Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Healthy. Sustainable. Affordable. FAIR. (Part I)

I may have mentioned this already, but in case you missed it, October 24th marks the third annual Food Day, organized nationally by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The four-word tagline for Food Day is "Healthy. Sustainable. Affordable. Fair." It will be on our local Food Day posters this year, and I wanted to write a little bit about what each of those words mean in terms of our food system.

(As it happens, this tagline has some of the same themes as the official Mission of the Community Food Council for DNATL: "The Community Food Council for Del Norte and Adjacent Tribal Lands will build a vibrant, sustainable local food system through opportunity, education, innovation, advocacy, and promotion.")

This blog post will look at what it means for a food system to be FAIR.

A lot of people might automatically think of the Fair Trade labels that show up on coffee, chocolate, and other imported products. Fair Trade USA describes Fair Trade this way: "Fair Trade goods are just that. Fair. From far-away farms to your shopping cart, products that bear our logo come from farmers and workers who are justly compensated."

There are a lot of debates right now about what constitutes "just compensation". Minimum wage laws in many states, including California, are raising the minimum wage significantly above the federal minimum wage, and the Obama administration is asking Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00/hour. One of the arguments for this is that a person working full-time at the current federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour) would still fall below the federal poverty line for a two or three person household. So all those working single parents? If they make the minimum, their family lives in poverty.

But in many parts of our food system, the situation is much worse. Federal minimum wage for farm workers can fall below even the federal minimum wage if they are paid by the "piece". Piece work means that pickers are paid for every crate or box of produce picked. For example, the going rate for orange pickers in Florida is 85 cents per 90 pound box. An average harvest rate for a worker is 64 boxes in an 8-hour shift, equivalent to 5,760 pounds of oranges, and yet the hourly rate works out to just $6.80/hour.

Picking almost 6,000 pounds of fruit in 8 hours is back-breaking work, and fruit picking is not as "unskilled" as many people believe. I've picked both apples and persimmons on a commercial scale and it's not fun. Persimmons, particularly, like many other softer fruit, take a light hand to avoid bruising. In my case, I was also expected to make split-second decisions about whether each individual fruit was export or domestic quality. And yet farm workers are paid so poorly that a full third of farm worker families live below the poverty line. (This is made much worse due to the seasonal nature of much farm work, of course, because workers may not be able to find full-time work year round.)

So what about the rest of the supply chain? It doesn't get a lot prettier as you move through the slaughterhouses, processing plants, and food service industries. 

Consider the front of house in food service as an example. Tipped workers (think wait staff in restaurants) can make as little as $2.13/hour (the federal minimum cash payment). Most states (but not all) have at least slightly higher minimums for tipped workers, but many are still under $3.00/hour. Now, the theory is that these workers will make at least minimum wage once their tips are factored in and this probably works for wait staff at higher-end restaurants where a bill for two people could be 50 dollars or much more. But what about diners and other inexpensive restaurants? If you walk in and order the $2.99 breakfast special, how much are you leaving as a tip? Will the collective tips on inexpensive meals raise that $2.13/hour to a livable wage? (And this leaves out the fact that many wait staff have to "tip out" to busboys and sometimes kitchen staff who do not otherwise benefit from tips.)

I haven't even mentioned farmers and how little of the price of a loaf of bread or box of cereal goes to the person who grew the grain, but trust me, it's not a lot.

So, FAIR. For our food system to be fair, the producers in the system would need to earn a decent (not extravagant, but decent) living for working full-time in jobs that are almost always physically demanding. All consumers would need to have equal access to healthy foods, no matter where they live and how much they make (I'll write more about this when I discuss AFFORDABLE).

That's my opinion, of course, and yours may differ. Please join the conversation in our comments section.

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