Michael Pollan on Why the Food Movement Must Focus on Raising Food Workers' Wages
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"Often stereotypes have some kernel of truth behind them, and this one did, but it's been way overplayed by the media, in particular. They love this idea that the food movement is merely elitist. But if you dig in, there's an inner-city dimension of the food movement. Urban agriculture is all about access, underserved communities and the whole discourse around "food deserts."
"When you buy cheap food, the real costs have been externalized," Pollan continued. "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."
I said that Pollan made a great point about the devil's bargain of cheap products for cheap wages, but noted that state farm bureaus and other agricultural industry representatives across the country would no doubt disagree. Opponents of fair wages claim that increased farm worker pay will result in higher food prices. I asked Pollan if this kind of scare messaging resonates with his base of supporters in the food movement.
"That argument has been used to thwart all kinds of reform in the food industry," he replied. "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."
I absolutely agree, of course, but will those higher prices, or the threat of higher prices, scare off support for workers among eaters who consider themselves part of the food movement?
"It's a politically potent argument," Pollan admitted. "It needs to be repelled by pointing out that 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."
I next asked Pollan to point to some of the bright spots around the country where fair wages and working conditions for food workers are being successfully promoted. He flagged the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), labor activists who are based in the corner of southern Florida that provides a third of America's tomato harvest. Farm laborers in the region have been subjected to almost every indignity and injustice imaginable, including slavery.
"The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been a real beacon on this issue," he said. "That has been a very successful movement to pressure the food industry into improving, not just the earnings, but the working conditions of some of the most exploited workers in the country. The way it was done was through the creation of a pledge, The Fair Food Agreement. Then they applied pressure through everything from negotiation, boycott, shaming — every tool in the political kit — to move several big companies to sign on. I think that that's an interesting model. There's the model of obviously legislating higher wages, and that's one way to do it. But this has been a boycott led by activists and consumers and has received a lot of support from the food movement over quite a number of years."