Prison to Whole Foods Pipeline: artisanal foods crafted by inmates

Prison work in progress
Flickr: kathrynsdays / Via Kathryndays Flickr
Fortune publishes the oddest stuff. This intriguing article covers the burgeoning artisanal food prison business, thriving because its labor force is prison inmates that earn – get this – 60¢ an hour. Although, Colorado Corrections Institute director Steve Smith points out, a whole $3-400 a month can be earned with incentives (emphasis mine). Naturally, the prison industry itself profits handsomely from these relationships as middleman and overseer, making it pretty clear what has been driving Big Money’s strategy to lock up 1% of the United States population. The US is returning to a slave labor model … and calling it “help” for prison inmates. UK politics professor Genevieve LeBaron says,

The practice has long been controversial. Prisoners earn meager wages and have no recourse if they’re mistreated, LeBaron argues. Plus, they can take jobs from law-abiding citizens. “It’s hugely concerning in the face of economic instability and unemployment.”

Artisanal Foods

Buzzfeed writes: 8 Artisanal Foods You Didn’t Know Were Made By Prisoners: “Inmates help make a surprising amount of the feel-good food products you eat, from cage-free eggs to goat cheese sold at Whole Foods.” Artisanal foods are the high-priced items sold in elitist markets like Whole Foods, and their high price tags are supposed to reflect intensive care and handling by skilled workers. Here’s a definition of artisanal I like:

In Ye Goode Olde Days, most things people owned and consumed were made by hand. Artisans were skilled craftspeople who created products that required extensive training and specialization to produce. In Medieval Europe, artisans formed guilds to set standards for their crafts and prevent competition. But when production moved to factories, machines and factory workers replaced skilled craftspeople. The mechanization of food processing came later, but today, most foods sold in the United States are processed in factories. Obesity and diabetes followed.

Dissent Magazine shares public reactions to the Forbes exposé.

It’s not clear what shocked people most about the report in Fortune that Whole Foods Market sells goat cheese and tilapia prepared with prison labor—the horrendous exploitation of prisoners for a base rate less than one-tenth of Whole Foods’ starting wage, or the fact that even after paying prisoner-workers sixty cents an hour, that tiny wheel of goat cheese still costs upward of seven dollars. Whichever reason it was, for many the story disturbed the experience that Whole Foods carefully cultivates…

So when customers found out that prisoners were being paid appallingly low wages for helping to create some of the artisanal foods that line the store’s shelves, they were outraged. Why shouldn’t they be? Beyond exploiting a vulnerable population of workers housed in the nation’s prisons, Whole Foods had essentially defrauded these customers.

The pretty image of Whole Foods’ good labor practices has been ripped away, and now customers are getting a glimpse at the ugly reality beneath it.

Makes me glad I’m never tempted to pay the exorbitant prices for artisanal food products and don’t shop at Whole Foods.

Leave a Reply