The Hidden Tax on Food(That may be coming soon.)
Like for many of you, friends, this year has been one of change, of learning, of excitement, of disappointment and of disbelief. I’ve also learned more this year than I have in any year since graduating from college. This is immensely satisfying, fun, and eye opening, and somehow 2017 has passed. I have gotten to do some writing (see this piece on farmer business education and this interview) but I’m just now trying to come up for air and turning a corner. I’m no longer brand new to food – I’m teaching it. And while there is an endless amount to learn, I can speak now with some confidence on what good food really is.
Of course, that is helpful in practice (dinner) and in teaching, but why we eat what we do is really still at the crux of my interest. The policies, the history, and the culture of putting dinner on the table varies dramatically by time, resources, and location. This has never been more apparent than it is now.
Food is one of the primarily lenses through which we explore and project our culture. Our national obsession with diet and “super” foods is, I think, a reflection of our discomfort with the breakneck speed with which we conduct our lives and the standards to which we are held. Likewise, regional cuisines (hello, lobster rolls and biscuits and gravy) serve both to connect us to our neighbors and also differentiate us from our regional rivals. Nationally, food also reflects our values.
There have been some significant changes to food policy this year that are overlooked in the face of much more immediate issues and concerns. One such issue is the impact that nationalistic and racist immigration policies are having on groceries. This is a topic that has not gotten much coverage when compared to the pressing issues of deportation and a travel ban, but affects each of us directly nonetheless.
If all politics is local, all food is personal.
Today in the United States at least 78% of farm workers – the very people who pick & pack your food – are foreign-born, a trend that began with the forced migration of Africans to work cotton and tobacco fields, and has continued. Farm worker jobs are laborious and pay poorly. Workers are often compensated by the volume picked rather than by hour. The worker cited in this Modern Farmer interview, for example makes about $1 for every 32 pounds of tomatoes – generally less than $60/day or about $15,600 a year with no holidays and no vacations. Most picker jobs are paid cash under the table, which means that employers aren’t meeting labor law requirements. With little leverage, workers are often cheated out of wages.
Those “savings” are passed along to you, the consumer, who can get a pound of onions or potatoes for less than a dollar. Every time you make dinner, buy your lunch, or eat a snack, you’re being subsidized by the men, women, and children who pick your food for less than minimum wage.
At the same time, our national discourse on immigration has shifted dramatically to the right. Discouraging immigration by using unwelcoming language, building a border wall, and/or encouraging community law-enforcement sweeps are all policies specifically designed to keep low-income foreign workers from entering the country.
With an administration devoted to shrinking the foreign-born workers coming to the U.S., the obvious solution would be to hire American workers to do these jobs. Yet, there is little evidence that Americans will take them, even when they need them and even when they meet the minimum wage requirements. At the height of the recession, 10% of Americans were unemployed, many of them so-called unskilled workers. (That number is now at 4.1%, a level that is considered normal.) This study, conducted in North Carolina from 1998 – 2012, shows that the percentage of unemployed Americans asking for referrals to farm picker jobs never exceeded 0.09% during that period, and even during the height of the recession. Of the 489,095 unemployed North Carolinians in 2011, only 268 requested to be referred to a farm worker program. A full 245 of those 268 people were hired (97%) and only 163 showed up for work on the first day. A mere seven of these men and women lasted the full picking season.
If these immigration policies succeed, and there is ample evidence that they already are, there will not be enough people to pick those crops, and they will be left rotting in the fields. Without sufficient supply, demand will grow, and prices at your grocery store will go up, an unintended tax on you as a consumer.
This is simple high school-level supply and demand economics, and yet it’s being overlooked even among the most liberal politicians and academics I know.
So what can you, a person who eats, do about this? First, and most obviously, vote for politicians who support a healthy, vibrant food ecosystem right down to the workers who supply it. That means local politicians too. Register to vote and show up to your local and state government elections if you’re able. They aren’t as sexy as the national ones, but they have an enormous impact.
Second, you can be cognizant of where your food is coming from. It’s ok if not everything you buy is local, organic, or sustainable. But think about where it’s sourced and who may have produced it. If f you have an option to buy those things and can afford them, great! But even being aware and thoughtful is just as important.
Finally, talk openly and often about important issues; don’t ignore them and don’t skirt them. Maybe your friends or your aunt know someone who’s working in an area you’re interested in. Maybe you and your weird, prepper uncle can actually see eye-to-eye about building a sustainable food system. Maybe your mom picks up some better quality turkey for Thanksgiving next year. Whatever it is, remind yourself daily that ignorance is not actually bliss and get informed.
On a more personal note, I believe that being informed also goes beyond policy or news topics to include honing my sense of self. One of the most important things I’ve learned about myself this year is that balance is extremely important to me. I don’t set resolutions, but I do set goals and balance is my focus this year. That means a balance between work and family/friends, a balance between fun and working on our new house, and, perhaps most importantly, a balance in what I eat. I mentioned in the beginning of the post that I think our national obsession with dieting is a symptom of very severe cultural anxieties. Personally, while I try to eat well every day, making certain foods off limits has never been heathy or good for me. So in that vein, I encourage you to put aside your January diets and negative self thoughts and instead join me in focusing on balance. I hope you’ll eat this winter squash soup, and then make these Sour Cherry-Chocolate Chip Cookies for dessert
And, of course, have a wonderful, happy, and healthy 2018.
What I’m Reading: The Lost Kitchen by Erin French. Gorgeous food and a hell of a story of perseverance.
What I’m Eating: Soup every day because our house is freezing and it’s 0 degrees.
What I’m Thinking About: What I can personally do to improve economic justice in food. If you have ideas, share them with me in the comments or on my Facebook page or Twitter account.