Quick Hit Ashlee Rezin Tuesday March 12th, 2013, 5:33pm

Airport Workers Demand Fresh, Local Food Options At O'Hare

Demanding that fresh, locally-sourced food be a requirement in concession changes in O’Hare, a group of airport workers represented by Unite Here Local 1, delivered a report to the Chicago Department of Aviation this morning with suggestions for the airport’s new food and beverage contracts.

“In airports across the country, passengers are making more sophisticated and savvy food choices when traveling,” the report reads. “As the city continues to modernize O’Hare, it’s important to consider how Chicago can flourish in this rapidly changing industry.”

Unite Here completed more than 200 surveys of airport passengers and union members and found that 78 percent of passengers said they’d prefer to eat food cooked from fresh ingredients while traveling. Approximately 1,100 airport cooks, servers and bartenders are represented by the labor union, and of the group surveyed, more than half said they were asked every week by customers if the food is cooked from scratch or pre-made and frozen.

“Both the passengers and workers that we surveyed agree that the airport should include restaurants that cook fresh food,” the report reads.

Also, 89 percent of workers’ surveyed say there should be more food service training for airport employees, and 93 percent think unused food should be donated to local food banks or homeless shelters as a waste-minimizing initiative.

The report, titled “Putting Sustainability on the Table,” urges the Chicago Department of Aviation to consider airport workers’ recommendations when contracting O’Hare’s new concessions.

Recommendations include requiring bidders to provide fresh, from scratch cooking concepts with clearly-labeled healthy, vegetarian and gluten-free options for travelers; requiring bidders to purchase at least 10 percent of produce from the Midwest; requiring bidders to donate unused food as an initiative to minimize waste; and developing a food service training program for airport workers.

“We need to make quality and healthy airport food that still keeps up with the demands of travelers’ busy schedules,” said Chris Williams, 27, a two-year server at Wicker Park Sushi.

Williams spoke at an approximately 30-person rally in front of the Chicago Department of Aviation before joining other Unite Here workers to deliver the report at 10 a.m. this morning.

Unite Here sent Williams, who is quoted in the report, to November’s Airports Going Green conference in Chicago.

“I think we’ve got some great places at O’Hare, like Frontera and Wicker Park Sushi, with fresh food that’s made from scratch,” he said. “But those selections are limited to an extent; locally-sourced, fresh food at an airport is a relatively new concept.”

Worth $300 million a year, the food and concession contracts for O’Hare International Airport's Terminals 1, 2 and 3, which mostly serve domestic travelers, have not been put out for bid yet. It is unclear whether it will be divided amongst several contractors or sold as one large unit.

The current contract, operated by HMSHost Corp., ran for 10 years. Touting itself as the “world’s largest provider of food, beverage and retail services for travelers” on its website, HMSHost delivers brands such as Chili’s, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Quiznos, California Pizza Kitchen and Macaroni Grill to airports. As an incumbent to the contract, if the bid goes to one bidder, HMSHost would be a strong contender for the new concessions.

“People who eat healthy shouldn’t have to change their diet just because they’re traveling,” said Salandra Butler, 59, a line cook at O’Hare’s Wolfgang Puck for eight years.

Williams and several other Unite Here airport workers accompanied Butler to deliver the report to the Chicago Department of Aviation. When they couldn’t get in contact with a representative from the organization, they were forced to leave the report with Jeanette Lipsey, the receptionist.

"We've received the information and we are reviewing it," said Karen Pride, director of media relations for the Chicago Department of Aviation.

Saying Wolfgang Puck's rosemary chicken is cooked from raw and is "famous," Butler added that O'Hare's concessions "need to bring in more locally-grown, fresh products. People don’t want hot dogs and fried, greasy food."

“Right now there’s a lack of fresh food in airports because we’re just starting to get this movement going,” he said. “But people want good food while they’re traveling and if O’Hare gets on board with this it’ll create a great experience for all of our passengers. 


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Perhaps Unite Here Local 1 should focus more on negotiating, settling grievances and organizing that getting involved in what food choices are served at the airport.

This doesn't seem to be a union issue and it's not surprising that few of the members actively support this. Maybe they need to look for a union that looks after their interests.

Bob Kastigar
IBEW Local 1220, Chicago

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