The True Price of Bread

A baker explores our unjust food system, and the ways a guaranteed basic income could repair it.

A stack of freshly baked loaves at the author’s Ottawa bakery, Bread by Us. (Photo by Jessica Carpinone)

Can a group of like-minded people build a prosperous life for themselves by making bread? Five years ago, my partner and I attempted to answer that question by opening a modest-sized bakery in Ottawa: Bread by Us. From day one, we’ve been dedicated to challenging the hierarchical and exploitative aspects of our industry, while also serving the community in our rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood. The bakery has been a fascinating social and financial microcosm, allowing me to test my ideals and see if they hold up to the pressures of the capitalist system we live in.

Since opening the shop, I’ve struggled to understand the conditions that enable the undervaluing of food workers. Early on, I thought blame lay squarely on employers, which meant I could resolve poverty at my own shop as long as I made it a priority. However, over the years, I’ve begun to understand the systemic devaluation of our work, and the complexity of rectifying it.

So much of what plagues our industry stems from employer greed and neglect — sometimes out of malicious intent, other times from woeful ignorance. So many of my peers in the food business perpetuate a culture of exploitation and disrespect. They really are the ones accountable for the harm done to workers: from rampant sexual harassment and normalized aggressive behaviour, to unrealistic expectations, unfair scheduling practices, wage theft, and blatant disregard for labour law. However, pressure to keep wages low and conditions poor in our industry so often comes from the broader society.

Given how much labour, training, dedication, and sacrifice it takes to produce nourishing food, I often wonder how people arrive at their assessment of what a particular product is worth. People seem to have an acute awareness of what a loaf of bread “should” cost; I suppose it’s rooted in the idea that bread is a staple and shouldn’t exceed a certain price. I respect that sentiment, but it’s difficult to accept when I look at the arbitrary ways people rank what foods and beverages are worth.

We sell coffee at our store, and it always amazes me what “market value” is on a cup of coffee versus a loaf of bread. Imagine an $8 pint of beer in a restaurant and contrast that with a $6 loaf of bread. Both are made using similar ingredients, processes, and labour, but one nourishes us for half an hour, and the other for close to a week. Canadians spend less on food than most of the world (14% of our annual income, on average, according to Statistics Canada). Some serious soul-searching is warranted to find out who bears the brunt of this luxury.

Consumers will pay more for a pint of beer than a loaf of bread, even though one nourishes for a night, and the other for close to a week (Photo by Jessica Carpinone)

Answer: food workers. For a sobering glimpse into the fate of so many, see the Toronto Star’s “Undercover in Temp Nation,” which describes sweatshop conditions in one of Canada’s largest bakeries. I want my team to live with basic comforts: a home that suits their needs, good quality food, access to medical, dental, and mental health resources, and maybe even a little left over for pleasure. How can I build this future for myself and my staff in a society that undervalues our labour? How can we continue to make the food we love to make, and serve and support our community, but also live a financially stable life?

Employers managing to pay their employees the new minimum wage should resist patting ourselves on the back.

The recently mandated $15/hour minimum wage in Ontario is a good start, but it’s not nearly enough. Even with the existing legislation — which is under threat by the newly elected conservative government lead by Doug Ford — our team (including ownership) lives hovering around the poverty line. Poverty wages are even more punishing in cities with astronomical housing costs, like Toronto and Vancouver. Employers managing to pay their employees the new minimum wage should resist patting ourselves on the back.

We make a type of bread that had been seriously threatened by industrialized bread-making, and we’ve shared that endangered knowledge with hundreds of people through workshops. My team and I are motivated by our love of bread and community, and hopefully in it for the long haul, so future generations can know what it feels and tastes like to consume a nourishing loaf of bread. To achieve the quality and consistency we do — and to train a full-time permanent staff to execute it day-to-day — is a massive undertaking. The people who make and serve our bread are masters of their craft. They’ve trained for months, sometimes years, and in many cases paid a lot of money to learn the craft. They are the best in the business, and they can’t break the poverty barrier.

The choices that conscientious business owners have to make are unfair. To produce the best food I can using the most ethically sourced ingredients, and compensate my staff and myself adequately without placing my products out of range for the people that live around my shop, I have to prioritize a dizzying number of considerations. I’ve learned that, in order to run a business that produces high-quality food and respects the needs of workers and the community, shop owners and workers must absorb a personal financial sacrifice.

I am proud of the balance we’ve struck. Some people are baffled that we haven’t adopted a 100% organic, or local, or GMO-free approach. We use roughly 50% organic flour in our breads, and 100% organic in our pastries, and buy from a lot of local producers. We fall short of “perfection” because of a conscious decision to keep our food affordable. Even then, our prices are still out of reach for some, which is something we grapple with.

(One of the ways we try to give back to the neighbourhood is a pay-it-forward program modelled on the “suspended coffee” concept. Although we don’t keep a perfectly precise count, we’ve tallied over 4,000 pre-purchased items since opening. We receive contributions daily, and at least 20 to 30 people in the neighbourhood enjoy our products free of charge on a regular or semi-regular basis.)

A system built on crushing expectation and little compensation is at risk of not living up to its full potential (at best) and impending doom/falling apart (at worst).

The commodification and devaluation of food production adds a human cost that undermines our food system as a whole. Occupational injuries stemming from chronic strain are one example. The physicality of the work means that we all develop “wear and tear” injuries over the years. We experience unchecked mental and physical health issues because we lack access to health care available to people with more resources. One of the biggest issues facing bakers and cooks is that they succumb to their occupational strains so young. Even if they love the work, they can’t afford to wear themselves down forever without adequate compensation and time to recover.

How are issues like chronic financial stress, unchecked physical and mental health issues, and a general sense of being undervalued affecting our food system? I would venture to guess that a system built on crushing expectation and little compensation is at risk of not living up to its full potential (at best) and impending doom/falling apart (at worst). (The CBC broadcast an in-depth discussion on why we need to radically change thinking about food production for the sake of our health and well-being, which I highly recommend: “The Hidden Power of Food: Finding Value in What we Eat.”)

This struggle is far from monolithic. The stakes are high for all of us, but even higher for some.

Though it’s beyond the scope of this article, I would be remiss not to mention the ways struggle and poverty are compounded for so many people in our industry — by factors like gender, race, and immigration status. I’m painting a picture of general struggle, but I want to acknowledge that this struggle is far from monolithic. The stakes are high for all of us, but even higher for some.

How can we begin to compensate service professionals and food-makers so they feel respected in their work, without jacking up the price of a staple like bread? How can we empower them to leave abusive workplaces? How can we ensure that those who make and serve our food do not burn out and “expire” before they should? How can we ensure that the most vulnerable in society are cared for and stand a chance?

In the lead-up to Ontario’s recent provincial election, I heard serious conversations about a guaranteed basic income, and began to think about the ways that policy could begin to alleviate some of the challenges faced by food workers.

A guaranteed basic income seems to resolve at least a few problems in our industry:

  1. It adds income into the pockets of people in traditionally low-wage jobs. Better income leads to better overall health for workers, and results in more disposable income that typically gets spent in local economies. (As one of my staff cheekily put it: when they get more money, they tend to spend it, not hoard it in offshore bank accounts!).
  2. Possibly most importantly, it resolves issues of equity. From an abuser’s standpoint (whether that’s a boss, landlord, or spouse), it’s riskier to mistreat someone when they have the option to walk away. Basic income could have a strong emancipatory effect on the most vulnerable people in our industry and broader society. A basic income is typically not enough to sustain someone unemployed for a long time, but it can help them transition out of a bad situation without fear of becoming destitute.
  3. Basic income could help slow down or alleviate the trend toward rising food costs, translating into savings for customers. If my staff could get a raise supported by taxpayers — in the form of a basic income — I could imagine keeping the cost of our products low for a long time to come. Without some help, I can’t envision maintaining our quality while compensating our team fairly and keeping prices down.

Basic income is meant to be a complementary income, not a primary wage. I recognize the need for employers to continue to pay their fair share of wages, and not lean on basic income as an excuse to fill their pockets; minimum wage laws would need to remain strong and enforced. Basic income can be a tool to support workers and independent businesses, and should not be used to unfairly benefit the richest corporations. Given the basic income projects being discussed in Canada propose a funding model based on taxation of the wealthiest corporations, they stand to help those in most dire need while tackling the issue of income inequality.

We already exist in a balance between capitalism and socialism — though the balance seems off, judging by the income disparity between the richest and the working poor.

In Canada, we already exist in a balance between capitalism and socialism — though the balance seems off, judging by the income disparity between the richest Canadians and the working poor. Before the now-threatened minimum wage legislation was put in place, one third of Ontarians were making less than $15/hour in their jobs. They were working to remain poor.

I am by no means satisfied with basic income as a cure for income disparity and inequity, but I do think it could help sustain traditionally low-wage workers across several industries. In the basic income pilots that have been done, results show that people are not disincentivized to work, and the administrative burden of running the system is much less than the various current systems of welfare and unemployment payments.

Our food system is at once enjoyed and needed by all, yet heavily strained and undervalued. I approached opening a business not just as a craftsperson who wanted to pursue my dream of baking bread for my community, but as someone who wholeheartedly opposed a system that relies heavily on an underclass of underpaid (and sometimes unpaid) workers. I spend a lot of time thinking about alternative workplace models, but some problems are too systemic for individuals to tackle alone.

One of the greatest tools for personal emancipation is a financial safety net. Impoverished people can’t leave an abusive workplace, or assert their legal rights: labour law can usually only be exercised by people who have resources. Implementing a basic income could be a crucial first step in addressing the toxicity that permeates our industry. A workforce that has options is a workforce that can assert itself. A workforce that has resources is also a workforce that can contribute to society economically and socially.

It’s time to advance the conversation about food beyond what we feel we’re entitled to as consumers, to the justice that should permeate the food system.

It has become commonplace for consumers to demand to know where their food came from, how it was raised or grown, and how it was prepared. I urge people to take another step, and think about the people who work tirelessly to put that food on the table; we are an important and often overlooked piece of the food-system puzzle. As much as you need our skills, we desperately need your support in the face of a system that restricts our economic mobility and prosperity.

It’s time to advance the conversation about food beyond what we feel we’re entitled to as consumers, to the justice that should permeate all facets of the food system. Next time you think about where your food comes from, remember the ways you can support the economic struggle of food workers. Support businesses with fair labour practices and political parties dedicated to implementing a basic income. And reflect on the true cost of your food, rather than what you’re accustomed to paying.

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