As the economy withers, thoughts on an inequitable food system
When my info-larder gets too packed, it’s time to serve up some choice nuggets from around the Web.
• Grist contributor Tom Laskawy did us proud with his participation in this New York Times “Room for Debate” forum on food stamps.
Here’s how he starts:
Anti-poverty programs in this country currently operate from the premise that poor people cannot be trusted with cash benefits and as a result such programs come with strict eligibility and performance requirements. Food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) have been politically sustainable precisely because they are not cash transfers, and thus can’t be “misspent” by the “idle,” “improvident” or “uneducated” poor people to whom they are given.
Why, then, the furor over reform proposals that would allow the food stamp program to favor – even subsidize – the purchase of healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables over snacks and soda?
All of that is beautifully said. Tom goes on persuasively to argue that when given the opportunity, low-income people often demonstrate robust demand for healthy whole foods.
I have to disagree with Tom’s conclusion, though: “Food stamp benefits should be reserved for whole, nutritious foods–meats, grains, dairy, fresh fruits and vegetables.”
That seems harsh to me. As UC Santa Cruz scholar Julie Guthman puts it in the same forum…
Those who complain about the use of food stamps to purchase cheap, junky food ought to set their sights elsewhere. They should consider the myriad policies that allow products laden with high fructose corn syrup, transfats, growth hormones and synthetic processing aids to be sold as food. In my view, the unemployed and poor shouldn’t pay the moral price for our collective failure to curb the excesses of the food industry.
Rather than call for yet more restrictions on what food stamps can buy, I think we should be pushing for more leverage for healthy choices–say, 1.5 times the purchasing power for food bought at the farmers market, or for whole foods like beans and fruit.
• There’s no denying the premise of Caitlin Donohue’s recent piece in the San Francisco Guardian: that the sustainable food movement has a class problem. The article has plenty of good reporting, and is well worth reading.
I agree with her that the sustainable food movement needs to pay much more attention to class. I’ve been saying for years now that the number-one challenge for the food movement is expanding access. If we accept the premise that industrial agriculture is wrecking the environment, then sustainably produced food as a niche accessible to 3 percent of the population won’t do. We need a transformation.
Donohue hinges her story on a dismal paradox of the food system: Farm workers are so poorly paid that they can only reasonably afford the lowest-quality food. The same can be said for most of the other people who keep the food-system humming: slaughterhouse workers, dishwashers, line cooks, Wal-Mart clerks. There’s no generating vast quantities of cheap food without vast quantities of cheap labor.
And Donohue’s conclusion is surely right:
In the end, the obstacles are about class. Low-income groups, be they the people who grow the organic food or the schoolchildren who benefit from eating it, need to become more of a focus of the “good food” movement. What Slow Foodies and other activists must keep in mind is that over-accessorizing a cause (as with esoteric artisan products and exclusive dining experiences) makes it less a vehicle for change and more like reshuffling of the same old injustices. Social change, by definition, has to be for everyone. Because elitism tastes as bad as it always has.
But Donohue misses a critical element of the story. She seems to place all of the blame for the dismal stratification of the U.S. food system–low-grade food for low-wage workers, plenty of choice for the well-to-do–on activist groups trying to transform the food system.
She’s absolutely right that sustainable-food groups need to push the access issue much harder. But the problem we’re confronting here is vast and structural, and goes way beyond food.
The problem, as briefly as I can express it, is as follows. Since the economic crisis of the 1970s, corporate strategy has hinged on churning out and/or selling huge amounts of cheap stuff. In this model, you make a small amount of money on every transaction, and focus on having lots and lots of transactions. The game is to keep your price low and sell at high volumes. The companies that emerge triumphant from this strategy are the ones that are best at minimizing costs. Think of Wal-Mart, Dell, fast-food chains, etc.
One of the key ways to keep costs down, of course, is to keep wages down. Thus, for 40 years now, real median wages have stagnated in the United States (see chart). The federal government contributed to the situation in several ways, most notably the zealous pursuit of free trade agreements in Latin America, which pit U.S. workers against their lower-paid counterparts to the south; as well as a hostile attitude toward unions, exemplified by Reagan’s hammer-blow the air-traffic controllers in the early ’80s.
Of course, the greatest factor of all was the emergence of China as the globe’s manufacturing behemoth in the 1990s–pitting U.S. workers against a nearly limitless low-wage labor force. (Presidents Bush I and Clinton, of course, cheered on the flood of imports from China, human rights concerns to the side.)
But back here in the U.S., stagnant wages didn’t mean people’s ability to consume stagnated, too. More household members entered the workforce, and people worked more hours. Moreover, what was surrendered in wages was partially offset by a flood of cheap stuff from Asia–put together by labor forces even lower-paid than our own (and powered, it might be added, by burning through mountains of Chinese coal).
The flood of cheap calories churned out by the food industry also did its part. As this USDA chart shows, food expenditures as a share of income dropped from 13 percent in 1973 to below 10 percent by 2000–a 23 percent drop.
Thus cheap food–explicitly articulated as a policy goal by Nixon’s USDA chief, Earl Butz, in the early 1970s–partially underwrote the great post-1970s U.S. economic miracle: an era of generally robust corporate profits and financial bubbles that were quite profitable for a few.
In short, an economy hinged on cheap labor needs cheap food. And that’s the structural problem faced by Slow Food and other would-be reformers of the food system. The challenge of food reformers isn’t just to reform the food system; it’s to reshape the entire economy–to create new economic models that revalue labor along with food, so that people can afford the revalued food.
That’s a massive order for the sustainable food movement–one that Donohue doesn’t seem to grasp. And in fact, there are groups all over the country working to do just that. Donohue highlights several, including California’ Swanton Berry Farm, which gives farmworkers the opportunity for an ownership stake in a successful farm.
And much-criticized Slow Food USA, whom Donohue takes a poke at the start of her piece, deserves credit on this score. The group has been pushing a significant increase in federal funds for the National School Lunch Program–which has operated under brutal fiscal austerity for decades, and taught millions of schoolchilden that reheated Tyson chicken nuggets are a legit meal. Increasing the school lunch budget, if done carefully, could not only improve the healthy and diet habits of generations of kids; it could also bolster local-food economies across the country. It’s a great sign that Slow Food USA, until recently most known for fancy cheese tastings at its local “convivia,” has put its institutional weight behind this issue.
But the cutting edge of the food movement going forward, I believe, is food-as-economic-development projetcs like Milwaukee/Chicago’s Growing Power; Brooklyn’s Added Value; the “slow money” idea that has taken root in Vermont; etc.
Slogan: no new food system without new economies.
* Speaking of school lunches, the policy wonks over at Internet Food Association have hit upon a seemingly easy way to improve things in cafeterias: take out the ubiquitous junk food machines. In an unsigned post, an IAFer points to a recent study suggesting “that kids eat healthier when schools remove junk food and soda from vending machines and cafeterias.” The author tentatively supports the idea of removing vending machines from schools–though, of course, “more research is needed” to prove that such a thing would result in healthier eating. All of this leads the author to the conclusion that “simple steps to improve kids’ food consumption have value.”
There’s just one problem with this reasoning: removing vending machines, absent an increase in funding for school lunches, would not be such a simple step. Because of the miserly level of federal support for school food–$2.68 per meal per day–schools are forced to raise their own money to keep cafeterias functioning. And a big part of that effort has been proceeds from vending machines. In short, in schools, sales of corn-syrup-laden Coke subsidize carrots–one of the many brutalities of our food system.
And that brings us back to my old squabble with the IFA over how much money we as a society should be devoting to school lunches.
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