, after becoming aware of the issue and responding to customer concerns, Zabar’s, Associated Mega Store, and Barzini’s all discontinued the sale of Flaum products until the dismissed employees are paid. Continental Airlines also buys from Flaum, and we’re asking them to put pressure on the company as well.

I often find it hard to change my eating habits in the face of a new discovery about the food system. Recently I paused before using chocolate chips in a recipe because I had no idea where they came from, but then used them anyway on the grounds that my decision wasn’t going to make much of a difference. How is this issue any different?

The food system is such a huge and overwhelming place, and it can be hard to find avenues for change. We’re presented here with a very clear-cut case and a clear desired outcome. A lot of folks are hearing about this case for the first time, and they are appreciative of the opportunity to purchase in line with their values. Consumers and grocery stores know that they are using their dollar to keep the pressure on Flaum to do what’s right.

How have people reacted to your campaign?

The workers are excited; they actually reached out to us. Here and there someone’s got something snarky to say on the street, but overall the response has been positive. We welcome debate and struggles, but it’s been overwhelmingly supportive. This is about doing what’s right; we’re not trying to run the company out of business. The workers who produce food for the Jewish community deserve to be treated well, and we are proud to stand with them as they seek justice.

Yael Greenberg studies at McGill University in Montreal. She also works as the food educator and director of sustainable purchasing for Ramah Outdoor Adventure in Colorado.

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