The Human Cost of Cheap Food

Written by Margaret Badore

In this week’s State of the Union Address, President Obama urged business owners to “give America a raise” and called for a higher minimum wage. These comments no doubt resonated with food service workers around the country, many of whom staged pickets and strikes with the same demands over the course of last year.

For years, the food movement has driven home the message that cheap food doesn’t include the true cost of its production. It doesn’t pay for the environmental costs of petroleum-derived fertilizers or pesticides. It doesn’t cover the health costs associated with a diet of fast food.

There’s another important cost that’s not accounted for: the labor of the people who bring us our food. From the farm workers who pick your fruit to the teller at the burger joint drive-through.

Yet again and again, issues taken up by the food movement are met with the threat of higher food prices and branded as “elitist.” In a recent interview with Amy B. Dean, food writer Michael Pollan pointed out that this is a popular rhetorical tool used by the factory food industry:

“That argument has been used to thwart all kinds of reform in the food industry. If we clean up our act, in any way, we’re going to have to pay more at the register. There’s a kernel of truth. If you raised the price of wages to people in the food industry to, say, $15 an hour in fast food, no doubt it would add to prices – although the claims of how much it would add to prices are exaggerated. However, those people would be able to afford more. That’s why we need to pay people more so they can afford it. There’s a virtuous circle of paying people more so that they can afford better stuff.”

We should also keep in mind that Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any other nation in the world. Pollan also points out that cheap food in the U.S. comes with externalized costs, specifically the taxpayer money that goes towards supporting the working poor and subsidies for big agriculture. He puts it simply, “Our food is dishonestly priced.”

This post was originally published in TreeHugger

Photo Credit: ricardore


Jim Ven
Jim Ven11 months ago

thanks for the article.

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa2 years ago

Thank you

Michael A.
Michael A3 years ago


Maria S.
Maria S3 years ago

The food industri is a disaster for the planet. Grow your own food.

Lis T.
Elisabeth T3 years ago

Thanks for the info...

Dianne T.
Dianne T3 years ago

There is so much wrong with this I don't know where to start. I am sure however that the current administrations policies are not helping anyone to rise out of poverty.

Rhonda Bird
Rhonda B3 years ago

I flagged Julia S. for spam.

Andy Walker
Past Member 3 years ago


Dennis D.
Dennis D3 years ago

John c. While i might have agreed with you 20 or even 15 years ago. The manufacturing jobs are gone. The majority of people are having to work in retail and fast food. That is the reality of today job environment. As long as this is going to be a reality. Quite frankly manufacturing is dead any ways with Three'D Printing technology. That will be making a larger impact going into the future.

Retail and fast food was once a way to kick start a a person work experience. Today it is the means of income for a lot of people. That means a wage a person can live on in today world.

John chapman
John chapman3 years ago

So the dollar menu is going to be the buck .20 menu, BFD.

We know these companies, & owners are just going to pass it along to us anyway.

Flipping burgers, shouldn't become a career, but this is what we've come to.