Pay People to Cook at Home: Selma James in the NYTs

Sex, Race, and Class—The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011

By Kristin Wartman
The New York Times
May 10th, 2013

The home-cooked family meal is often lauded as the solution for problems ranging from obesity to deteriorating health to a decline in civility and morals. Using whole foods to prepare meals without additives and chemicals is the holy grail for today’s advocates of better eating.

But how do we get there? For many of us, whether we are full-time workers or full-time parents, this home-cooked meal is a fantasy removed from the reality of everyday life. And so Americans continue to rely on highly processed and refined foods that are harmful to their health.

Those who argue that our salvation lies in meals cooked at home seem unable to answer two key questions: where can people find the money to buy fresh foods, and how can they find the time to cook them? The failure to answer these questions plays into the hands of the food industry, which exploits the healthy-food movement’s lack of connection to average Americans. It makes it easier for the industry to sell its products as real American food, with real American sensibilities — namely, affordability and convenience.

I believe the solution to getting people into the kitchen exists in a long-forgotten proposal. In the 1960s and ’70s, when American feminists were fighting to get women out of the house and into the workplace, there was another feminist arguing for something else. Selma James, a labor organizer from Brooklyn, pushed the idea of wages for housework. Ms. James, who worked in a factory as a young woman and later became a housewife and a mother, argued that household work was essential to the American economy and wondered why women weren’t being paid for it. As Ms. James and a colleague wrote in 1972, “Where women are concerned their labor appears to be a personal service outside of capital.”

She argued that it was a mistake to define feminism simply as equal pay in the work force. Instead, she wanted to formally acknowledge the work women were already doing. She knew that women wouldn’t stop doing housework once they joined the work force — rather they would return home each evening for the notorious “second shift.”

Many feminists at the time ignored the Wages for Housework campaign, while some were blatantly antagonistic toward it. Even today, with all the talk of the importance of home cooking — a huge part of housework — no one ever seems to mention Ms. James or Wages for Housework.

But ignoring this idea once again devalues housework and places a premium on working outside of the home. Since women first began to enter the work force, families have increasingly relied on processed foods and inexpensive restaurant meals. Those foods tend to have more calories and less nutritional value than fresh vegetables, fruits and meats, so it’s easy to see how the change in meal patterns led to a surge in obesity.

In 1970, Americans spent 26 percent of their food budget on eating out; by 2010, that number had risen to 41 percent. Over that period, rates of obesity in the United States more than doubled. Diabetes diagnoses have also soared, to 25.8 million in 2011 from roughly three million in 1968.

It’s nearly impossible for a single parent or even two parents working full time to cook every meal from scratch, planning it beforehand and cleaning it up afterward. This is why many working parents of means employ housekeepers. But if we put this work on women of lower socioeconomic status (as is almost always the case), what about their children? Who cooks and cleans up for them?

In the Wages for Housework campaign, Ms. James argued for a shorter workweek for all, in part so men could help raise the children. This is not a pipe dream. Several Northern European nations have instituted social programs that reflect the importance of this work. The Netherlands promotes a “1.5 jobs model,” which allows men and women to work 75 percent of their regular hours when they have young children. In Sweden, parents can choose to work three-quarters of their normal hours until children turn 8.

To get Americans cooking, we need to make it possible. Stay-at-home parents should qualify for a new government program while they are raising young children — one that provides money for good food, as well as education on cooking, meal planning and shopping — so that one parent in a two-parent household, or a single parent, can afford to be home with the children and provide wholesome, healthy meals. These payments could be financed by taxing harmful foods, like sugary beverages, highly caloric, processed snack foods and nutritionally poor options at fast food and other restaurants. Directly linking a tax on harmful food products to a program that benefits health would provide a clear rebuttal to critics of these taxes. Business owners who argue that such taxes will hurt their bottom lines would, in fact, benefit from new demand for healthy food options and from customers with money to spend on such foods.

If we truly value domestic work, we should also enact workplace policies that incentivize health, like “health days” that employees could use for health-promoting activities: shopping for food, cooking, or tending a community garden.

We can’t democratize good food without placing tangible value on the work done in the home. So while proponents of healthier eating are right to emphasize the importance of home-cooking and communal meals, we will never create an actual movement without placing a cultural and monetary premium on the hard work of cooking and the time and skills needed to do it.

Kristin Wartman is a journalist who writes about food, health, politics and culture.

Back to Selma James’s Author Page