On Thanksgiving, Trump, and Cheap Food

November 22, 2016 | 10:06 am
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

Just in time for the most delicious holiday of them all, UCS has launched a new video featuring Mark Bittman in the kitchen. He’s cooking up a tasty whole grain dish with fall favorites—savory butternut squash, fresh cranberries, whole grains, and a touch of maple syrup—and talking about the sorry state of the US food system, and why our new president needs to take action to fix it.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking.

Yes, we shot this video (along with the others in our series) months ago. On the face of it, a foodie cooking video, even one featuring a dish that costs just 75 cents per serving to make, sounds a bit out of touch with the economic despair voiced this month by many US voters.

But hear me out, because the topic is “cheap” versus “affordable” food—and that distinction has implications for some of the very constituencies President-elect Trump courted so effectively: American farmers and workers.

Straight talk about cheap food

Because of course, farmers and workers need to eat too. In fact, our food system employs millions of hard-working people—from the farmers and farm workers who grow and harvest food, to the slaughterhouse workers and line cooks who process and prepare it, to the supermarket checkers and diner waitresses who sell and serve it—and they all deserve to make a decent living and support their families.

But our current policy-driven food system is geared toward simply making food cheap. It treats farms like factories, pumps out simple sugars and fats for processed junk food, and exploits low-wage workers. While the CEOs of big multinational food companies (like this one) make a fortune selling cheap processed food (and consumers get sick eating it), the farmers and workers who make cheap food just get squeezed. US farmers receive an estimated 17.4 cents of every dollar that consumers spend on food. And 5 of the 8 worst paying jobs in America are held by workers in the food system.

Thanksgiving dinner for less than a 5-spot?

Last week, the American Farm Bureau Federation (aka Farm Bureau) released its annual price survey of iconic items found on the Thanksgiving Day dinner table. The Farm Bureau touted the results in a press release proclaiming that the average cost of the holiday feast for 10 this Thursday will be $49.87, a 24-cent decrease from last year’s average of $50.11.

“Consumers will pay less than $5 per person for a classic Thanksgiving dinner this year,” the Farm Bureau spokesperson said proudly. And year-round, Americans are spending just 9.8 percent of their income on food—about half what they spent in 1960.


But are farmers benefiting from the system that brings cheap food to our tables?

It doesn’t seem like it. Because while food has gotten cheaper, the last 30 years or so have also seen worrying trends in the demographics of farming and the economics of farm communities. Farmers are getting older as fewer farm kids stay in the business—in 2012, the average age was 58.3 years—and high land prices mean that farmland is concentrated in ever fewer hands. Midsize family farms, historically the backbone of rural economies in the United States, have been disappearing for almost two decades. UCS estimates that nearly 56,000 midsize farms were lost nationally between 2007 and 2012.

As these farms have disappeared, jobs and economic opportunity have evaporated and rural communities have declined. Research has shown that areas having more midsize farms and a stronger middle class have lower poverty and unemployment rates, higher average household incomes, and greater socioeconomic stability.

A new USDA report on the state of rural America in 2016 paints a grim picture: rural employment has been slow to rebound since the Great Recession—much slower than in cities—and farming-based counties have lost 4 percent of their population since 2000.

Reforming the food system could create jobs in the heartland

Over the last year, candidate Donald Trump spoke repeatedly about the need to bring back good-paying jobs in this country. That message apparently resonated with voting demographics that may have put him over the top—working-class and rural voters, especially in the Midwest. As his administration gets under way, he could put his words into action by taking steps to help struggling farmers and revive rural communities by reforming and coordinating our nation’s farm and food policies.

He could work with Congress to put in place new and expanded policies that help more young and beginning farmers to access land and credit; connect farmers growing real food (read: butternut squash, not commodity corn) with local markets; and increase public investment in research, technical assistance, and incentives for farmers to adopt diversified, low-input agricultural systems. Recent research has demonstrated the value of such policies. For example, recent UCS analysis in Iowa showed that connecting new and existing farmers with large food buyers such as supermarkets, restaurants, hospitals, and school districts can help bring back midsize farms and create tens of thousands of jobs.

If such actions were part of a focused effort to align the US food system with values of health, sustainability, and prosperity for all, we could begin to turn around many of the adverse outcomes of today’s system, from low-paying jobs and economic stagnation in our nation’s rural areas to farm pollution and diet-related diabetes. This is something we asked the presidential candidates to consider during the campaign. Now, after all his talk about helping American workers and cash-strapped families, President-elect Trump could actually take up their cause by pursuing a better, fairer food system once in office.

Will he? Let’s keep asking.