The dishonesty of cheap food

fast food dishonesty
CC BY 2.0 Jon Bunting

In last night's State of the Union Address, President Obama urged business owners to "give America a raise" and called for a higher minimum wage. These comments no doubt resonated with food service workers around the country, many of whom staged pickets and strikes with the same demands over the course of last year.

For years, the food movement has driven home the message that cheap food doesn't include the true cost of its production. It doesn't pay for the environmental costs of petroleum-derived fertilizers or pesticides. It doesn't cover the health costs associated with a diet of fast food.

There's another important cost that's not accounted for: the labor of the people who bring us our food. From the farm workers who pick your fruit to the teller at the burger joint drive-through.

Yet again and again, issues taken up by the food movement are met with the threat of higher food prices and branded as "elitist." In a recent interview with Amy B. Dean, food writer Michael Pollan pointed out that this is a popular rhetorical tool used by the factory food industry:

"That argument has been used to thwart all kinds of reform in the food industry. If we clean up our act, in any way, we're going to have to pay more at the register. There's a kernel of truth. If you raised the price of wages to people in the food industry to, say, $15 an hour in fast food, no doubt it would add to prices - although the claims of how much it would add to prices are exaggerated. However, those people would be able to afford more. That's why we need to pay people more so they can afford it. There's a virtuous circle of paying people more so that they can afford better stuff."

We should also keep in mind that Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any other nation in the world. Pollan also points out that cheap food in the U.S. comes with externalized costs, specifically the taxpayer money that goes towards supporting the working poor and subsidies for big agriculture. He puts it simply, "Our food is dishonestly priced."

The dishonesty of cheap food
Worker wages are the new big battle in the food movement.