In Boston, you’re never too far away from a Dunkin’ Donuts. In fact, the Massachusetts-based company inspires a fiery sense of loyalty in many Bostonians. It’s kind of hard to give up the city’s ubiquitous fast food staple, but Paul Drake is committed.
“As somebody who’s pretty poor at fasting, it’s been hard,” said Drake, executive director and lead organizer at Massachusetts Interfaith Worker Justice. “Here in Boston, there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts on every corner…it’s easy to see the convenience that is fast food. But it’s actually been a really good teaching moment for me — I do this work every day, but the simple act of fasting reminds you how much hunger is a reality for many working people.”
Drake is among the many people nationwide participating in the Fast from Fast Food, a 40-day fast that coincides with the Christian season of Lent and is being organized in support of fast food workers. From Feb. 18 through April 4, faith leaders along with worker advocates and supporters are pledging to give up fast food to help bring attention to the struggles of working families and the impact of poverty wages. In particular, the fasting campaign is in support of Fight for $15, a growing movement of fast food workers nationwide who are taking to the streets to fight for living wages, better working conditions and the right to form a union without fear of retaliation.
According to a 2013 report from the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center, fast food workers are more likely to live in or near poverty, with more than half of families of front-line fast food workers eligible and enrolled in one or more public assistance programs, compared to just 25 percent of the nation’s overall workforce. Another 2013 report found that despite the fast food industry’s billion-dollar profits, low wages and lack of benefits at the 10 largest fast food companies in the U.S. cost taxpayers about $3.8 billion every year in public assistance programs to help workers and their families meet their most basic needs.
Rudy López, executive director of the national office of Interfaith Worker Justice, said Lent — a time of sacrifice, reflection and prayer — was the perfect opportunity to elevate and highlight the struggles of workers. He emphasized that people of all faiths are encouraged to join the very first Fast from Fast Food. On the Interfaith Worker Justice website, it reads: “People of all faith traditions are invited to join in the fast by committing to Fast from Fast Food and ‘go without’ for 40 days. By doing so, we are also choosing to walk hand-in-hand with our brothers and sisters who are leading the struggle that would lift millions of working families out of poverty and put us all on a road back to prosperity.”
People of faith are familiar faces in the fast food worker movement. For example, local faith leaders often volunteer to accompany fast food workers back to their places of work following organized strikes. The move sends a pointed message to management that workers have the support of community members and can help prevent retaliation against the striking worker.
“We believe very strongly in the power of not just being able to bring attention to the issue from a mass of people saying we’re not going to participate in consuming fast food…but also when people agree to pray along with it,” López told me. “We believe that fasting without prayer is just going hungry, so we want people to really see how this connects with their own values system. Even for people without a faith tradition, it’s a good time for reflection — to take a moment and pause and think about how our individual actions can raise the profile of what’s happening here.”
As of early March, more than 1,500 people had signed an online pledge to participate in the first Fast from Fast Food. López said in addition to reaching out to people online, members from Interfaith Worker Justice’s more than 50 affiliates are going to their own places of worship and inviting people to participate. López noted that the fast is also sparking dialogues on how to incorporate worker justice into other faith-based fasting traditions, such as Ramadan.
“This isn’t just about dollars and cents, it’s about greater respect and dignity and value,” López said. “It means supporting people who serve our food, pick our food and make our beds and valuing their work. …Values of justice are faith values — they’re one in the same.”
In Madison, Wisconsin, a worker making minimum wage would have to work 90 hours a week to sustain a one-bedroom apartment, Sarah Smoot, clergy and congregation organizer at Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin, told me. Such inequality is what drives the coalition, which is encouraging its members and supporters to participate in the Fast from Fast Food. Smoot said because she didn’t eat much fast food anyway, she decided to fast from all food once a week throughout Lent in support of workers and to pray for workers throughout that day.
“It’s a reminder that our faith isn’t just about our personal relationship with God,” Smoot said. “It’s also about trying to make the world a place that God would find pleasing. Lent is often construed as an internal journey, but our inward faith needs to be lived out in the world as well.”
Smoot also emphasized that the Wisconsin coalition hopes people of all faiths will participate in the fast. This week in honor of the Jewish holiday of Purim and in support of the Fast from Fast Food, Rabbi Renee Bauer, director of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin, posted an online reflection about the Fast of Esther. (According to the Hebrew Bible, Esther was a Jewish queen who courageously spoke out to save the Jewish people from slaughter.) Bauer writes:
In our day and in our land, fast food, retail and home care workers like Queen Esther are taking the risk to speak out even when they fear losing their livelihood. They are speaking out in order to stop the injustice of low wages that has spread throughout our land. Today let us, just as the Jews of Shushan did, fast in solidarity with those courageous workers, so they know they are not alone as they walk the path towards fairness and justice.
Back in Boston, Drake said he hopes the Fast from Fast Food will help build momentum toward the nationwide April 15 day of action, when fast food and low-wage workers will take to the streets for better wages and the right to unionize. (In Boston, the Fight for $15 rally and march will take place on April 14, so as not to coincide with the anniversary of the Boston marathon bombing.) Drake told me that whether or not someone identifies as a person of faith, “fasting is a spiritual ritual that has power regardless of personal affiliation.”
“This is an invitation to think more about the nature of our consumption, the people who feed us and how we can share in their humanity and be in solidarity with them,” he said.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.