Why it's so hard to reform the food system, explained in one chart
Put aside the politics, the regulatory and court battles, and the media coverage for a moment. One of the main reasons food system reform is such a tall order is encapsulated in this graph created by Brookings Institution scholars Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney (via ThinkProgress):
As the researchers describe, here’s what the chart shows:
Although median wages for two-parent families have increased 23 percent since 1975, the evidence suggests that this is not the result of higher wages. Rather, these families are just working more. In 2009, for instance, the typical two-parent family worked 26 percent longer than the typical family in 1975.
… The 26 percent increase in hours worked mainly reflects increases in work outside of the home among women. In fact, among two-parent families with median earnings, the hours of men were relatively constant over time, while hours worked by women more than doubled from 1975 to 2009. It was this increased contribution to work outside of the home, mostly by women, rather than wage increases, that led to higher earnings for the typical two-parent family. [Emphasis added.]
It’s very hard to make change in the food system in an environment where wages are flat. As I’ve argued before, the low and decreasing costs of industrialized food and low-nutrient, high-calorie “food products” have stood in for wage increases for the past several decades. And any call for consumers to cook more — like the eloquent one from Mark Bittman the other week — runs up against the reality that we (women in particular) are working more hours than ever. And let’s be clear: While the division of labor in the home is changing, women still perform 40 percent more housework than men, as a New York Times Room for Debate participant recently observed. Traditional gender roles still obtain.
In fact, it appears that what wiggle room there is for food-system reform lies in men picking up some serious slack in the shopping and cooking arena. As a father who does a fair amount of both, I know it’s possible. But that’s not saying it will be easy — and it does nothing to address the persistent problem of stagnant wages. Perhaps faced with the prospect of doing more around the house, men will begin to organize and agitate for higher wages? C’mon, guys! It’s one or the other!