Although there is plentiful medical research surrounding the topic of organic food, not much has been said regarding the privilege and classism of their consumption. I’ll be presenting several points to consider in this post, including those of wealth, race, and location.
Organic Food and Wealth: The Upper-class Advantage
In the picture above, you see several grocery list staples — bread, eggs, and milk. These are food items that both wealthy and low-income families purchase regularly. However, note the price difference between these three organic and non-organic items. On average, organic food costs 42% more than regular or store-brand food. What does this mean for families? (Here, we will be considering the USDA’s official “Food at Home” budget plan for families.)
For the wealthy: An upper middle-class couple may spend over $780 per month on groceries alone. This family doesn’t worry about utility bills or mortgage payments. They drive a luxury vehicle or two and spend more money on entertainment alone than any other income bracket. Buying all organic food is a possibility. They may regularly purchase fresh coconut water, non-GMO popcorn with truffle oil, grass-fed ground buffalo, or wild-caught salmon steaks. The sky is the limit.
For the middle class: Assume a middle-class couple has a monthly grocery budget of $400-600. They don’t drive a brand new BMW or enjoy sushi every weekend, but they can splurge on minor things, like seeing a movie while it’s in theaters and some organic food items. This may include vegetables from a farmers market, Horizon milk, and fair-trade coffee beans. They’re careful with their money, but the world won’t end if they go over-budget.
For low-income couples: I will include my own food budget here as an example. My husband and I spend roughly $150-200 on groceries per month without the use of food stamps. The USDA’s so-called “thrifty plan” (the cheapest plan) for eating healthy food at home is roughly $200 over-budget for us. We buy no organic food, and our utilities get turned off if we spend too much.
Families like ours are not rare by any means. In 2013, the US Census declared that 15% of the American populace has an income at or below the federal poverty line (although some argue that the poverty line is outdated). In addition to this, the US Census stated that white families account for only 10% of the United States poverty rate, while black families account for 27% and Hispanic families total over 28%. The percentage of poverty among American Indians is even greater. This brings us to our next topic.
Organic Food and Race: An Issue of White Privilege
In this picture, you see a white family of four eating dinner at home. Notice how each member of the family is present, how well-dressed they are, the room they are eating in, and the healthy food on the table. For some, this is a typical scenario. For others, like low-income people of color, it’s a standard popularized by the American media and not a realistic, achievable goal. To learn why this is, we must first consider three important facts.
1. White households earn 10-13 times the median wealth of black and Hispanic households. This is by no means a simple issue that can be explained in a single blog post, and certainly not one paragraph. To summarize, inequality in education, inheritances, home ownership, and income strongly factor into median wealth discrepancies between races.
2. Black and Hispanic families eat more fast food than white people do. Fast food is affordable, filling, and the easy choice for those without adequate time to prepare meals. Since people in poverty often have wildly fluctuating hours, and there are more non-whites in poverty than white people, we can logically conclude — in some part — the reasoning behind these statistics.
3. Non-white families are more likely to be single-parent households, and single-parent households earn less than half the income of two-parent families. This is another issue that can’t be adequately explained here. To be brief, non-white families may be more likely to be single-parent households due to inequality in education and opportunities. Many conservative circles suggest the problem is actually cultural, but research data leans toward systemic racism as a causative factor.
Now that we have collected and examined this information, we can start connecting the socioeconomic inequality dots, so to speak. The likelihood that a group of people will purchase certain food items over others is largely dependent on poverty and the various inequalities surrounding daily life of the impoverished, including racial discrepancies. This means that, considering the price of organic food noted previously, poor non-white families are significantly less likely to consume it than white families. Therefore, we can conclude that the purchase and consumption of organic food is a white privilege.
Organic Food and Location: Farmers Markets or Food Deserts
Above, we see a small convenience grocery in a low-income area of San Antonio, Texas. These so-called “ghetto” markets provide few food items with high nutritional content, but may offer chips, soda, and other unhealthy goods instead. They are far from large supermarkets, and business owners use their location as an opportunity to charge exorbitant prices for normally cheap products. If you find yourself in a town that doesn’t have a Wal-Mart for miles, yet you find one of these, you’re in what’s known as a food desert — and you’re unlikely to find any farmers markets or organic food.
A food desert is defined as a location where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain, particularly without a vehicle. Nearly all food deserts in the United States are also low-income areas. Food deserts exist for a number of reasons, and individuals in poverty — especially those who rely on bus lines to travel — have difficulty leaving them. Let’s dig deeper.
1. Supermarket chains aren’t interested in food deserts. Business owners have concerns about high crime rates in poverty-stricken areas, and the profit margin is significantly less than that of affluent suburban neighborhoods. Simply speaking, return of investment would be minimal or nonexistent, and for-profit grocery chains make decisions with concern for their bottom line.
2. Convenience grocery stores overcharge their customers. Food desert markets are 36% more expensive than chain supermarket stores because they charge extra for availability. These places are certain to be within walking distance of apartment complexes or trailer parks. Men and women who cannot afford their own vehicle rely on groceries within walking distance of their homes or workplaces. Despite the convenience of being nearby, the increased prices of convenience and drug stores negate the benefit as they contribute to the economic struggles that keep impoverished people in food deserts.
3. So, why don’t convenience stores start selling fruits and vegetables? Why don’t they sell organic food? A number of factors play a part in this, but the simplest one may play the biggest part — people below the poverty line are stressed out. Concerns about things like work, rent, and unpaid bills are enough to keep anyone up at night. Studies show that people who experience high levels of stress eat food with more sodium, carbs, and saturated fat. There is also evidence that, even when healthy food is made available in food deserts, it is still much more expensive than other food options.
4. Assuming that a poverty-stricken area even had a farmers market, fewer than half of them accept any food stamps at all.
Aim to Recognize Your Dietary Privilege
Now that you have read more about the classism, white privilege, and location-related issues surrounding the availability and purchase of organic food, it’s time to think about where you stand. Can you afford to buy one or more organic items every time you go to the grocery? That’s a privilege for the wealthy. Are you a white American who enjoys a full meal with your white family, and you’ve never experienced anything different? That’s a white privilege. Do you have a Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Kroger, Trader Joe’s, or Aldi’s within 5-10 miles of your home? That’s privilege, too.
Let’s get one thing straight: being privileged is okay. Sometimes, especially with issues of race, we can’t help being privileged. We’re born that way. The important thing is understanding why others are not as lucky, all while accepting that we might never fully understand. I know that racial profiling happens, but as a white woman, I’m unlikely to experience it. I know that rich people can afford full grocery lists of organic food, but I can’t, and I know that doesn’t make me a lesser person. Privilege separates people, but it can also bring them together when we learn to empathize with those who are different from us.