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Organic Consumers Association

Too Poor for Organic? Raise the Minimum Wage

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's All About Organics page and our Food Safety Research Center page.

How many times have we heard it?

"Organic food is great for those who can afford it, but not an option for most of us."

This simplistic adage is applied to most proposals that question the cheap, processed food that is the cornerstone of this country's epidemic of diet-related diseases. Arguing in favor of organic, a movable feast of foodies tells us that we simply have to learn to pay more if we want to eat local, organic, sustainably- produced food. In the United States that leaves at least 49 million food insecure people (and much of the middle class) out of luck.

Sorry, no healthy food for you.

No one seems to ask why we need cheap food in the first place. The simple answer is that cheap food helps to keep wages down. This is especially important when a country is industrializing and needs low-paid but amply-fed workers. Later, cheap food helps free up expendable income to buy the consumer goods produced by all that industrialization. These were supposed to be stages of economic development, to be surpassed as workers accumulate wealth and climb up the economic ladder. Somehow, in our current food system both poor people and cheap food became permanent fixtures -- despite the U.S. food industry's impressive economic growth.

With over 20 million workers, the food system is the largest and fastest-growing sector in the nation. Unfortunately, with a national median wage of $9.90 per hour, the vast majority of food workers toil under the poverty line. The low minimum wage especially affects food service workers who rely on tips to make a living (waiters, bussers, runners); their minimum wage is $2.13 an hour. When totaled up, that amounts to just $4,430 per year for a full-time worker. There is a clear problem with this unlivable wage for food service workers, yet some still argue against increasing the minimum wage.   


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