The Price of Food

America is the richest nation on the planet and we spend less of our income on food than any other country.  In 1949, the average American spent 22% of our income on food.  Currently, we’re spending only about 10% of our income on food. This is historically unprecedented.

Some might say, “How is this a bad thing?” Now we have more money to spend on computers, entertainment, education, travel, or any number of things. Perhaps, if your goal is to “have it all.” I’m not so sure that’s a great goal. I’m also fairly convinced that those extras we want to spend money on are not more valuable than the health of our planet, ourselves and the people and animals who provide our food. Some might also say now everyone can afford food because it’s cheap. Let it be known that I care a great deal about food security for American families. But we need to become more concerned about making food fair (to animals, the land, and farmers/workers) and affordable instead of cheap. Will that mean spending more money on food? Most likely. When someone makes more money each month (a fair living wage/salary) then food can be affordable instead of cheap.

The current food system doesn’t reflect the “true cost” of producing it. For example, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, a group of tomato pickers (they pick around 1/3 of the nation’s tomatoes), is fighting for a penny/lb of tomatoes increase in their pay. They barely manage on their current pay and live in poverty. A penny/lb pay increase might raise their standard of living to acceptable, but the CEOs and executives don’t think they deserve fair pay. That’s why our tomatoes are so “cheap.” Someone else is paying the price.

Frankly, we’re not putting enough of our resources to providing good quality, humanely raised, healthy food for everyone. That is, we’re only putting 10% of our monetary resources toward food which is not enough! An alternative theory is that companies are pilfering off too much in profits and that’s where we could find the extra money for a fair food system. It’s tough to prove, but it’s a good thought and certainly corporate profits do get in the way of affordable food. The pervasive goals of cheap food and high profits drive policies and procedures that don’t mesh with the greater goals of a truly fair and sustainable food system.

If the rest of the world spends a higher percentage of their income on food, regardless of annual income, why can’t we? Why is America so special that we can only spend 10% of our income on food? I’m not so sure it’s that we feel special, it’s just that as far as priorities go, food doesn’t get much respect. I think it’s about time we get back to the basics and put more money into a fair and responsible food system.


The Human Side of Food

There’s a lot of talk about what food you should eat, i.e. is this contributing to health? There’s also a lot of talk about animal welfare, i.e. are we truly respecting the animal being raised. I think there’s a third component to “food” that we don’t talk about nearly often enough: the human side.

People raise animals. People pick vegetables. People work in the meat processing plants. People put the food on shelves or transport it to the local farmer’s market. Without people we would not have food.

I wish I could write a piece about how all people involved in food production from farm to plate had a good life and were treated fairly. I really wish I could write that kind of praise. But it’s just not true.

I’d like to share a story that has fortunately been making the rounds in the food activist community as of late. The story of the Immokalee, FL tomato farm workers. It’s not a new issue, the CIW formed in 1993. Recently, Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine, of Perennial Plate renown, made a video highlighting the struggles of the workers picking 1/3 of the tomatoes that end up on your plate.

We have a caricature of what a “farmer” is in our heads. He probably looks something like the guy in Grant Wood’s famous American Gothic painting from 1930. Of course there’s been a slight update in our caricature, but take a moment and picture in your mind a “farmer.” Does he or she look anything like Lupe Gonzalo from the above video? Probably not. The American public is not aware that there are other “farm-workers” who do not grow corn, wheat & soybeans. Rather, they are the people out in the fields picking strawberries or tomatoes. They are migrant workers and they are systematically denied fair pay and working conditions and it’s been going on for decades. Barry Estabrook, author of the book Tomatoland, calls modern day tomato pickers “slaves.”

A Florida-resident recently wrote this letter to Publix (grocery store chain) CEO Ed Crenshaw that appears on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) website.

“Currently they must fill the 35 pound basket with tomatoes, deliver it to the truck (about 100 feet away) and return to pick more tomatoes EVERY 4 MINUTES TO MAKE THE MINIMUM WAGE OF $7.50 PER HOUR!”

Immokalee Worker Carrying Tomatoes

Photo © Scott Robertson, 2007

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is asking for a 1 penny per pound raise. One penny. I would gladly pay this cost at the grocery store. But grocery stores and corporations are worried about how this one penny difference affects their bottom line.

McDonald’s has signed on to work with CIW. So has Taco Bell, Subway, Burger King, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market and many more. The two high-profile holdouts are Publix and somewhat surprisingly Chipotle Mexican Grill. Chipotle’s holdout is the most disappointing. For a company that prides itself on “Food With Integrity,” this is not always the case.

The conditions faced by the Immokalee workers are not an anomaly. Migrant workers are exploited all over the country in various agriculture industries. The problem is American food corporations and customers who are obsessed with low prices. Prices so low that things have to be done that are very unsavory to meet the price goals. We have to raise laying hens in battery cages. We have to bus in migrant workers to the fields and ask them to do back-breaking work all day long to make minimum wage at best. There are no benefits or health insurance. These workers are at the bottom of the totem pole. The CIW is the only voice they have and I fully support their organization. We need a food system that doesn’t exploit those who have the least power but do the most important work. We need a food system that is obsessed with fairness instead of lowering prices and maximizing profits at any cost. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is fighting for fairness, will you join them?


Please read this article by Mirra Fine (of Perennial Plate) for a more in-depth account of Lupe Gonzalo and the struggles of the Immokalee Workers. Seriously, her article is about 1000x more informative and well-written than anything I could come up with. And her account is first-hand.

If you would like to read more from Barry Estabrook (author of Tomatoland), visit his blog at Politics of the Plate.