Thursday, August 27, 2009

Joel responds

The poor people question is the second most frequently asked question
after "can we feed the world?" So let's
address it.

First, enough money is in the food system for everyone to enjoy safe,
nutrient dense food generally from local sources.
When you look at the price per pound of candy, potato chips, TV
dinners, and Cocoa-Puffs, you will find that they are
NOT cheap. And if you factor in nutrition, they are definitely not
cheap. If you took the money currently spent on Coca-Cola,
Kentucky Fried Chicken, and McDonald's and spent it instead on local
nutrient-dense direct-from-the-farm food, the
system contains plenty of money to eat well. Processed, snack, and
junk foods are not cheap, and take up valuable
money from the food system that could be spent better. Show me the
poor family that doesn't have soft drinks and
potato chips in their house, and then we can talk real issues. For
most of our lives, Teresa and I have been below the
poverty level, by choice. I do not believe government statistics, now
do I believe advocacy agency statistics. So off
the top, let's realize that poverty is extremely subjective. And when
someone says they can't afford our food who spends
nothing on potato chips and soft drinks, then I'll entertain their

Second, most of the problem is a lack of domestic culinary skills.
This can be from ignorance, negligence, or laziness,
none of which has anything to do with money. Plenty of busy people
cook unprocessed food. Premium Idaho baking
potatoes occupy a tiny box in the produce section and sell for 10 cents
a pound. Two aisles over, microwavable frozen
premade French fries occupy 150 feet of freezer space, and sell for
$1.25 per pound. A couple more aisles over,
potato chips in bags occupy another 150 feet of shelf space and sell
for $4 a pound. That's what Polyface hamburger
costs. I am not willing to concede that most people in poverty are
really putting effort into their home kitchens to prepare
unprocessed meals.

Third, if local food were not prejudicially regulated, the price
differences would not be as apparent as they are. Most of
the premium pricing on local, nutrient-dense food has nothing to do
with production, but rather the nonscalable application
of onerous, capricious regulations. Infrastructure and paperwork
requirements that big operations spread over thousands
of pounds or gallons become exorbitant to a small business. For
example, Polyface last year tipped over into the mandatory
workmen's compensation program due to the number of employees.
Normally, a business our size would pay $3-5,000 a
year, but we pay more than $10,000. Why? Because we're classified as
a farm, and by regulation, a farm cannot have a
delivery driver who handles boxes. The ONLY driver a farm can have is
a high risk live animal hauler, right at the top end
of the actuarial risk category. So who pays for that extra $6,000?
The customer. If you want to see more evidence of this
capricious and asinine regulatory climate, please read my book:
that were it not for this regulatory climate, neighborhood food systems
would run circles around Wal-Mart both in quality
and price. And impoverished city food deserts would spout oases of
entrepreneurial local food networks, at a price folks
could more easily afford. The people demanding more invasive and
onerous food safety regulations, for example, actually
hate poor people because they advocate policies that create further
price prejudice against smaller scale food businesses.

Finally, this issue has a subconscious corollary that food should be
cheap. I don't have any problem with cheap food; I only
have a problem with good food being cheap. How many people classified
as poor have a flat screen TV? Or iphones? Why
doesn't anyone complain about the price of Cadillacs or plasma TVs?
You get what you pay for, and if you only pay for junk,
you get junk. And if you only pay for things that destroy the earth or
cheapen life, then that's the world you're creating. You
can make do on a lot less if you look, just like scrounging for
anything. If you ask for seconds on tomatoes, or can the mountain
of tomatoes local farmers are throwing away just before frost when the
plants explode with end-of-season premonitional bounty,
you can get premium local vegetables by the bushel for very little
money. Eating well does not require you to eat organic
tomatoes shipped air freight from Peru in January. You can eat better
by canning, drying, or freezing local seasonal bounty
and enjoying it in the off season. But that means getting busy,
refusing to be a victim, and being responsible. Unfortunately,
these good character qualities are not encouraged in the modern
American welfare class. When I see food stamps used
for TV dinners so that personal money can purchase beer and cigarettes,
I admit to being a bit dubious about the alleged
plight of poor people. And if everyone who didn't need to be weren't,
the numbers would be so small that some philanthropy
would solve the genuine problem--just like it used to.

Bottom line, I've found that I usually have money for what I consider
essential. If I really want to make something happen,
I'll passionately try to make it happen, without a handout and without
whining. That would probably be a good way for more
of us to live, don't you think?

~Joel Salatin


Cyndi Lewis said...


Cheysuli and gemini said...

I remember in college living with a group of women and two of us understood how much cheaper it would be to buy a whole chicken. One of them would spend food money on drumsticks because that's what she liked they seemed cheaper for a total package.

Most of our issues are about learning--we don't know how to live frugally. The sad thing is is that the poor THINK their things--the televisions and ipods will somehow make them feel better about being poor--when all they do is make them even poorer...

Laryssa Herbert said...

Wonderful post, I totally agree!

Fretion said...

Bravo! This is so true. Someone I know spent a year or so getting by on food stamps with a family of 3, and insisted on quality food fore a year, no "soft drinks and potato chips in their house", and after the end of that year she had a BALANCE of over $1,000 on her card. You are absolutely correct that there is NO REASON that someone who actually prepares their OWN food cannot afford to do so.

Anonymous said...

Cool Beans!

Or preferably, refried and still warm. Been broke, been bountiful, been in-between. Food (pretty good stuff, too) isn't all that hard to come by in our life. In other places, I understand it varies by more than I really want to consider. It always helps if you know how to cook, and that isn't that hard to learn - at least if you enjoy eating

Linda said...

I must've had a lazy moment the other day because I sat down and read the fine print on one of those satellite TV ads that comes with the rest of our junk mail. We don't have TV in our home so I was a bit curious as to the cost. For $110 per month you can get the "Premium package" of 256 channels and that doesn't include the cost to rent the equipment or the hook-up fees. Nor does it include the HD TV, or plasma do-dad, or the big screen that barely fits in anyone's living room.

My first thought was, "You can buy a lot of good food for $110/month!" Another thought I had was, "256 channels could sure make someone lazy real fast."

So between TV and junk food, there is plenty of money to spend on good, wholesome, healthy, unadulterated food from a local family farm!

Julie said...

While there is merit in some of these points (such as discussion of regulations which disadvantage small farms) there are also gross overgeneralizations about "the poor". For example, that "they" irresponsibly buy iphones and plasma TVs instead of good food. Or, that they seek handouts and whine, except for you and your family that is.

There are MANY barriers to accessing good, quality food for the poor and these challenges are substantially different for the urban poor and the rural poor. The "food gap" does exist and many groups and working towards changing that. Furthermore, this is more than an issue of socioeconomic status; over time Americans have spent less of their budget on food, adjusting to "cheap" food both in price and quality. This needs to change.

Making such broad and judgmental statements will only draw attention to your cause for all of the wrong reasons which would be unfortunate since it is a good cause. People tend to dismiss those they judge as making irate, fact-less claims. Lets focus on solutions because that is when we will have an impact.

Jeff and Noelle Harsanyi said...

When I was a child one summer on vacation with my family, my father drove the family car until it was out of gas, looking for "just a few cents cheaper". Since it was a diesel car, it had to be re-engined because of his desire to save a minute amount of money. Ah, the irony.

Even today, you see people who will drive to the next county for cheaper gas, or even trade their car in for better gas mileage, not realizing that the cost of the new car will be more to the family than the cost savings from the better gas mileage.

My take on this is that gas is an item that must be purchased often, and because of that, the pain of higher prices is felt often, as opposed to that plasma TV. (Of course, this isn't taking into account how easily one can purchase a plasma TV on credit for small payments per month that actually equate to a hideous mark-up in the price because of interest.)

People are cost-conscious overall, especially in today's economy. Many people scour the weekly grocery ads in search of deals, and when they can combine that with coupons they're in pig heaven. Most of these people probably aren't educated about feed lots and chicken barns, but probably wouldn't care anyway, once they saw that Grocery Mart was selling chicken breasts at $1.99 a pound.

I myself was raised in a family that looked for sales and used coupons, and for certain things I still use coupons, even though we're doing well financially. I will admit that, because of the concepts drilled into my head by my parents, those $1.99 chicken breasts still tempt me. But From the first word of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" I was hooked, and my husband and I have read everything we can get our hands on about the food system and sustainable farming.

Joel, we thought this was a great article and vantage point. We enjoy everything you write. We continue to support you and other farmers in our local area, in support of the movement. We look forward in the near future to being much more active and supportive of this movement.

Anonymous said...

A support of what Joel said is the number of people that pulled out their cell phones and took pictures and videos of Michelle Obama serving them food at the soup kitchen several months ago. Isn't it ironic that they can afford cell phones with picture and video capability but have to get free food. I teach high school, and I realize that too many people do not have a desire to care for themselves. They are happy allowing the government to care for them even though the care may be poor, such as the direction our country would like to go with healthcare. We have not learned by looking at the poor healthcare in Canada and Great Britain. They act like it is good, but fail to point out the number of Canadians that come to the United States for good healthcare.

Julie said...

Once again I am going to challenge the lack of knowledge evident in this discussion. There are undoubtedly low-income and homeless individuals who mismanage their money -- just as there are individuals of the middle-class and upper class who do so but have a larger cushion to protect them. yet that is not the only reason one becomes homeless or poor. It is possible to have an inexpensive cell phone and pay as you go plan. For many homeless individuals a cell phone can be both a mater of saftety, service continuity, and job obtainment. The stigma attached to using a shelter phone number on a job application and of constantly changing shelters is IMMENSE. And that is only one barrier. There is a REASON that the term cycle of poverty is utilized. I will also add that practically ALL cell phone have picture capability now so that cannot be used to augment your logic of blame.

Having an opinion about policies and how to handle social stratification and inequalities is one thing, but judging an entire group to be inferior to oneself is different. Making blanket statements from afar, without being informed, is inappropriate and unproductive. Again, if you want to be effective in seeking change you should be less focused on blame and more focused on sustainable solutions developed from thorough knowledge of the subject (or in this case of a population). As a start I recommend reading some of the comments on the previous post ("Join the discussion") as these comments focus more on solutions and include awareness of and recognition of the multifaceted challenges faced by low income families.

Evelyn said...

I'm a landlord of bread & butter units. I have a lot of low income people in my buildings. There are some who manage their money well & I loose them to home ownership. Those who manage money well don't stay poor, they elevate themselves. I've been poor, but I elevated myself.
When I was 9 yrs old, my father had to evict some tenants. He'd made good money, but he had a heart attack. They'd spent all the money he'd made on pretty things & looked down on us, because we wore thrift shop clothes. My father felt badly for them but said that he had to bring something good out of it. So, he sat us down & told us about those people. He didn't know where the people would end up, but said that we should use their story so we didn't end up the same place. That weekend I put away 1/4 of the money I got for work done around the house. I saved 1/4 of everything I earned until I had children to support by myself. I picked pennies up of the street, I bought the large, economy size of scratch food & cooked ahead so that my kids could pop dinner in the microwave while I was studying. I was doing 25 semester units & holding down 3 part-time jobs. But I still put money away... every week. I bought my first apartment building with the money I'd have pissed away if I weren't frugal. When I was in school, for 4 years, I got food stamps. During that time I saved enough stamps to feed us for 3 years.

Challenges? I've faced challenges a-plenty & what doesn't kill you makes you stronger... if you pull yourself out of it. If the gubermnt pulls you out, they just make you weaker.

I now own a farm, so that my children can have healthy food. I don't sit back & whine that someone should provide it to us. I paid a lot of money for it & I give most of the meat to my partner. (And, I'm looking for a new partner if anyone is interested.) I congratulate anyone who walks the walk, instead of just talking the talk.

Anonymous said...

This is an extremely dissapointing post. I truly thought that Mr. Salatin was emerging as a leader for this important movement. This is obviously not the case. Leaders DO NOT regard other members of our human family with such a lack of understanding and empathy.
I hope sooner than later, you are lucky enough to meet someone, or have an experience that makes you think differently, as it would do you a lot of good to sustain your judgement on others.
Supposing you know what others are going through is very unfair and very unbecoming. It suggests a lack of intellegence as to the depths and intricacies of the human brain and the human experience.

BN said...

Wow, people get so defensive about food. I'm willing to bet Salatin's critics are eating Dorito's and drinking Pepsi as they read this post.

I agree 100%. Everytime I am behind someone who is paying with food stamps at the grocery store, their cart is filled with only processed junk. Frozen pizzas, chips, soda, maybe a gallon of milk, margarine, cake mixes, etc. You are what you eat, people!

Anonymous said...

BN - Don't you feel so smug and morally superior when you judge what other people buy at the grocery store! You should tell them how shitty their choices are! Go ahead, tell them. Barge over to them and tell them. See how that works out for you.

I work at a small local grocery store. Every ACCESS card carrying customer buys good food. Sometimes I don't bother to scrutinize what they buy because, well, I'm not a jerk like that.

Do something better with your life other than judging what people buy at the grocery store.

Riley said...

Hey Anonymous, don't you just feel so smug and superior picking on people behind all of that anonymity!? Yeah, as you point your finger, remember you've got 3 more pointing back at you. Funny how that works.

Turns out there are 3 (or more) types of people:
1. those who can and do until something horrible happens, and then you really see them shine as they fight vehemently to do for themselves again. They spent a relatively short amount of time living poor, and soon are back to meeting their own needs. Most of us will spend some short amount of time in this state during our lifetimes, especially given the economic environment the Fed has created.

2. those who can and ... well... "whatev dude! It's all good... YOUR uncle Sam's got my back! I DESERVE this... it's my RIGHT! YOU can spare a $50!"

3. those who CAN'T and either know and try, or are oblivious to the cost WE pay for their lives.

I don't think anyone here is knocking person 1, because pain has no mercy, and suffering is no respecter of age, race, or position. And even though there is real money flowing OUT of our wallets, I don't think anyone here is even h8ing on person 3.

It's the entitlement babies that can, but don't because it's easier to reach for a handout than a hand up. And in the end, its easier for people to have low expectations than to be 97% of the way to AMAZING! and disappoint the idiots who can't appreciate how wonderful they are, and are instead stuck on the idea that they were SO close and instead a disappointment.

Reality is that I've been poor and now I'm doing pretty ok. I've had to live off of food stamps, but only for 2 months, because I am type 2.

The mentally rich never stay poor for long.


A Grass Farmer said...

Some of the self-righteous posts in this discussion about "judging" the poor make me sick. I lived most of my early life (5 yrs to 20 yrs) on welfare and food stamps in and around government housing projects. For decades, I saw firsthand all the junk the food stamps, and the cash they were traded for, bought. Obviously, there can be exceptions, but Salatin has nailed it.
My guess is that some of those who are whining about the "judging" are those who are making their living by "serving" the poor. That's where most of the welfare money goes -- not to the poor -- but to non-profit and government social service agencies that refuse to "judge" the poor because if they "judged" them, the poor might learn some useful things and cease to be dependent on them. Oh no, we can't tell the poor the hard truth about bad habits. If we do, some social service agencies, political parties, non-profits, etc. might lose a great many constituents! So somebody courageous enough to state the bare truth (a.k.a. Salatin) gets walloped with an attempted guilt trip for "judging" whenever he says something that might actually help the poor to live better and get out of poverty! Those of you who are crying "judging" are not fooling anyone. Your motives are obvious and disgusting.

Anonymous said...

Grass Farmer,

Aren't you also judging others in your post?

Just a thought.

Also, most social service agencies provide access to things (assistance enrolling in classes, apartment rental assistance, legal help, etc.) to improve the poor's situation, so to argue that they try to make people dependent isn't accurate.

Anonymous said...

Yikes! I think the point was that healthy food is more affordable than it seems at first glance.

The true, full cost of one bag of potato chips is not the $3.49 stamped on the bag. It includes such factors as the fossil-fuel-produced packaging that will sit in a landfill, the fossil-fuel-derived fertilizers that pollute our water sources, a small fraction of the cost of courageous human life dying overseas, among more noble efforts, to maintain our access to fossil fuels, and of course the cost of the healthcare that will be required down the road when these salty fats clog your arteries. That's a lot more than $3.49. Add it all up, and you're buying a small fraction of the multi-million dollar Super Bowl ad, a small fraction of the multi-million dollar salary of the executive of the company, a small fraction of the dividend lining the pockets of the already wildly wealthy.

Buy a locally, organically and sustainably grown potato, and all you're buying is potato and a little profit for a neighbor.

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