By Tom Philpott
Since I last knocked heads with The Atlantic’s David Freedman over Big Food and its potential to “end obesity”—see his piece, my response, his #odd# response to my response, our joint appearance on a Minnesota Public Radio show, and one more follow-up by me—there has been more fast food news than I can keep up with, most of it involving McDonald’s, a company Freedman places at the vanguard of the anti-obesity effort.
The first item involves wages. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Freedman that one way Big Food contributes to our national weight problem is by paying its vast army of workers a pittance. Poverty is heavily associated with obesity and other chronic health conditions. The industry profits by holding costs down, and it does that in part by paying as little as possible. A 2012 analysis by the Food Chain Workers Alliance found that 86 percent of the 20 million people who work within the food chain—that’s a sixth of the overall US workforce—bring home less than a living wage. Food-system workers are 50 percent more likely to rely on food stamp (SNAP) benefits than the overall working population, the report found. Not surprisingly, the food-system workforce is getting restive—hence recent strikes by Walmart workers, as well as walk-offs by fast-food employees in New York City, Detroit, Seattle, and St. Louis and fast-food/retail worker strikes in Chicago and Milwaukee. Fast-food workers in seven cities plan to strike next week.