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The Human Cost Of Cheap Food

New York City's fast food workers' strike is the latest attempt by food workers to make consumers recognize the complex costs of eating on the cheap.

Retail employees from most major fast food outlets throughout New York City struck on April 4th to demand a living wage.

[photo 1]


On April 4, hundreds of New York City fast-food workers walked off the job, striking for higher wages and the right to unionize.

The strike was heavily covered by various major news outlets. But in many respects, the comments posted by users on news media websites have been more interesting than the news coverage itself.

While some commenters are sympathetic to strikers, others insist that increased wages for fast food workers would drive up prices beyond what consumers would be willing to pay, or that employees are unreasonable to demand more than minimum wage for a job that could be done by “automatons.”

Both of these claims raise a common question: What is the value of the human contribution to the food that we eat?

Fast Food Strike: An Overview

This month’s fast food strike was the second to happen in New York in the past six months.

In both cases, strikers were employees of major fast food chains, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, Papa John’s Pizza and Yum! Brands Inc. — owner of Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut and WingStreet.

The majority of strikers earn minimum wage — $7.25 an hour — or only slightly above it, and have argued that it’s virtually impossible to live in New York City on that salary.

Their demands include a pay increase to $15 per hour and the right to form a union.

Passing On The Savings

The argument that paying workers more will force fast food companies out of business has a cognate in the discussion about the impact of immigration policy on food prices.

By hiring immigrant workers — often undocumented — to harvest crops, employers are able to keep wage expenses low and, in the case of under-the-table workers, to avoid paying taxes. Conservative media outlets have widely circulated footage of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asserting that this immigrant labor gives Americans the ability to “enjoy some of the least-expensive food in the world.”

In contrast, progressives have latched on to a study that indicates that raising farm worker wages by 40 percent would raise the annual cost of produce for most American families by only $16.

Organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have sprung up to protect the rights of migrant workers to earn living wages. Still, corporations are reluctant to commit to purchasing from farms that pay fair wages because of its potential impact on their bottom line.

[photo 2]

Consumer-Producer Connection

As foodies and farmers lament, providing exceptionally affordable food often requires companies to obscure the humanpower behind it.

In an interview with our own Annie Corrigan, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms explained that in order to work with a high-volume retailer like (Walmart subsidiary) Sam’s Club, the retailer would have to change its marketing paradigm so radically, it would be unrecognizeable.

The fact is that a certain business model attracts a certain mentality. When you have a business model predicated on cheaper and on volume and without regard to externalized costs, whether they’re energy costs or military costs that are incurred to keep fuel (prices) low, that attracts a certain kind of patron. The question is can any of these Walmart-type business models actually change their model to attract people like us? And I would say that in order to do that, they would no longer be Walmart. They might change, but in doing so, they would lose the solid patron base that they currently have.

Salatin is talking, here, about the economics of running a small, sustainable farm as compared to a large, industrial one.  But wages count among the externalized costs he mentions. A business model predicated on cheaper and on volume cannot also be built on workers receiving living wages and good benefits.

[photo 3]


In New York City, strikers held placards that read “I AM A MAN” and “I AM A WOMAN.” The “I AM A MAN” slogan was made famous by the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, and became a significant catch-phrase of the civil rights era.

In light of the comments about robots and monkeys, the phrases take on new, potent meaning.

They say: until a robot is doing my job instead of me, I remain a person, hard-working, and entitled to be treated as such.

Read More:

  • New York McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza Workers Strike (CNN)
  • McDonald’s Workers Demand Higher Pay In NYC Strike (Bloomberg)
  • NYC’s Fast Food Workers Strike, Demand ‘Living Wages’ (NPR)
Sarah Gordon

Sarah Gordon has been interested in food ethics since she was 15, learned about industrial slaughter, and launched into 10 years of vegetarianism. These days, she strives to be a conscientious omnivore. Now a PhD candidate in folklore, her research has caused her to spend a lot of time in the remote Canadian sub-arctic, where the lake trout (sustainably harvested) tastes amazing.

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