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White House Kitchen Garden a Facade?


The White House has certainly touted it’s Kitchen Garden, even going so far as to having it featured as the “theme ingredient” on a special Iron Chef:America. I am sure the first lady is passionate and devoted to the sustainable, local and/or organic lifestyle. Mrs. Obama certainly seems sincere in her concerns for the environment and in rescuing our children from the obesity epidemic created by agribusiness juggernauts like Monsanto and their foot soldiers, the fast food industry.

I do not, however, believe her husband cares about these issues. After all his actions suggest an ambivalence reminiscent of his predecessor. Supposedly, pandering to big business is the realm of Republicans but President Obama has dangerously littered the government with agribusiness pawns.

Despite being given a list of 12 qualified candidates (known as the sustainable dozen) for key positions in his administration, the President has made numerous suspect appointments to bureaus charged with protecting the public’s welfare. No, suspect is not the right word, nefarious is more accurate. The conflict of interest created by these appointments is borderline criminal, not unlike naming John Dillinger Secretary of the Treasury.

Take the President’s choice to head the Department of Agriculture (USDA), Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack. Vilsack has long been a champion of genetically modified (GM) corn and other grains. Genetically modifying corn to be more resistant to herbicides was a process developed by Monsanto in the 1970’s. But, as science has since proven, GM corn is the root cause of every e coli outbreak on record. Ever.

Vilsack has such a notorious reputation for being a puppet for agribusiness mega corporations that a satirical PSA was actually commissioned by environmentalists. That’s right, environmentalists are opposed to this Democrat. Here’s the video:

After being pummeled by his own supporters for selling out the USDA to Biotech, Obama did throw them a bone. The President named Kathleen Merrigan, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at Tufts University (and one of the sustainable dozen) as his Sustainable Foods Czar. Sure it is just a token gesture and the position is largely meaningless but it calmed the masses. At least for a while.

Another one of President Obama’s appointments was naming Michael Taylor as special assistant to the FDA Commissioner for food safety. Taylor will actually be making laws that affect the profitability of Monsanto, the primary client of his employer prior to joining the Obama administration. Before working for Monsanto, Taylor was part of the George H W Bush administration, again making policy for the FDA. Prior to that stint with the FDA, Taylor worked for Monsanto. His resume is the very definition of “conflict of interest.”

Green publication The Huffington Post has called Taylor, “The person who may be responsible for more food-related illness and death than anyone in history,” here’s what else they had to say:

If GMOs are indeed responsible for massive sickness and death, then the individual who oversaw the FDA policy that facilitated their introduction holds a uniquely infamous role in human history. That person is Michael Taylor. He had been Monsanto’s attorney before becoming policy chief at the FDA. Soon after, he became Monsanto’s vice president and chief lobbyist.

Now Barrack Obama is not the first President to turn the keys to the nation’s safety over to Monsanto. As mentioned above the first President Bush also employed Michael Taylor despite an obvious conflict of interest. President Bill Clinton had a troubling number of his advisers moving into lucrative positions with Monsanto once his term was over, like Marcia Hale an assistant to the President for intergovernmental relations. It’s certain that the so-called “Monsanto revolving door” is not one of Obama’s promised changes.

The President naming the head of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, Lisa Jackson, to lead the EPA has raised an eyebrow or two. Jackson does not have documented ties to big business like Taylor or Vilsack. At the same time she has shown an alarming familiarity with lobbyists even going so far as to hire corporate lobbyists like Nancy Wittenberg to work on her staff.

While most feel Jackson’s tenure with the NJDEP was marred in ineffective leadership and finger-pointing, some environmentalist groups insist that her lack of production was not her fault. Apparently the one thing that both sides agree on is that Jackson accomplished nothing during her term.

As his Surgeon General, President Obama has picked Alabama physician Regina Benjamin. Dr. Benjamin was given the assignment of helping Americans get healthier. Her work with rural, impoverished patients in the heart of Katrina country is quite noble. But the well documented fact that she accepted $10,000 from Burger King just before joining the Obama regime is understandably curious.

The money was purportedly for serving on a nutritional advisory panel with the fast food giant. There is something peculiar about the nation’s top doctor being on the payroll of a company that produces the Angry Whopper, a sandwich with 1120 calories (657 from fat), 175 mg of cholesterol, 73 grams of total fat, 25 of which are saturated, three are the heart disease causing trans fats. Oh, and let’s not forget that virtually everything Burger King sells incorporates Monsanto’s Frakencorn into it, the burgers, the buns, even the soft drinks.

Though the national media have tried to portray these appointments as positive moves, farm-to-table advocates do not share in the enthusiasm. Sure there are a handful of White House orchestrated blogs like Obama Foodorama whose job is to spin these Presidential missteps, but most have found the business-as-usual appointments disconcerting.

If the White House Kitchen Garden inspires others to plant their own then that is outstanding. Surely growing the vegetables that are used in the White House does slightly lower the burden on the over-taxed citizenry. The first lady is setting a wonderful example. And while it is a quaint idea, from the outside looking in it appears to be just another parlor trick. Clearly the President’s stance on the environment lacks transparency.

Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday: an Indictment of the Corporate Restaurant Industry, pt. 3




This is part three of a three part series (dare I say exposé?) on the corporate restaurant industry.

Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday: an Indictment of the Corporate Restaurant Industry

The closing of so many chain restaurants is one of the few bright spots in an utterly dreary economic state. Corporate restaurants are a bane to American society. Making a buck is never wrong, but these companies have done so by enslaving workers, knowingly poisoning their customers and sabotaging small business. We should not be lamenting the fall of the corporate restaurant industry, but rather celebrate it by be prosecuting the CEO’s and politicians who conspired to create the nefarious beast.

America’s Modern Slave State

The onslaughts on the general public and small business are not the only transgressions of corporate restaurant chains as their workers (servers, bar tenders and the like) are the only profession in the entire nation that are not paid minimum wage. Try, if you can, to imagine how your life might change if the state you live in passed a law that said your employer now only has to pay your profession $2.50/hour. The rest of your income is solely up to the generosity of strangers. Additionally, the government makes you pay taxes on these charitable contributions regardless of whether or not you actually receive them. As if that were not enough, you also have to work every holiday without receiving overtime or holiday pay. And you can forget about sick-leave all together.

Now let’s sweeten the pot a little by informing you that if someone who is inebriated happens to enter your work area you are now personally responsible for every action that person takes until they sober up. Regardless of whether you provide them with alcohol or even conduct business with them in any manner you are still criminally liable for their actions.

It sounds preposterous does it not? This is the 21st Century; the conditions just described sound like something out of a Dickens’ novel. At best this is an extreme example of the deplorable human rights violations in some war-torn African nation. One thing is for sure, this could never happen in America, not with all this change and hope floating around.

Sadly the circumstances illustrated do exist today and right here in River City.

As it turns out the restaurant industry is exempt from US Federal minimum wage laws. Each state is free to set whatever minimum wage they deem for bartenders, bussers, servers, and even hostesses as little as $2.13 an hour. A few states are enlightened enough to guarantee these workers the same minimum wage as any other profession. Most do not. In fact only eight states currently require the same minimum wage for restaurant workers as everyone else. The remaining 42 states allow companies to legally pay their workers less than what economists and society have agreed is a fair wage.

In Alabama for instance the server wage is $2.13 an hour or one third the current minimum wage. Florida is scarcely better at $3.50 an hour. Montana and Minnesota have two minimum wages for servers (both are below the national minimum) – one for big business and a lower one for small. The corporations argue that this punishes them for being successful while small businesses insist the better servers opt for the chains leaving them to pick through the leftovers. In Nevada full time restaurant workers are actually forced to choose between a fair wage or health insurance.

A gratuity is a bonus for a job well done; a little something extra for going beyond the norm, or at least it used to be. By making servers rely on tips to pay their wages and then taxing those tips, the government has in effect made it a law that everyone must tip at least 10% regardless of the quality of service. Whether a 10% tip is left or not the server still pays taxes on it. Consequently, anyone who fails to leave 10% is in reality stealing from the server.

Some people do not know that the bulk of a server’s pay comes from tips and assume that restaurant workers make a fair wage like everyone else. And why wouldn’t they? After all, there is a federal minimum wage and excluding one profession from having to adhere is unethical.

Lobbyists working on behalf of the large restaurant cartels rely heavily on the argument that servers make very good money in the form of gratuities. In fact, that is the entirety of their argument – servers earn so much money on tips that their bosses should not have to pay them for their toil. So this begs the question, just how much money are we talking about?

If the money servers earn is as good as argued then surely they make in excess of $75,000 a year, maybe as much as $174,000 – the annual salary of a US congressmen. According to the US Department of Labor in 2006 the median hourly wage-and-salary earnings (including tips) of servers was $7.14/hour. In most cases, the hourly wage does not even cover their tax burden leaving them still owing the government money at the end of the year. The same government that says that their effort is not worth as much as other professions apparently does not feel likewise about their tax obligation.

Still many may contend that servers make great money for no more work than they do. After all, all they do is take your order and bring you food that someone else cooks and drinks that someone else mixes, right?

In addition to clearing their tables and cleaning them for the next party, they also have what is called side work. Side work consists of tasks that must be performed to keep the restaurant running smoothly. Many of these duties are simple and occupy little time like rolling silverware into napkins. Others include considerable labor like hauling heavy buckets of ice from one end of the building to the other, vacuuming large sections of food-embedded carpet, mopping floors, preparing foods, cleaning bathrooms, and scraping bubblegum from underneath tables.

Side work comes in three forms and almost every restaurant requires its servers a certain amount as part of their daily performance. The three types of side work are opening (performed before the shift), running (performed during the shift), and closing (performed after the shift). Although the restaurant must pay the server a regular minimum wage for side work performed prior to opening the same is not said for closing side work which typically constitutes the most arduous and time consuming chores. Federal law states that one hour after a server’s final customer leaves the employer must then pay the employee the standard minimum wage.

Thanks to the way the wage law is written employers are actually allowed to pay less than minimum wage for one full hour despite the fact that the employee makes no tip for that labor. Some companies deliberately exploit this loophole by piling extra work on the tip earners that previously was performed by higher wage earners. Although this practice is entirely unethical, remarkably it is legal.

Some families are on budgets that prevent them from spending very much. These people may actually tip the standard 20% but they are forced to streamline their order. A standard 20% tip on the least expensive item is better than nothing, but it requires the same amount of effort as the most expensive dish and in some cases more. A server at The Olive Garden for instance actually does more work for customers who order the economical soup, salad, and breadsticks than for those who order a more expensive entrée.

The Olive Garden is one of the concepts owned by dining conglomerate Darden Restaurants, Inc. out of Orlando, FL. Darden also operates Red Lobster, Smokey Bones, Longhorn Steaks, and Bahama Breeze making it a classic example of the typical restaurant corporation. Darden owns and operates more than 1,700 restaurants across North America employing roughly 160,000 people. Darden is, in terms of revenue, the world’s top restaurant operator.

But Darden is hardly the only player in the ultra-competitive multi-unit market. Brinker International, Inc. out of Dallas, TX which owns Chili’s, On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina, Maggiano’s Little Italy, and Romano’s Macaroni Grill is another titan of the industry with more than 1,800 restaurant locations in 20 countries. They, too, are one of the largest restaurant cartels in the US and as such are one of the largest employers of restaurant workers in the country.

Actual Olive Garden Check StubDespite working nearly 30 hours this Olive Garden employee took home nothing after state and federal taxes were applied.

On average a server who works roughly 30 hours a week and earns 15% in tips will have a weekly paycheck totaling zero after taxes. Not only does Uncle Sam dip into servers’ tips, but many restaurants make them “tip out” their fellow employees. Servers must share their hard earned money with hostesses, bussers, dishwashers, and even bar tenders. Tipping out allows business owners to also under pay non-tip earning employees by classifying them as tip-earners. A server’s “tip out” is determined by a percentage of their sales for the shift and ultimately denies them of anywhere from 15% to more than 50% of their daily earnings.

So if the same argument used to justify paying servers a substandard wage is applied to other professions then school teachers would have to choose between making a living wage and having medical insurance. Corporate executives would be making $3.50 an hour with the rest of their pay coming from board members stuffing dollar bills into an old pickle jar. That would include men like David Goebel, the former CEO of Applebee’s International Inc. who took home $2.7 million in 2006 while paying his servers less than $3 an hour.

Be sure to check out the first two parts of this series The Big Bad Wolf – Mom and Pop Under Siege and Biting the Hand that Feeds.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up

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