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Maybe Food Security Comes First

Sometimes a single sentence says so much.  Unpacking it takes up space and does not add an iota to the meaning that is already there.  Here is one such sentence, a quote from “The Financial Page” of the February 9, 2015, New Yorker: “It’s hard for people to be fully engaged with customers when they’re worrying about how to food put food on the table.”

The person being quoted is Mark Bertolini, CEO of Aetna, and The New Yorker writer is James Suroweicki. What occasioned the article is Bertolini’s decision to increase the wages of the lowest paid workers at Aetna from $12 per hour to $16 per hour.  Essentially Bertolini’s view is that increased wages will not hurt short-term company earnings because worker performance will improve.

Now to unpack things a bit.  So, in 2013 Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir put out a book Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means so Much (New York: Henry Holt), in which they submit that scarcity takes up mental band width.  When you are hungry, you think a lot about food and not so much about other things.  The mind obsesses about what is scarce and this takes up the space for thought and effort that could be devoted to other things productively.  Mullainathan and Shafir in their conclusions state: “Take productivity, a driver of economic growth. Productivity depends on bandwidth. Workers must work effectively.  Managers must make wise investment decisions…. Bandwidth is a core resource…. The data show that the children of parents who are unemployed do significantly worse in school.  If bandwidth is the culprit and we can do something to alleviate it, then these programs may have benefits outside their initial scope.” (pp. 229-230) 

Okay, let me see if I can put the pieces together.  The Food Solutions New England network is concerned about food access, food insecurity, and food justice, especially as issues of race affect food justice.  What if addressing issues of food justice freed-up some bandwidth, what if greater food security was a means to reducing inequality rather than just a byproduct of reduced inequality?  What if increasing workforce productivity, a key factor in economic growth, could be advanced by addressing questions of food justice fairly? One’s mind can spin out questions such as these, but somehow they all seem contained in Bertolini’s single sentence presented in the The New Yorker “Financial Page: A Fair Day’s Wage,” February 9, 2015, page 22.  Enough said--often economy of expression is best left as it is.


Ken Payne is a Rhode Island public policy activist/pragmatist.