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

As a poor person who has experienced food insecurity, I find many mainstream writings on food politics hard to accept as creditable. At times I find the professional middle class norms and assumptions agonizing to read. While sometimes writers make trivializing and token references to differences of class, race, sex and citizen status, these superficial acknowledgments are patronizing and tend to marginalize and perpetuate the ways the food system affects the lives of the poor and working class, people of color, women and im/migrants. The fact that these commentators ignore the experience of those of us most oppressed by our food system is too infrequently questioned.

A class-conscious look at the writings of best-selling author Michael Pollen can help illustrate the practical harms that class-biased food advocacy can have on poor and hungry people. Pollan's writings on food politics are rooted in his own privileged position as a professional upper-middle class White man. Much of Pollan's class and race bias is hidden under a voice that depicts his own privileged experience as normal and universal. He thus specifically writes for other class-privileged Whites and it is not much of a surprise that many of his affluent White readers don't question what is oftentimes their own experience as well.

Who Pays and Who Profits from Higher Prices

One of the most explicit examples of Pollan's class bias is his repeated praise of rising costs in food, particularly healthful, whole foods. In "Unhappy Meals," an influential food essay published in The New York Times Magazine, Pollan gives a list of recommendations for how we should eat. Number five on Pollan's list: "Pay more, eat less." Pollan admits, "Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is shameful," but he then goes on to say that "most of us can" and claims that high food prices are actually a benefit to those who can't even afford them. He writes, "Paying more for food well grown in good soils — whether certified organic or not — will contribute not only to your health ... but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food."

Pollan's class bias might be lost on those who share his bias. But those of us who are poor or have experienced food insecurity know that the problem isn't simply that food is too cheap. Pollan says, "Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation." But this figure marginalizes those of us who pay an above average percentage of our income on food. In Obesity Discrimination, Dale-Marie Bryan writes:

A report from the American Dietetic Association says eating healthy foods may cost too much for many families. With only so much to spend on food, they buy what will fill them up. Often, that is not the foods that are healthiest. The report also says families would have to spend from 43 to 70 cents of every dollar to buy the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables they are supposed to have. That's OK for higher-income families. But poor families might not be able to do it.

Sure, Pollan calls our experience of food insecurity "shameful," but then treats it as insignificant. As Mark Winnie, founder of the Community Food Security Coalition and author of Closing the Food Gap, says Pollan "offered no suggestion as to how that shame could be erased." The subtext of assuming "most of us" are privileged is to treat the rest as a "them" — that is, "us" with class privilege needn't worry about "them" who experience poverty and food insecurity. Worse yet, Pollan insists that paying more for food will trickle down to benefit those whom he admits are denied access to the same higher-priced foods. In other words, "us" need not worry about "them," and "us" can be further reassured that simply paying more for food will take care of "them."

Mark Winnie is not the only food security advocate who works with poor and hungry communities who has called out Pollan on his class bias. Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and author of All You Can Eat, challenges how Pollan and other "high-profile food activists" gloat about the global rise in food prices that leave hundreds of millions world-wide hungry or starving.

In the article "Some Good News on Food Prices," Pollan told a reporter from The New York Times, "Higher food prices level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn't rely on fossil fuels." Again, Pollan dismisses how higher prices exacerbates the existing oppression of the food system. Berg replied in his book:

In other words, he predicted that, because processed, mass-produced foods would become just as expensive as organic, locally produced foods, consumers would make better food choices. But even if nonorganic processed foods did become as expensive as organic foods ... Pollan still cavalierly overlooks the reality that price hikes on either type of food place severe pressure on struggling families.

Pollan's pay more, trickle down argument assumes paying more will help struggling producers and farm workers. This suggests a simplistic direct relationship where the costs of food to consumers are assumed to be directly proportional to the cost of production — a socialist ideal that doesn't currently exist. But Pollan is mistaken to frame the food system as a symbiotic balance between producers and consumers when he assumes that if consumers pay more then producers will have more to invest in production. Unfortunately, this argument completely ignores how our food system actually operates under capitalism. Between the supposedly symbiotic producers and consumers are those who buy cheap, sell dear: the capitalists. And it is these people in the owning class, whom Raj Patel calls the "the waist of the food system hour glass," who truly benefit from Pollan's demand that we pay more for our food.

A typical example of this owning class includes the executives and shareholders of Whole Foods Market. As Winnie points out, "Paying more for the best doesn't seem to be a particularly tough challenge these days." Winnie cites an New York Times article that reports Whole Foods Market "has built an empire ... by capitalizing on the willingness of consumers to pay more for organic and natural foods." He also cites a retail price survey of twenty-one supermarkets that found Whole Foods was not only "more expensive than any of the other stores but was actually 30 percent higher than the next-highest-priced store."

Blaming the Targets of Class/Food-Based Oppression

Before Pollan's insistence on supporting higher prices in his "Unhappy Meal" article, he wrote a letter to John Mackey, the diehard capitalist co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market. In the letter, Pollan exudes class-based scorn for the poor. He reviles poor consumers who don't have access to Whole Foods Market as "dumb beasts" driven merely by "the narrowest conception of our self-interest." Pollan goes on to blame these consumers for "the debased industrial food chain" and everything associated with it from environmental destruction, to the exploitation of other animals, to failing public health.

In contrast to poor consumers, Pollan praises Whole Foods Market's high prices for cultivating an affluent customer-base that he characterizes as nothing less than selfless, democratic champions of the world. In contrast to his class-based stereotype of poor consumers as indiscriminate, selfish, inhuman and driven by base desires, Pollan claims the affluent Whole Foods consumer "takes a broader view of his interests, understands that spending more on higher-quality food is worth it on so many levels, and who treats his food purchases as a kind of vote for a better world." (I think it's significant that Pollan uses the male pronoun to identify his archetypal affluent consumer as an intelligent, selfless, rational human, driven by a desire for a better society — given that women are disproportionately poor and hungry.)

Of course, Pollan isn't the only popular food writer to blame the targets of poverty and food insecurity. In a New York Times op-ed, food activist Dan Barber expressed the same sort of class-bass contempt for poor consumers, whom he calls "financially pinched." According to Barber, these poor consumers simply "opt for the cheapest" and "least healthful" foods. He characterizes this group as merely too lazy to "cook their own," and the "lowest common denominator" responsible for dragging down the entire food industry. In many ways, Barber is simply echoing the same stereotypes about poor people.

In the same article quoting Pollan as saying higher prices "level the playing field," the reporter also asked affluent food writer and celebrity chef Alice Waters what poor consumers who lack access to food because of price hikes should do. Waters said the food insecure should "make a sacrifice on the cell phone or the third pair of Nike shoes." Again, poor consumers are stereotyped as irrational, self-indulgent consumers who can't understand their own best interests. (For a little perspective, an affluent customer drops $60 to $95 on a single meal at Waters' upscale Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California — which is nearly the average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit a poor person will receive for an entire month.) As Berg points out:

Pollan, Barber, and Waters alike seem oblivious to the harsh truth that, for many Americans, rising food prices threaten their ability to afford food at all. Even though most food activists are well-intentioned and understandably disturbed by the trend of increasing domination by just a handful of food conglomerates, they often display glaring class bias.

Like Pollan, these other affluent food activists rely on class-based stereotypes to vilify the poor and hungry in ways that suggest the poor and hungry have only themselves to blame. This class bias, which blames oppressed groups for the faults of the corporate-driven food industry, distracts attention away from the oppressive way our food system is structured around class privilege.

Class assumptions play a fundamental role in the trend towards focusing on privatized, individual actions as the solution. It is simply assumed that affluent consumers make better choices because they are better people, not because of their class privilege. Likewise, poor consumers are assumed to make poor choices not because they lack access to better choices, but because they lack sufficient moral integrity. Inevitably this leads to calls that we "vote with our dollars" by acting as rational individuals in the marketplace, as opposed to mobilizing collective social movements that focus on changing interlocking systems of oppression.

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