O'Hare Airport Workers Advocate for Local, Sustainable Food

If you fly at all, chances are you’ve visited Chicago’s O’Hare Airport – 66 million of us spent some time there just in 2012 – and while you were waiting for flights, you probably got something to eat. When I think of O’Hare, a ride on the long automated walkway is usually the first image that comes to mind – not delicious, locally grown or sustainably produced food. That’s hardly surprising; I’m sure you know that airports are among the most difficult places to find it. The good news is, airports are moving to freshen up those food courts and serve up more options than limp, greasy French fries. Granted, for some, nothing says vacation like some chain-restaurant junk food, but not everyone who eats at an airport is traveling through.

I refer, of course, to another group of people who take more than a few meals at O’Hare and are quite invested in food made there: thousands of workers from every airline, federal security officers, air traffic control personnel and service and support staff who work at food concessions and site maintenance. A major airport like O’Hare is akin to its own city, an important, highly visible place where sustainability policies and practices can ultimately have tremendous impact. Consequently, a budding movement at O’Hare is creating quite a bit of buzz.

Last month, UNITE HERE Local 1, the union which represents over 1,100 of those working in food at O’Hare, weighed in on plans to continue updating the airport’s sustainability practices by issuing a report, "Airport Workers’ Vision for $3 Billion of Food and Drink at O’Hare." In the report, the workers make several recommendations.

1. Provide fresh, scratch cooking options in every concourse.

78 percent of passengers surveyed said they’d like to see food cooked from fresh ingredients and 89 percent of the workers agreed. While sometimes a “grab-and-go” meal is necessary (it is still an airport, after all) “that’s not always the case” and given proximity to a city with great food, it stands to reason travelers and workers would come to expect similar offerings at O’Hare.

2. Ensure every outlet provides healthy, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options for customers.

While 82 percent of the worker respondents said there were such options available in their outlets, 32 percent reported customers left as they felt there was actually a lack of available options.  Assuming that all outlets have such offerings in the future, no customer should have to go without a necessary dietary choice. Worker respondents also said that they’d like to know more about the ingredients in their food to better advise customers with allergies or other health concerns.

3. Require outlets to purchase at least 10 percent of their produce from the Midwest (with preference given to Chicago/Illinois growers).

Obviously, Chicago is a hub for Midwestern farmers out in the country, but as in other major cities, the art of urban agriculture is taking off in the Windy City. O’Hare has already gotten in on that action with their aeroponic Tower Garden system, growing greens, lettuces and herbs for use by onsite restaurants.

4. Outlets must detail how they plan to donate excess food (to avert food waste) and use eco-friendly disposal.

93 percent of the workers surveyed agreed the airport should create a program to do so. (As to other waste, here’s a fun fact: 50 percent of O’Hare’s waste is already composted!)

5. Guarantee job stability for O’Hare’s current food workers.

While this is an important transition time for O’Hare, workers who have already invested their time and energy to learn about the food they serve and working with passengers should be valued and assured that they will continue to play a role.

6. Provide worker training on procedures, ingredients and sustainable food to better assist customers.

Recent revamps at Los Angeles’ airport (LAX) are the model here; after a "massive redevelopment of LAX concessions" the airport retained its workforce and retrained the workers displaced from fast food joints like Burger King to become chefs and line cooks at the newer, fresher concept outlets.

Not long after UNITE HERE Local 1 issued their report, the Chicago Department of Aviation announced their new Green Concessions Policy, which will require concessionaires to use more renewable resources in their packaging, trash bags and cleaning supplies – and by 2016, to include sustainable ingredients in at least 20 percent of their food. ("Sustainable" meaning the meat will be from grass-fed or free-ranged animals, with no GMOs or antibiotics allowed in any food.) In addition, outlets are required to implement better procedures for recycling, composting and waste management, particularly by donating surplus food to those in need.

We’ll be watching this story as it unfolds. I, for one, am eager to see how this effort to sustainably modernize an airport I frequent will succeed thanks to input from a committed workforce.