Smartphone users have a wide range of apps to choose from if they're looking to dine ethically. There are apps that advise which supermarkets have good environmental records and apps that keep tabs on restaurants and markets offering sustainable seafood.
But now, there's an app for diners who care about the plight of the people who prepare and serve their meals — not just what's in them.
The new app is based on a national diner's guide created last year by the non-profit group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an advocacy group for food service workers. The guide was developed from surveys sent to restaurants.
Saru Jayaraman, one of the co-founders of ROC United, says she wants diners who are conscientious about what they eat to also be conscientious about where they eat.
"We are basically calling on the same consumers who asked five or 10 years ago, 'Is this locally sourced organic?' to now do the same and expand the questions that they ask," she says.
Now that the guide is in app form, it features maps of more than 150 restaurants and national chains in 10 major U.S. cities. It shows which ones pay their workers more than minimum wage, which offer paid sick leave, and which promote at least half of their employees internally. As we've reported before, about half of food workers report coming to work sick, and that can be a real problem for spreading germs.
ROC United considers these and other factors as a measure of how committed a restaurant is to treating its workers fairly.
Very few restaurants receive ROC United's highest ranking of a gold star. Nearly all of the ones that do are small chains or are independently owned. For example, Washington D.C. has just a handful of gold stars, including Busboys & Poets near NPR headquarters and Inspire BBQ in the newly-hot Atlas District.
ROC United gave the larger chain restaurants negative ratings across the board.
The issue of unfair treatment of restaurant employees is one that's been gaining attention. Fast-food workers in New York have staged protests and even went on strike to demand higher wages and greater benefits. And though the food preparation industry was spared some of the worst of the recession, the vast majority of its workers still earn less than $11.50 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Unlike apps that tell people, for example, which type of fish they should avoid, Jayaraman says she doesn't want people who use the app to boycott restaurants that score low on ROC United's survey. In fact, a disclaimer on the app states that "the purpose of this guide is not to tell you where to eat and where not to eat."
"We don't want to say 'Don't eat at those other restaurants,' because there are workers in those other restaurants," Jayaraman says. "Nobody is perfect, nobody is evil. Everyone can do better."
Instead, the app has a feature that allows diners who eat in a low-scoring restaurant to send out a pre-written tweet to the restaurant that says, in effect, "Love your food, but wish you'd treat your workers better."