'Pay More': The High Cost of Class Bias in Food Politics

Table of Contents:

Class Disenfranchisement and the Widening Food Gap

The whole point of Pollan's letter denouncing the vices of poor consumers and extolling the virtues Whole Foods Market's affluent base was to urge the supermarket chain to sell more locally produced food. Mark Winnie, whose own organization insists a "stable local agricultural base is key to a community responsive food system," explains the class bias in how Pollan's push for local food under supermarket control offers little in terms of increasing accessibility to these options for the targets of poverty and food insecurity, and is actually counterproductive:

But rather than worry about the effect of high prices on lower- and even middle-income consumers, Whole Foods has turned its attention to local farms, in whom, at the behest of Pollan and others, the chain is going to invest $10 million to make them "Whole Foods-ready." While this may strengthen local agriculture and bring the average Whole Foods shopper a wee bit closer to "local food," it will do nothing for the low-income mom who is riding the bus to the Wal-Mart on the outskirts of town. Given that there is a growing shortage of Farmers, Whole Foods' actions may even be harmful to low-income interests by causing what I call the "Greenwich effect." As soon as the housewives in very upscale Greenwich, Connecticut, organized a farmers' market, farmers left the hard-pressed urban markets faster than spinach bolting in July. In the same way, the continual push by affluent shoppers and the nation's retail bastions of naturalness to procure local and organic food will only increase prices and widen the food gap between them and lower-income shoppers.

As a veteran food justice advocate with over three-decades of experience in connecting local producers with poor and hungry consumers, Wennie knows a thing or two about what he calls the "Greenwich effect." He recognizes how — with the push of supermarkets like Whole Foods Market and food writers like Pollan — supporting a food system that privileges affluent consumers without concern for poor and hungry people results in devastating effects that exacerbate poverty and food insecurity.

Raj Patel outlines the reality of the role Whole Foods Market plays in the food system as an exploiter of both producers and consumers alike, and in so doing reveals Pollan's class bias in omitting the full costs of a "pay more" mentality. In the conclusion to Stuffed and Starved, Patel writes:

From Whole Foods to Wal-Mart, retail giant ethics can only be paid from their excess profits and, no matter what the public relations department says, it is the shareholders who pay the piper. Supermarkets, like all corporations at the waist of the food system hour glass, oblige consumer desires only so far as they are profitable. They operate on the strict market principle one dollar, one vote. They won't, therefore, address needs where there are no dollars to be found. ... And this is where a retail vision of ethical shopping falls short of the vision of food sovereignty. In the US, the supermarket chain that has put itself at the forefront of corporate social responsibility has been Whole Foods. The company's executives tout their mission as 'No. 1, to change the way the world eats, and No. 2, to create a workplace based on love and respect'. It's certainly true that more and more of the world finds its food in supermarkets — and that Whole Foods is contributing to this global transformation. But to change the way the world eats requires not just a commitment to providing local food, but also the empowerment of society's poorest members to be able to afford to eat differently. Whole Foods, other wise known as 'Whole Pay Check', certainly encourages us to pay more for our food, but it's far from clear that the extra charge makes its way to those who need it most. For this to happen would demand a profound and political change all along the food system.

So while Pollan claims that those who pay more "vote for a better world," Patel speaks of the poor who, because they lack money, are disenfranchised under our food system. The poor are left disempowered while the dollar-based "voting" power of affluent consumers drives up prices for the healthiest of foods. In practice, the "better world" that Pollan and other higher-prices, vote-with-your-dollars advocates are promoting is one where the gap between the poor and the affluent increases, thereby making healthful, whole foods all the more inaccessible to those most targeted by poverty and food insecurity. This in turn results in other devastating effects by further increasing the enormous class-based gap in health, resulting in more poor people going hungry and/or suffering diabetes, hypertension and other dietary related diseases associated with the effects of a second class diet.

Not Just Class: Other Oppressive Costs of Paying More

Food justice is only possible when we take into consideration all the ways our food system intersects with other forms of oppression. While I focused above on class, it is equally essential that we pay close attention to how oppression targeting people based on race, sex, citizenship status, age, ability, geography, species, and other factors as it relates to our food system. Here is a brief sample of other ways people are harmed by demands that they pay more:

  • Race: The redlining of access to healthy, affordable foods is a persistent problem in the existing U.S. food system. Communities of color, particularly Black and Latino communities, tend to have less access to healthful, whole foods. For instance, in their book Food Fight, Dr. Kelly D. Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen note that predominantly White communities have four times more supermarkets than predominantly Black communities. Since supermarkets offer more healthy foods at cheaper prices, this means communities of color not only have less access to healthy foods, but they in fact are already paying more for so-called "cheap" processed foods than when the same items are offered in White communities.
  • Sex: Women are disproportionately poor and hungry — Joel Berg notes in All You Can Eat that women are 41% more likely to be poor than men. Women who are mothers are also primarily responsible for children, another large portion of the poor and hungry. And women are also more likely to become poor than men after a divorce. So it is no surprise that single mothers and their children are more likely to be poor and hungry. (Note that women of color, particularly Black and Latina mothers, tend to be the primary targets of backlash against the poor and hungry. Since the Regan administration, the sexist-racist-classist stereotype of the "welfare queen" has been used as a persistent tool for cutting social programs that provide poor and hungry people with access to healthy foods.)
  • Age: Poor children and elderly people are likely to be food insecure and are particularly vulnerable to higher prices for food. Obviously if single mothers are more likely to be poor and hungry, it is a given that their children will be as well. Elderly people living on fixed incomes are extremely vulnerable to higher prices. Not only do they have to deal with the rising cost of food with no additional income to compensate, they also have increasing housing and often medical costs as well.
  • Citizenship Status: Immigrants and migrants who come to work in the United States tend to hold jobs that do not pay a living wage. Even when they reside in the U.S. with proper documentation, they have less access to social programs like WIC and SNAP. In her book Targeted, Deepa Fernandes notes how the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act "all but halted social services available to undocumented and documented immigrants, including health care and food stamps" (emphasis hers). Many im/migrant workers and families send money back to relatives in the Global South, further limiting their budget for food. And given the type of hazardous work many im/migrants perform, they may have medical expenses that they are forced to pay out of pocket.
  • Ability: People who are disabled or chronically ill are also constrained in their ability to pay more for food. A disability or illness can prohibit someone from earning an income through work either due to direct impairment or as a result of discrimination. Additionally, these people are likely to have higher medical expenses and be denied medical coverage. It is far too common for people to be forced to choose between paying for food or medicine.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all the ways other oppressed groups are affected by higher prices for healthy food, but it should be evident from these examples that since many people already pay such a high cost for the high prices associated with healthy foods, insisting that they pay more only makes a bad situation worse.

There's No Food Justice Without Social Justice

Paying higher prices is not the solution to our existing food system. In order to make the food system just we have to make it work for everyone, particularly those most oppressed by the current system. For instance, we need to center the reality of all people who are poor or food insecure. Eliminating poverty and class-based oppression needs to be an integral part of our food justice advocacy. This means ensuring that all jobs pay a living wage and everyone who needs it is covered by social programs that make healthy foods accessible and affordable. Similarly, racism, sexism, ageism, nationalism, ableism and the effects of all other forms of oppression on our food system and the inaccessibility of healthy foods need to be considered and dealt with. We won't make the food system just or democratic simply by "voting with our dollars" for the highest priced foods. But we can create a just food system if we make it part of our work to organize a broader mobilization for social justice.

Re: 'Pay More': The High Cost of Class Bias in Food Politics

Your comments about Pollan ring true to me. We vegans however, must confront the realities of people living in less endowed (I mean food wise) regions of the world, where at this time, plant foods may be less available.Class assumptions may play a part here, as well. My Best to you.

This comment feels like backlash to me.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is how I read this comment:

"You have made a legitimate point about Pollan's work. I used to support Pollan's work, and so this post made me uncomfortable. In order to not have to address my own class privilege, I am going to point out that you have First World privilege (never mind that I do too). I am going to repeat what non-vegan First World people have said to me when they are backlashing after being confronted with their speciesism. That is, veganism is something for rich, white, First World people, and practicing veganism has nothing to do with global food justice. You think you're high and mighty for practicing veganism, but you don't recognize that that is a privilege to be able to have access to foods to do that. You want to impose your views on the world and don't recognize that not everyone has access to plant-based foods."

This turns things on its head. Practicing veganism is not a luxury. Eating meat three times a day is a luxury--one that other people are paying for.

If we vegans must confront the realities of people living in less endowed regions of the world, then we must do so by confronting the global implications of food consumption and policies put forth by the USA & its corporations. We have to take into account how meat eating in the First World is directly responsible for food shortages elsewhere, including shortages of plant-based foods.

No, we cannot expect people in other countries to eat vegan when we are benefiting from the control of their food systems. They may, however, wish to practice veganism as a way to resist the meat-based colonization of traditionally plant-based diets.

While Ida cannot cover every topic in every post, she had addressed these topics elsewhere. For example:

Food-to-Flesh and the Global Food Crisis

Veganism, Food and the Global Economy

Leaving Morals to the Markets: A Review of The Way We Eat