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The Cost of Food in America

June 8th, 2020 | 14 min read

By Gracy Olmstead

Americans often boast about the cheapness of their food. Here in the U.S., we spend less on food than any other country in the world (about six percent of our budget, on average). Even other first-world countries—like most European countries—devote more than twice the amount to food spending that we do.

This cheapness has a lot to do with the commodity crops we raise (such as corn and soybeans), and the resulting proliferation of cheap processed goods. But it also has to do with a growth in monopolies throughout the U.S. food industry, and a system of food production which emphasizes efficiency and quantity at all costs.

It was only a matter of time before Americans realized that this “cheap” food was not actually cheap. Countless unseen, uncalculated costs go into our supposedly inexpensive food system. But few would have guessed that a worldwide pandemic would make those costs so painfully, tragically clear.

Over the last several weeks, we have begun to reckon with the true nature of our food system—to recognize the processing and distributing bottlenecks that fill our system, as well as the human and animal rights atrocities which often hide behind those pleasant price tags at the supermarket. Most tragic of all are the deaths—of dozens of human food workers, and thousands of chickens and pigs thus far—which stem from a food system that has put efficiency and profit above all else.

In April, reports began to surface of widespread Covid-19 infections within meat processing factories. The meat industry is dominated by giant agribusinesses like JBS, Tyson, Cargill, and Smithfield, all of whom own meat processing facilities employing thousands of workers.

“The same features that allow a steady churn of cheap meat also provide the perfect breeding ground for airborne diseases like the coronavirus: a cramped workplace, a culture of underreporting illnesses, and a cadre of rural, immigrant and undocumented workers who share transportation and close living quarters,” USA Today reported. “As of May 20, officials have publicly linked at least 15,300 COVID-19 infections to 192 U.S. meatpacking plants, according to tracking by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. At least 63 workers have died.”

Many workers reported they were unable to procure masks or other protective gear. Others told their supervisors that they were feeling ill, but were not allowed to go home. Author Michael Pollan recently wrote for the New York Review of Books that “meatpackers have successfully lobbied regulators to increase line speeds, with the result that workers must stand shoulder to shoulder cutting and deboning animals so quickly that they can’t pause long enough to cover a cough, much less go to the bathroom, without carcasses passing them by. Some chicken plant workers, given no regular bathroom breaks, now wear diapers.”

This speed, of course, creates a voluminous supply of cheap meat. But the “incredibly streamlined and consolidated [meat] industry” tends to foster “dangerous work on a good day, with steadily increasing production speeds, injury rates twice the national average, and illness rates 15 times normal rates,” according to Eater reporter Caleb Pershan.

What’s more, as plants have had to close due to infection rates, that consolidation has come back to bite consumers—and the farmers who rely on these processors to get their product to market. As Pershan notes, “about 50 meat processing plants are responsible for as much as 98 percent of all U.S. meat slaughter and processing.” Production capacity for pork and beef are down 25 and 10 percent, respectively, while slaughter of pork and cattle are down 30 percent year-over-year. Closures at processing facilities are creating a “logjam effect,” which impacts our entire food system:

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the country was experiencing record pork and beef production. Now hog prices are spiraling downward, costing famers dearly. Many animals will be ‘depopulated,’ an industry euphemism for being killed without being processed and sent to market.

Commercial pigs like Sorenson’s are raised inside barns their whole lives, and grow about two and a half pounds a day. If they’re not sent off to slaughter, they get too large for their quarters — roughly 7.2 to 8.7 square feet per animal, according to an industry publication’s recommendation. Slaughterhouses won’t accept animals if they get too big, and they can even become too heavy for their own legs. There’s nothing to do but euthanize them. In Minnesota, 10,000 hogs are being euthanized per day, Department of Agriculture officials tell the Star Tribune.

In a recent episode of the Strong Towns podcast, host Chuck Marohn compared this crisis to one described in John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath: starving workers sit outside vineyards where farmers are letting their grapes rot on the vine because it costs too much to get them to market. The seemingly simple solution—let those nearest, in need, eat the grapes—seems economically impossible to the farmers who could make it happen.

Here, too, an entire system of regulation and contracting, distribution and processing, creates an ironic, tragic impossibility: grocery store shelves sit empty of meat and eggs, while neighboring farmers euthanize the animals that might offer them to local consumers. As Marohn points out, we haven’t yet experienced a widespread crisis of hunger because of this—thanks, in large part, to the soup kitchens, food banks, and other local ministries that are getting food from farmers and restaurateurs and distributing it to those in need. But the problem’s impact on workers, animals, shoppers, and the land is still dire, and needs to be addressed.

Our treatment of food workers and farm animals did not become cruel just as this crisis began. For decades, farm hands and food processing workers have been severely underpaid and taken advantage of: as the Los Angeles Times reported in 2016, farm workers are some of “the least politically powerful employees in the nation.”

The Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers survey found that farmworkers earn an average annual income of $12,500 and $14,999. Yet despite unfair pay and instances of maltreatment and poor work conditions, many farmworkers avoid protest or push back. They fear losing their jobs, their homes, or being deported.

In her book One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search For the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture, Stephanie Anderson chronicles some of the horrific conditions field workers experience:

As researchers have noted, every day on the job is dangerous for fieldworkers: ‘The rate of death due to heat stress for farmworkers is twenty times greater than for the general population.’ … Fatality and injury rates for farmwork rank second in the nation, second only to coal mining. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that U.S. agricultural workers experience 10,000 to 20,000 acute pesticide-related illnesses each year, though they also admit that this is likely a significant underestimate.

These pesticide-related illnesses go beyond temporary sickness. Cancer, loss of toenails and fingernails, recurring rashes, breathing problems—these are just a few of the health issues field workers develop. Pregnant women, who must continue working or lose their jobs, experience miscarriages or give birth to children with physical deformities or developmental problems. Estabrook documents cases of pesticides being sprayed directly on pregnant workers in the field.

The meatpacking industry, Eric Schlosser recently wrote for The Atlantic, employs the same ruthlessness in the name of profit: “The priority more important than anything else at an American slaughterhouse,” he writes, is that “The chain will not stop.” This means that “Whenever possible, worker injuries aren’t allowed to slow the throughput. ‘I’ve seen bleeders, and they’re gushing because they got hit [by a knife] right in the vein, and I mean, they’re almost passing out,’” one former slaughterhouse worker told him, “‘and here comes the supply guy again, with the bleach, to clean the blood off the floor, but the chain never stops. It never stops.’”

At some point, these “accidents” cease being accidents, and turn into something different, Schlosser argues:

An accident is when you walk down the street, step on a banana peel, slip, and hurt your back. When thousands of meatpacking workers are suffering the same kind of amputations, lacerations, and cumulative-trauma injuries every year, those aren’t industrial accidents. They’re a business decision.

Our system is not just antithetical to the wellbeing of humans—although that is and should be the primary focus of our concern at present. One must also consider the way our system has evolved to treat animals over time: how we have progressed from the humanely sized, diverse farm of yesteryear to today’s “factory farms.”

“Under normal circumstances, the modern hog or chicken is a marvel of brutal efficiency, bred to produce protein at warp speed when given the right food and pharmaceuticals,” Michael Pollan writes for the New York Review of Books. “These innovations have made meat, which for most of human history has been a luxury, a cheap commodity available to just about all Americans … [But] there will always be a tradeoff between efficiency and resilience (not to mention ethics); the food industry opted for the former, and we are now paying the price.”

What if, Pollan asks, “there were still tens of thousands of chicken and pig farmers bringing their animals to hundreds of regional slaughterhouses”? An outbreak could still impact the system—but because the system was less concentrated, it would not debilitate the entire industry. “Meat would probably be more expensive, but the redundancy would render the system more resilient, making breakdowns in the national supply chain unlikely,” he suggests.

Amanda Claire Starbuck, a senior food researcher at Food and Water Watch, agrees: as she told the Los Angeles Times,

The highly consolidated, industrial food system is in fact less resilient than the regional, diversified systems it replaced. We need smaller, more diverse crop-and-livestock systems and regional food hubs.

Is it possible for us to decentralize the food system, to try and restore some of the diversity and resiliency we’ve destroyed? Politicians like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker are trying, via antitrust and anti-monopoly legislations, to fight against the idea (in the words of Schlosser) that ours is a government “of big corporations, by big corporations, for big corporations.” With a president and USDA head who strongly support big agribusiness, however, this has been (and likely will continue to be) an uphill battle.

But perhaps this is not a battle we can afford to give up. In Simone Weil’s The Need For Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind, she describes the working conditions of an industrial factory employee, and suggests that these conditions attack the very dignity and humanity of those engaged in them:

From one day to the next, [the worker] finds himself an extra cog in a machine, rather less than a thing, and nobody cares any more whether he obeys from the lowest motives or not, provided he obeys. The majority of workmen have at any rate at this stage of their lives experienced the sensation of no longer existing, accompanied by a sort of inner vertigo, such as intellectuals or bourgeois, even in their greatest sufferings, have very rarely had the opportunity of knowing. … [T]he abolition of the proletarian lot … depends upon the creation of forms of industrial production and culture of the mind in which workmen can be, and be made to feel themselves to be, at home.

Weil here hits on a psychological, spiritual need that exists beyond the very basic demands which we should put upon our food industry. It should be obvious that workers should not be sprayed, lacerated, or killed in the name of cheapness or corporate profit. It should be obvious that they ought to be paid a fair wage, that their bodily needs such as hydration, proper shelter, and sick leave should be addressed. But beyond that, the work itself ought to encompass dignity and honor, creativity and pride. If we cannot offer that, then we are still treating our food workers poorly.

The same could be said of the animals we raise: in his book The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs: Respecting and Caring for All God’s Creation, farmer and author Joel Salatin argues that a food system should respect the dignity and beauty of the hog or chicken by offering them an atmosphere that fosters their happiness and wellbeing. A system that supports this honors God, and respects His creation. A system that does not, Salatin argues, is “pornographic”:

The whole idea of pornography, which of course the Christian community universally condemns, is instant and expedient gratification of a sacred act sanctified by marriage. Where is the Christian who dares to identify the pornographic food system that revels in death-inducing, sickness-encouraging, and creation-destroying orgies of self-indulgence? Strong language? Have you walked into a confinement factory chicken house lately? How about a confinement hog factory? Just like pornography disrespects and cheapens God-given and –sanctioned specialness in sex, factory-farmed hog houses disrespect and cheapen the God-sculpted specialness of pigs.

Many worry that obeying our moral obligations in the treatment of food workers, the cultivation of crops, or the raising of pigs would make food too expensive. One economist told the LA Times, “There’s a moral obligation to bring low-cost food to American consumers as not everyone can afford to buy grass-fed beef or antibiotic-free pork.”

But again, our food isn’t really cheap. We just pay the bill in other ways—say in a water supply that makes people sick, land that is severely eroded and depleted, or in a climate that is steadily deteriorating. We also pay for this food system when we go to the doctor’s office: as Pollan notes,

“Most of what we grow in this country is not food exactly, but rather feed for animals and the building blocks from which fast food, snacks, soda, and all the other wonders of food processing, such as high-fructose corn syrup, are manufactured. …Unfortunately, a diet dominated by such foods (as well as lots of meat and little in the way of vegetables or fruit—the so-called Western diet) predisposes us to obesity and chronic diseases such as hypertension and type-2 diabetes.

These ‘underlying conditions’ happen to be among the strongest predictors that an individual infected with Covid-19 will end up in the hospital with a severe case of the disease; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that 49 percent of the people hospitalized for Covid-19 had preexisting hypertension, 48 percent were obese, and 28 percent had diabetes. Why these particular conditions should worsen Covid-19 infections might be explained by the fact that all three are symptoms of chronic inflammation, which is a disorder of the body’s immune system.”

Undoubtedly, a system with more expensive food would require us to spend money in different ways. It would also require us to eat less meat, and to cultivate a food system in which the cereals we grow are nutritious and wholesome (a more diverse array of organic grains and legumes, for example, could help supply a cheaper meal base for Americans without sacrificing health).

But up until this point, we have not been willing to consider such sacrifices or changes—reform is hard and expensive, after all. It also requires us to oppose the powers that be: the aforementioned corporations who currently dominate our industry, and woo us with their promises of ease and cheapness.

But we must begin protecting the men and women who feed us, the land and water we rely on, and the animals whose bounty provide us with sustenance. This is not optional, for those of us who see ourselves as Christians, and thus as stewards of God’s creation. It is, in fact, a mandate: to love, to cherish, to protect, and to uphold.

As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his papal message for the World Day of Peace in 2010, “Our present crises – be they economic, food-related, environmental or social – are ultimately also moral crises, and all of them are interrelated. …We can no longer do without a real change of outlook which will result in new life-styles, ‘in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments’.”

We should not subsist on the suffering of others. The voices of those who suggest that we do not have to are often quieted or ignored. But even now, we can cultivate a food system that is different: one that is dignity-filled in its rhythms and methods of stewardship.

As Salatin puts it, “Perhaps nothing defines the hand of God more eloquently than when it makes something beautiful out of something ugly.” May we be part of this transforming work.

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Gracy Olmstead

Grace Olmstead writes from her home state of Idaho. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, Christianity Today, and others.