As a Wal-Mart employee in Tampa, Florida, David Alvarez was responsible for routinely throwing away food that was past its prime. After completing this task, Mr. Alvarez went home to a dinner of ramen noodles or peanut butter sandwiches, as he could not afford much more on his wage of $9.15 an hour. Although this is a little over a dollar more than Florida’s minimum wage of $8.05, and close to two dollars more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, it is still not enough for many individuals and families to survive.
Unfortunately, Mr. Alvarez’s story is all too common. According to a report by Americans for Tax Fairness, a collation of 400 national and state level progressive groups, Wal-Mart has cost taxpayers approximately $6.2 billion a year in subsidies. Many of these are in the form of social welfare programs, such as food stamps, because the company routinely does not pay enough wages for families to make ends meet.
Although Wal-Mart is perhaps the best-known example of this sort of corporate greed, it is far from the only company to pay its employees a wage so low that they continue to qualify for public assistance, even with a full time job. Many jobs in fast food or other restaurants, in addition to much home health care work, pay only minimum wage.
The larger problem of having a minimum wage that is not a living wage has many potential solutions. However, in the case of Mr. Alvarez and other Wal-Mart workers, a solution that would cost the company no additional money would be to allow employees to take home food that was past its prime. While Wal-Mart does donate uneaten food to area food pantries frequently, company policy forbids employees from taking any food home.
The problems of food waste and food insecurity are deeply tied together. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that one in seven households are food insecure, yet around 40 percent of food produced goes uneaten. There are many reasons for this, including an obsession with only selling perfect looking fruits and vegetables, unclear expiration dates, and inefficient supply chains.
There are also many reasons for needing food assistance and food insecurity. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the top five reasons for food insecurity are unemployment, high housing costs, lack of access to SNAP benefits, medical costs, and low wages. It seems that there are solutions that would be a win-win, helping to reduce food waste and helping to ease food insecurity. Some of these include petitioning major retailers such as Wal-Mart to sell imperfect produce at a discount, clarifying expiration dates, and making it easier for retailers to donate food to those in need.
The Center for American Progress estimates that 8.9 million adults work full time and remain in poverty. For many families, the food budget is the first one to trim when money is tight, while so much food goes to waste. Food insecurity, poverty, and low wage jobs are all multi-faceted issues with many possible solutions. However, for people like Mr. Alvarez, help could come straight from his employer.
Elizabeth W. Crew is an MSW student at Simmons College. When she's not reading or writing about social work, social justice, and food, Elizabeth enjoys spending time with friends, snuggling her pup, and watching crime dramas.