Michael Pollan on Why the Food Movement Must Focus on Raising Food Workers' Wages
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/L. Kragt Bakker
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Take a stroll through most grocery stores, and many of the products claim to be organically grown or locally sourced. The foodie movement has swept America in the last decade, thanks in no small part to the work of journalists and intellectuals who have championed the cause online, in print and on the airwaves.
Michael Pollan is inarguably one of the most influential of these figures. Pollan is most famous for his books, especially "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" (2008) and "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" (2006). He also contributes regularly to publications such as the New York Times Magazine, where his work has received numerous awards, and is a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
As organic, locally grown food has emerged as a cultural and economic counterforce to industrialized agriculture, critics have claimed it is elitist and accessible only to those with the resources to pay more for their nourishment. Pollan and his allies have responded, in part, by drawing the public's attention to the low-wage workers who work in the field, behind the counter, and in the kitchen. In recent years Pollan has supported the efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization dedicated to improving working conditions and wages for tomato pickers' in Florida; in December 2013 he sided with fast food strikers and their demand for a $15 dollar per hour wage. In an email missive for MoveOn.org (received by 8 million subscribers), Pollan wrote: "If we are ever to ... produce food sustainably and justly and sell it at an honest price, we will first have to pay people a living wage so that they can afford to buy it." In his words, fair wages must be part of the push to democratize food.
I recently connected with Pollan to discuss equitable food pricing, farm worker rights, and industrial agriculture's role in casting the food movement as elitist. (What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.) I began by asking Pollan about his evolving personal interest in the plight of food workers.
"I've been really paying more attention to it over time than I did at the beginning," he said. "When I wrote my first book about the food system, " The Omnivore's Dilemma," I didn't talk in detail about labor. It was much more from the point of view of the eater than the person behind the counter.
"But the food movement is all about connecting the dots," Pollan continued. "Both the farm workers and the fast food workers are very important in the food system. I think Eric Schlosser did this better than anyone in "Fast Food Nation" (2001), where the focus was very much on food workers, slaughterhouse workers and farm workers. I think he's helped to sensitize a lot of people in the food movement who perhaps weren't paying as much attention to this part of the puzzle as they should have been. You definitely find the interest spreading and accelerating as social inequality has gotten so much worse in the last few years."
Why, I wondered, is there this impression of the food movement as an elite venue? And why is it that the only people who can afford local, organic options are generally those who don't have to worry about their pay?
"Although there's a kernel of truth in that image [of a foodie elite]," he responded, "it's also a part of the rhetorical strategy used by the [agricultural] industry to fight the food movement: that it's elitist; that this kind of food can't feed the world; that only industrial agriculture can get the job done and put lots of cheap meat in front of us. It's a bludgeon used in a very serious ideological battle.