April 10, 2013

Want to make food more affordable? Boost workers’ buying power

Leo Horrigan, MHS

Leo Horrigan, MHS

CLF Correspondent

Center for a Livable Future

It is a pet peeve of mine that all discussions of affordable food seem to focus exclusively on one side of the issue—the price of food. All such discussions ignore the flip side of this coin—the buying power of consumers.

In a country where there is actually a category of people known as “the working poor” (about 7 percent of the labor force), we are long overdue for addressing the other side of the affordability coin. The most appropriate group to lead this movement is the working poor themselves—and more poignantly still, those who make their living in the food system but cannot afford many of the products they help produce.

Many of the lowest-paid workers in the food system are working at fast-food restaurants, making either minimum wage or something not far north of it ($7.25 to $9 per hour is typical)—well short of a living wage. So, what better group to lead the fight to close the food affordability gap by increasing buying power through higher wages?

Fast-food workers in New York answered the call last week by staging a one-day “surprise strike,” demonstrating for better wages, benefits, and working conditions, and calling for a union. They demanded what they called a living wage of $15 an hour. That might seem like an overreach, considering it doubles or nearly doubles the wage of many fast-food workers, but once you consider the facts of this case, it begins to look like a more modest proposal.

Consider these statistics:

  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has calculated that a living wage for a single adult in New York City would be $12.75 per hour, but a single parent with only one child would need $24.69 to be making a living wage.
  • The minimum wage in the United States has historically been near the bottom among industrialized nations. In 2011, it stood at 38 percent of the median U.S. income, which tied it for 23rd place among 25 OECD countries. Eighteen of those countries were at 45 percent or above.
  • The purchasing power of our $7.25 minimum wage is 31 percent lower than it was in 1968, the historic peak for its purchasing power in real dollars.
  • Between 2007 and 2011, profits at McDonald’s rose 135 percent, while Yum! Brands—owner of Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, among other fast-food enterprises—saw its profits go up 45 percent.

All this to say that the incipient food movement should make common cause with a potentially resurgent labor movement, and attack the affordability problem by improving working people’s buying power rather than trying to further depress the price of food. The former strategy may be a huge undertaking, but it offers much more potential for success than the latter. We have only been cheapening the price of food by failing to account for many of the costs of producing it (e.g., agricultural pollution)—and by underpaying many of the workers in our food system.

Photo: Occupy Wall Street


  1. Posted by Wei-Ting Chen

    Thank you for this post. I had an interview this morning where my informant made similar suggestions. She works as a nursing assistant and supports her family using a combination of wages, child support payments and benefits from SNAP and WIC. She said: “Look, someone’s got to do the blue collar work. I don’t mind doing it but I would like to get paid enough for I can leave social services behind.” She described herself as a “bargain scout”, but when asked what she thought the government could do to help her ensure household food security, her responses focused living wages and better employment conditions, not making food cheaper.

    Labor and food movements are already working together on several fronts across the country. But these efforts primarily focus on agricultural or food service workers – perhaps it’s time to extended the argument to include low-wage workers in other sectors as well?

  2. Great post, Leo. You’ve hit the Big Mac on top of the bun. Every element of the community food movement — urban gardens, farmers’ markets, food banks, food policy councils, and more — must pay attention to the yawning economic disparities that are at the heart of nearly every socio-economic problem facing America today, including food insecurity.

  3. Pingback: Want to make food more affordable? Boost workers’ buying power | Center for a Livable Future | Worcester Food and Active Living Policy Council

  4. I agree with a lot of conclusions in this article but I’m confused by some of the fundamental assumptions and omissions.

    1. who is “trying to further depress the price of food.”?
    The problem is that unhealthy processed food is TOO cheap already especially vs. healthy “specialty crops”, because of subsidies to the big 5 commodities, and production externalities. I don’t see how raising wages will do anything to rectify the ‘thumb on the scale’ price disparities between healthy and unhealthy food.

    2. and where is any mention of farm workers? Are they paid a ‘living wage?”
    How much more would food cost if they were?

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