Advocates across the U.S. are demonstrating at Olive Garden restaurants Thursday asking the chain and its parent company, Darden Restaurants, Inc., to improve food-sourcing and labor practices. The demonstrations are taking place in New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco, and include the delivery of a petition signed by more than 130,000 people. The actions are a part of the “Good Food Now!” campaign supported by a coalition of environmental, social-justice and animal-welfare organizations.

“While Olive Garden claims to be sourcing its food responsibly, serving meat and dairy produced in polluting factory farms with routine antibiotics is anything but responsible,” says Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of Friends of the Earth’s Food and Technology Program. “To stay competitive, Olive Garden must give food-conscious families what they want: healthier, local, and organic options—including more plant-based entrees and more humane meat raised without routine antibiotics.” 

The “Good Food Now!” campaign is a partnership of Friends of the Earth, Restaurant Opportunities Center-United, the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, Green America, and the Animal Welfare Institute. Key petition supporters include CREDO Action, Sum of Us, Food Democracy Now!, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Organic Consumers Association, the International Labor Rights Forum, and Fair World Project. 

The petition specifically urges Darden to reduce meat and dairy purchases by 20 percent; source meat from producers that adhere to verifiable, higher-than-industry animal-welfare standards and do not administer routine antibiotics; improve worker wages; and increase local and organic options. 

"As the world's largest employer of tipped workers, Darden could be a leader in advocating for a fair wage for all workers but instead spends millions lobbying to keep the minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13,” says Saru Jayaraman, cofounder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Center-United.

“As a major player in the restaurant industry, Olive Garden and its parent company Darden can spearhead reforms that not only improve working conditions for their employees, but can help shift practices across the entire industry,” adds Phillip Hamilton, associate for Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s Economic Justice program. 

In addition to demonstrations in six major cities, the campaign has been gathering support online from across the country with social media messages using the hashtag #GoodFoodNow. 

“Darden’s response so far has been to restate its commitment to ‘responsibly-sourced food, supporting employees and protecting the environment’ without addressing the concerns about its environmental footprint,” says Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s time for Olive Garden and all Darden restaurants to move beyond the rhetoric and take concrete steps to create a more sustainable menu by serving smaller meat portions, adding plant-based options and increasing organic foods.” 

Darden announced recently that it will phase out gestation crates that severely restrict the movement of pregnant pigs by 2025 and battery cages for egg-laying hens by 2018 from its supply chain. 

“Darden’s commitment to phase out gestation crates and battery cages is a step in the right direction; however, the company still has a long way to go to meet consumer expectations for higher-welfare meat and dairy foods,” says Michelle Pawliger, farm animal policy associate at the Animal Welfare Institute. “We are urging Darden to source 20 percent of its meat and dairy from producers who are third-party certified to verifiable higher welfare standards.” 

More than 50 organizations signed onto a letter calling on Darden to improve its labor practices and commit to better food sourcing.

“As the largest restaurant employer with a workforce of more than 150,000, we are urging Darden to raise millions of workers and their families out of poverty by raising wages and providing sick leave for its many frontline employees,” says Jose Oliva, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. 

"Consumers are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from and how it was made, and restaurants are no exception," says Elizabeth Jardim, director of consumer advocacy at Green America. "Olive Garden needs to meet consumer demand by sourcing more ingredients from local farmers and paying all workers, including those in its supply chain, fairly."

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Industry News, Sustainability, Darden Restaurants, Olive Garden