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The True Cost of Food


An excellent Mark Bittman op-ed about the true cost of food upon those who produce it. Bittman talks about the fast-food strikes of the last few weeks and how only 1 worker has lost their job, which is interesting. Next week there are going to be more strikes. Listen to Bittman here:

Six elements are affected by the way food is produced: taste, nutrition and price; and the impact on the environment, animals and labor. We can argue about taste, but it’s clear that our production system — especially in the fast-food world — is flunking all the others. And if you think food is “cheap,” talk to the people working in the fields, factories and stores who can’t afford it. Remember: no food is produced without labor.

Well-intentioned people often ask me what they can do to help improve our food system. Here’s an easy one: When you see that picket line next week, don’t cross it. In fact, join it.

That’s right. No food is produced without labor. When you see incredibly cheap food at a Wal-Mart, know that the food is that cheap because the world’s largest corporation makes sure its suppliers supply at very low expenses. Sometimes, that creates conditions similar to slave labor. The food system is not at all different from the apparel system that kills 1100 workers in Bangladesh and poisons rivers around the world.

When workers do take the risk to stand up for themselves, we owe it to them to respect that picket line.

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  • Six isn’t enough, there are at least eight “elements” affected by the production of food, the other two being capital/wealth and population/demographics. Consolidation of food processing has eliminated small farms in all but niche or organic crops. That’s shifted a lot of wealth from rural areas and consolidated it among the handful of rural farmers who own their land and amassed enough capital to run operations that require vast amounts of energy, machinery, labor and credit/cash. And it’s also shifted a lot of population from rural areas to suburban/urban areas. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but I read a few years ago that of Iowa’s–what, a hundred and something?–counties, almost all were losing population, but the state was (modestly) growing because about six or eight counties were growing, with much of the growth being young people leaving the rural areas.

  • c u n d gulag

    There’s an Aldi’s which opened up near us here in Upstate NY, earlier this year.

    It’s a German discount supermarket chain I’m familiar with, because I went to one pretty often when I lived in NC. They have more European style food, which my family enjoys.

    I went once, and when I was going back a few weeks later, I saw the picketers over by the highway, and they were picketing against the chain’s labor practices.

    I still see the same people picketing, months later.

    I will not cross that picket line, no matter how much I crave some of the stuff they sell.

    Next time I’m driving by, I’ll ask the specifics about why they’re picketing.
    And my bet is, it’s something that in Germany, a country with strong unions, they would never even DREAM of trying!

    • Aldi is split between two semi-autonomous divisions. The operate in separate regions of Germany, and split up the rest of Europe. One of the divisions runs the Aldi’s in the US, the other division owns Trader Joe’s.

      • c u n d gulag

        I thought I’d heard the Trader Joe’s is a pretty good place to work, is that wrong?

        Thinking of Aldi’s as a German company led me to believe they’d be pretty workforce friendly.

        But then, you see foreign car companies running US plants in the South, in ways that if they tried that method back at home in Japan, South Korea, or Germany, would get them a lot of grief.

        • rar

          Trader Joe’s is not horrible, but inferior to a union job at a traditional retailer like Kroger and Safeway in places where those stores are unionized.

          Their “young and hip” employees, like Whole Foods, indicates they avoiding having long-term employees and engage in age discrimination.

  • DrDick

    Forced and child labor are really pretty common in agriculture globally and even in the US.

  • No food is produced without labor.

    You would not believe the shit I get when I wear my “Labor creates all wealth” tee-shirt. The Galt-wannabes really don’t understand the way the world works.

    • I wouldn’t mind a t-shirt like that.

      • Being a good capitalist, I’ll gladly sell you mine for a price in the low six figures.

      • blowback

        I’m sure you could find a sweat shop in Bangladesh that would churn them out for almost nothing and then you could make a fortune selling to dumb hipsters.

    • bspencer

      Does that make you wear it more?

      • I try to match my message shirts to my expected audience. I wear my Mets shirt on work-related trips to the Bronx, I wear my “Structural Engineers Association of New York” shirt to the theater, I wear my “Short-Order Theater”* shirt to restaurants, and I wear “Labor creates all wealth” when I’m tooling around the Financial District. Unfortunately, I have [ahem] outgrown the shirt with a picture of MLK and “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men” but I do still wear my Soviet Red Army jersey for ice skating.

        *An improv group I knew. In the early 90s, when I was broke and single, I worked the door for them a number of times because (a) I glower well, and (b) I can do math in my head fast so I could take the cover, which they had pointlessly complicated with various discounts.

        • About 15 years ago I was with friends on vacation in northern Michigan, near the top of the Lower Peninsula. One day we were driving somewhere and decided to stop to get cokes or something. We came across a place with a General Store sign and went in. In the car I’d gotten warm and taken off my sweatshirt, but I forgot to put it back on and I was wearing a Billy Bragg Sun Sea and Socialism tee-shirt, complete with red star and hammer and sickle. I walked up to the counter, and the very old storekeeper started asking me about my shirt. This was in the very county where the Nickles brothers had traipsed around the woods with the Michigan Militia before the one brother helped out Timothy McVeigh, so I was expecting some rightwing bullshit. I evaded a bit, but after a couple follow-ups to my vague answers I realized the guy wasn’t a righty, he was actually a lefty.

          Turned out the guy was the former president of the Steelworkers local at Dow Chemical in Midland, and when he retired in the late 60’s he’d moved up there and opened the store. We talked for a while, including him telling me about hearing Walter Reuther’s plane crash a few miles away.

          I still don’t usually wear that shirt out in public so I don’t have to put up with bullshit.

          • The only short I don’t wear in public is Gawker, 2007: crossed swords over the word Douché

    • DrDick

      Hell, even Adam Smith knew and said that.

      • Yeah, but Smith wasn’t an ignorant asshole.

    • UserGoogol

      Well in their own way, Objectivists (and their kin) do think that value is derived from labor, they just have a very different conceptualization of what labor is. Thus all that talk about lazy moochers and hard working value-creators. It is very much a model of the world where value comes from people working to make it, and where people who make the value deserve compensation for it.

      But as for myself I’d say nature is a really big source of wealth too. And machines, although they’re more entangled with human workers. Obviously people are offended at your shirt for being speciesist.

  • The Dark Avenger

    The Monterey, CA Herald had an article about how the farmers growers were having to offer benefits to attract workers for the current strawberry harvest and crying about a ‘labor shortage‘:

    “This year, it’s extremely difficult,” said Watsonville strawberry grower Edward Ortega. “Even with wages up, we’re not attracting more help.”

    The recruitment signs posted around the Pajaro Valley aren’t increasing the labor pool, he said, only encouraging the limited supply of workers to move around in search of the best deal. Like most growers, Ortega is not willing to share specifics about his operation, including what he’s paying. But, according to U.S. Census figures cited in a 2011 report on agricultural labor by UC Davis professor Philip Martin, in 2009 Santa Cruz County strawberry growers paid an average of $427 a week, the highest wages of California’s four prime strawberry growing counties. The other counties were Monterey, where weekly wages averaged $408; Ventura, $394; and Santa Barbara, $359.

    How dare these workers act like capital, seeking only their own advantage!

    • rar

      Clearly we need millions more unskilled immigrants to drive ag labor costs back down. It is totally unacceptable that strawberry pickers, during part of the year, are earning almost $10 an hour. This talk of “benefits” is even more ridiculous, that’s what emergency rooms are for.

  • rar

    You say that Wal-Mart is bad for the wages of its suppliers. Why do you think those suppliers, all large corporations, would raise wages if they could get higher margins from Wal-Mart, as opposed to higher profits? For the most part, I don’t think this would be the case.

    I have no doubt that Wal-Mart is really bad for middle-class owners of small stores. Driving this entire class of people out of their livelihoods so the Wal-Mart children can be worth $20 billion each is no small issue.

    But I also know that they do charge lower prices and have lower margins, and that savings has greatly benefited their poor and working class customers. Not all the food they sell is junk either. They have fresh produce and sell green Spanish olives for less than $3 a pound. Do you think a typical small town poor person could eat olives, the densest source of healthy monounsaturated fat, at even double that price if it were not for Wal-Mart? The benefit of one-stop shopping to time-constrained single parents is also substantial.

    • The Dark Avenger

      All over the country, many Wal-Mart workers have to rely on food stamps and other government subsidies because of the low wages they pay their workers. So, in effect the government is subsidizing Wal-Mart because if those programs weren’t available, people wouldn’t be able to work there for such low salaries.

      If this is suppose to be satire, you’re not doing a very good job at it.

    • DrDick

      Are you even vaguely aware of the fact that Wal-Mart has relentlessly pressured suppliers to lower costs for decades, even refusing to carry popular brands who would not give them a big discount? Given their massive market share, they have a huge impact and have made things dramatically worse for workers around the world.

  • farmer

    Even as we have lost small and mid sized farms who produce commodities like milk, there has been an absolute refusal of urban food groups to speak with these farmers.

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