The True Cost of Food

What is food to you? When you enter the shiny, fluorescent, pristine walls of a grocery store, what do you think of? For me, food was always about finding a good deal or bargain in the overbearing and slightly ominous Walmart. As I grew older and learned about the harmful effects of petrochemicals (pesticides, herbicides, and manufactured fertilizer), I hopped on to the organic bandwagon and started investing in produce that I believed was “healthier”–both for me and the environment (Ruland). At the time, organic produce was marginally more expensive, yet with the rise in demand and supply, prices have declined over the years (Wilcox). I wonder at what expense this price reduction might come at.

While the “organic” label may lead consumers believe they are supporting ecological/environmental protection and protecting their bodies from pesticides, I encourage everyone to look beyond the label. The workers at Duke Farm will tell you the organic label is not all that it seems. The USDA has set surprisingly low environmental minimums (over twenty chemical pesticides still meet US organic standards) for farms to meet in addition to required fees to pay (in the range of thousands of dollars) in order to provide the “organic” label (Wilcox). This makes it difficult for smaller local farms to legally define their techniques as organic, even if their agricultural practices are much more sustainable than the large-scale monocultural farms.

The lack of discretion in determining where your food comes and how it is feasible to be marked at such a low price reveals the problem with modern American food production: the disconnect between the producer and the consumer. Other than the farmers’ markets (don’t get me wrong, I love farmers’ markets, but prices can be a large drawback for some households), the modern American consumer buys their produce at a supermarket or grocery store without even knowing where exactly it came from or what went into it (Holmes). What consumers fail to see when buying our five dollar pint of organic blueberry Haagen Dazs ice cream from Whole Foods is the countless hours of back-breaking, underpaid, discriminatory migrant labor that goes into that one flavor of blueberries. An example: Tanaka Farm, in Skagit Valley, Washington. Every summer, hundreds of migrants from the Triqui tribe in Oaxaca, Mexico make the life-threatening trek across the border for the opportunity to work on this farm (Holmes).

While many migrants are caught, detained, and transported back to Oaxaca, the few that make it to Tanaka Farms work twelve hour shifts, constantly hunched over to quickly fill the fifteen pound buckets to receive minimum wage (Holmes). When the work day is over, they return to the farm-provided living quarters, with cracks in the walls and ceilings and insufficient utilities to safely live with. When Tanaka farm managers were questioned about the working and living conditions, they justified the need to economically compete with outsourced farms in other countries that had negligent working conditions and sold their produce commodities at  lower prices (Holmes). However, there is no possible explanation to condone or warrant the mistreatment and verbal and physical abuse of the migrant workers, especially not when white American workers on the farm live in separate and monumentally nicer living quarters.

While we savor every lush spoonful of what we consider overpriced, luxury ice cream, there is someone working twelve hours a day constantly bent over to reach the fruit lining the ground, never taking the needed break at the risk of getting fired. Look further than my specific example of ice cream. Look at every bite you take. What went into the production of this food? What are the external costs and factors not labelled in our food? Who might be suffering for the price reduction?


Information from:

Holmes, Seth. 2013. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farm Workers in the United States. UC Press.

Ruland, Greg. “The Harmful Effects of Petrochemicals on the Environment.” Sciencing, Leaf Group Ltd., 25 Apr. 2017, sciencing.com/harmful-effects-petrochemicals-environment-8771898.html.

Wilcox, Christie. “Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture.” Scientific American Blog Network, 18 July 2011, blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/httpblogsscientificamericancomscience-sushi20110718mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/.