2.12.2014

is the food movement elitist? michael pollan connects the dots between labour and our tables

In an excellent interview in Truthout, Michael Pollan responds to critics who accuse the food movement of being elitist. He very rightly credits Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation with explicitly drawing the connection between labour issues, animal issues, and our own food issues. And Pollan calls out the industrialized food industry that has been able to artificially depress food prices by paying workers sub-living wages.
When you buy cheap food, the real costs have been externalized. Those externalized costs have always included labor. It is only the decline over time of the minimum wage in real dollars that's made the fast food industry possible, along with feedlot agriculture, pharmaceuticals on the farm, pesticides and regulatory forbearance. All these things are part of the answer to the question: Why is that crap so cheap? Our food is dishonestly priced. One of the ways in which it's dishonestly priced is the fact that people are not paid a living wage to process it, to serve it, to grow it, to slaughter it. . . .

...We need to pay people a living wage so they can afford to pay the real cost of food. Cheap food is really an addiction for an economy and for a society. Cheap food is one of the pillars on which our economy is based. It is what has allowed wages to fall over the last 30 or 40 years, the fact that food was getting cheaper the whole time. In a sense, cheap food has subsidized the collapse in wages that we've seen. Part of repairing the whole system will involve paying people more and internalizing the real cost of producing this food.
It's an excellent story that I highly recommend: read it here.

5 comments:

M@ said...

Two or three years ago there was a drop in global wheat production which spiked prices and resulted in food riots in Asia and Africa. Of course it seemed bizarre and remote for us here at the time.

However, that situation, as well as what Pollan describes, makes me wonder whether we'll reach "peak food" of a kind -- where prices cannot go lower, and must inevitably go up dramatically, even for us here at the top of the food chain.

In a way we've been on a bubble for a couple of hundred years, ever since mechanization came to farming. In recent decades, with globalization and cheaper energy, the bubble has expanded at an enormous rate. When bubbles stop expanding, they don't tend to recede -- they tend to pop.

I don't know if I'm way off base, thinking this way, but if food shortage is a result of any cataclysmic event (environmental, economic, whatever), things would come tumbling down at a pretty rapid clip.

Then again, a dramatic cleansing of our food supply would be a good thing, as long as we can figure out how to do it without starving a lot of innocent people.

M@ said...

Btw, it probably goes without saying that I agree entirely with everything Pollan is saying here.

But the argument that good food is an elite thing really bugs me. I'll point out that at both extremes of the scale -- the elite and the poor -- people don't cook; food is prepared for them.

In the middle are people who have the time, knowledge, and resources to cook for themselves. As the middle class is squeezed (i.e. parents are working multiple jobs, live in neighbourhoods that are food deserts, etc.), they have less money so buy crappier food. Kids grow up without knowing what real food is like, and without a tradition of cooking in the family. In a couple of generations, everyone involved is inevitably eating crappy, prepared and fast food. That middle, that is not elite but can still afford healthier food, steadily erodes.

And of course demand recedes for that healthier food, meaning that it's less and less available. Why keep growing asparagus except as a small-scale, boutique "elite" crop? Just grow corn.

I agree that honest pricing for food is what reverses the trend. Unfortunately I'm skeptical about whether it can be achieved.

I think I'll bake some bread this weekend or something.

laura k said...

Great comments, M@.

The global food crisis that you refer to really made me think about the lunacy of food being a commodity tied to the stock market.

The good food as elitist argument is kind of insane. Throughout history, people of little means have fed their families creatively according to whatever was available to them. Good food is only elitist if only the elites can afford good food.

I overheard a bunch of my co-workers talking about the decline of the home-cooked meal and the dinner table, the rise of fast-food, how that was not available when they were young. I was relieved that eventually someone said, "In those days, one parent was almost always home. That parent had time to shop and cook"... and someone else noted that in those days, a family could live on one income.

The decline in real wages plus skyrocketing housing costs equals the rise of convenience foods - laden with salt, sugar, fillers, preservatives. And a family who never learns how to cook.

M@ said...

And the thing is, I did end up getting a lot of advantages and tools that enable me to eat well (or when I don't eat well, I can only blame myself). It's not because I earned these advantages that I have them now.

However, what's worrisome is that our whole society seems to devalue these things, and the results are inevitably the situation we're in now. It's not that our society doesn't have all of the tools it needs -- not to mention an insane abundance of higher-quality food than has ever existed before.

The problem comes from a society that has largely forgotten, for whatever reason, why things like home cooking and creating meals from scratch and not buying prepared food are important.

We've got other priorities, as a society, and this is the fallout from it. I don't know if it's possible to get back to where we need to be. It's clearer and clearer, though, as we discuss this, that things like the organic foods movement, the slow food movement, and so on are revolutionary acts. Much to think about.

laura k said...

Some of the reasons these skills and tools have been devalued are economic. But in many cases they are not.

Affluent, overscheduled families are happy to outsource their eating. If you have to work two jobs to support a family, you have little control over that. But if you're always too busy to cook and eat properly, you are making a choice, putting your priorities elsewhere.

For much of my life I would have thought that was a perfectly good choice, as long as you're eating healthfully. But too often, in those situations, you can't or don't eat healthfully. And why do we need to be too busy to cook and eat well?