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

July 11th, 2014
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Table of Contents:

  • ‘Pay More’: The High Cost of Class Bias in Food Politics
  • Class Disenfranchisement and the Widening Food Gap

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 aNew 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.