Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Let's get to some breaking news, the cost of eggs. One thing is for sure, y'all have noticed that the price of a carton is absolutely eggsploding.
Ken: Hi, my name's Ken from Ormond Beach and our family household is affected by the rising price of eggs. My wife is complaining about it. I told her we're going to get a hen.
Speaker 1: I have been affected by the high cost of eggs. I bought an 18-pack yesterday and I only have two more payments and it will be paid off.
Speaker 2: We have a family of five, and the rising cost of eggs is definitely causing a major change because it was always the cheapest form of really good healthy protein and it's just not cheap anymore.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's right, y'all are not imagining it. Last year in January, the average cost of a dozen eggs was about $1.92. Today it's up to $4.21. That's what we call egg-flation, but seriously, this is no yolk. So we talked to Kenny Torrella, staff writer at Vox and author of the newsletter, Meat/Less, about just what is causing this dramatic price increase.
Kenny Torrella: The first is simply inflation. Farmers have been reporting higher feed costs, higher labor costs, and fuel costs over the last year, just like every other business, but there's something really different about the egg industry in that this year they are experiencing the worst bird flu outbreak in US history.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Indeed, nearly 58 million birds, mostly egg-laying hens, have died as a result of a bird flu outbreak, and in the US, the primary main approach to prevent the spread of the disease is simply--?
Kenny Torrella: By killing any animal that could be infected. Per US regulations, if just one chicken or Turkey is infected with the bird flu, farmers have to then kill all of the animals in that flock because it's a highly contagious and highly deadly disease.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Given that our world is now populated by people surviving a multi-year global pandemic of a deadly, highly contagious disease, perhaps it's easier than ever to have some empathy for all those slaughtered hens and to look for some new approaches for addressing this crisis.
Kenny Torrella: There is a growing number of people starting to ask, maybe we should vaccinate a lot of these animals against the disease, but it's been controversial because a lot of food producers, egg and meat producers fear that if they begin to mass vaccinate the animals we raise for food, then it could disrupt international meat and egg trade. This conversation is really starting to change among a lot of epidemiologists and animal scientists and those in the food industry, they're starting to say, "Look, maybe this containment approach of trying to stop the disease isn't working, maybe we need to start vaccinating against it."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, full disclosure, I am a backyard chicken keeper and I'm preparing for the imminent hatch of spring chicks in the coming weeks. I wondered if this circle of poultry life in American hatcheries might lead to some consumer relief soon.
Kenny Torrella: There's no relief on the horizon. Unfortunately, the bird flu circulates throughout the fall and winter, and it didn't stop circulating last summer. We could see a situation in which the bird flu could become endemic, meaning it's with us all year round. It could become the new normal. We might need to get used to higher egg prices.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Getting used to higher egg prices, sounds like yet another gut punch to American households.
Speaker 3: The price is wrong.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We wanted to understand what this egg crisis means for those on the supply side of the equation. Farmers, Beth Hoffman is a journalist, farmer, and author of Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America. Beth, thanks for joining the Takeaway.
Beth Hoffman: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Year after year, I think the public hears about these threats to animals, to crops, right now the CDC is reporting over 57 million laying hens who had to be killed as a result of the bird flu, can you give me a sense of what this looks like on the farm side?
Beth Hoffman: I think there is a propensity of talking about these things as if this year is a big problem. Right now we're having this egg problem, you probably remember not long ago there was a lot of discussion about wheat was a huge problem because of the Ukraine situation. Year after year, citrus is freezing and so there's going to be an orange juice problem, but on the farmer end of things, the economic situation of farming is a problem year after year. Year in and year out, families are struggling to keep themselves afloat because of some of the things that your other speaker talked about, high gas prices, the fertilizer prices are now super expensive.
The market is really down on the farm side, even though you would not know that actually at the consumer level. I was actually just looking at the egg report from the USDA that came out yesterday, and the first line says that prices are down 57 cents for jumbo eggs in the regions of California and the West.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help us understand how that's possible.
Beth Hoffman: It's because most of the prices are agreed upon well before anybody is actually eating an egg in their home. The price is contracted for most commodities now because there are so few companies that control most of the food system. I'm not an egg producer, but we raise cattle and in the cattle industry, there's only four companies that control the vast majority of the entirety of beef. When you are purchasing beef in the supermarket, it looks like you have a lot of choice. There's whole rows of food.
When you go to the supermarket, it looks like there's tons of choice and lots of brands, but actually, it's controlled by four companies and they set the prices. When we have beef ready for market, there's not a lot of different options that we can go to buyers and say, "What are the prices you're offering?" It's just there's one place.
Melissa Harris-Perry: On exactly that point, help me understand then, for example, why have eggs gotten so much more expensive but not chicken, given that if this is in part driven by an avian flu, you would think that it would affect not only laying hens but meat chickens as well. Is that because of the agricultural commodity market that sets these prices so far in advance?
Beth Hoffman: A lot of it is that, and a lot of it is demand. Actually, in researching about eggs, there's a lot of question if this is really being driven by an avian flu. A lot of it is being discussed as there's higher consumer demand globally because there's more middle-class people with disposable income, which drives a real purchasing for higher quality proteins, eggs being one of them, and meats. The prices are actually reflective of a higher demand as well as perhaps a slightly smaller supply. Again, in that egg report, it's showing maybe 5% less. During the pandemic, we saw higher and higher retail prices for things like meat, and yet the farmers were not receiving that money.
Companies like Tyson and JBS we're making record profits, higher profits than they ever made, and yet farmers were making less. Part of the problem is this control and the fact that there's very few buyers for what farmers have to sell.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Then let me ask this, if demand is part of what's driving this, is there any possibility that higher egg prices, despite the fact that they are painful in the moment for households in the moment, is there any good that could come from this?
Beth Hoffman: I think that as Americans, we've gotten very used to having what we want when we want it, in as much quantity as we want. The reality is that that's just not that sustainable in the long run in any fashion. The downside of really cheap eggs and really cheap meat is that it might be helpful for individual families to be able to feed their families these products, but we have a lot of environmental implications from raising animals in that way. I was looking up this morning and there's nine billion eggs eaten a month in this country.
That means that there's a lot of chickens living in very, very tiny cages, pumping out as many eggs as possible, usually with a lot of chemical help and vast amounts of manure that's created because of these kinds of systems. Same thing with bacon. If you want to eat as much bacon as you possibly can for as cheaply as you can, there are very serious environmental implications, and there's very serious social implications because what happens is that our farms get larger and larger, 80% of farms in the egg industry are raising more than 30,000 hens at a time.
That means these are very large farms, and the land becomes consolidated in the hands of fewer and fewer farmers, which means that our rural communities are hit really hard by these sorts of food systems. There's nobody living in these towns because there's not much in the way of dogs and things to do. Yes, there's a lot of downsides to having a mass production of these kinds of proteins. I'm saying this as a cattle rancher, we should be eating a lot less meat, and probably eggs. I don't think nutritionally speaking either, that this is necessarily the worst thing for people to be thinking about, "What other choices do I have of high-protein foods that I can feed my family?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: Beth Hoffman is a journalist, farmer, and author of Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America. Beth, thank you for taking the time out with us.
Beth Hoffman: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, the mighty egg has cracked open the food budget of families across the nation, but eggs and the chickens who lay them are also infused with political, historical, and even racial meaning. During both World Wars, the federal government encouraged families to assist the domestic war effort by keeping a small flock of laying hens.
Jim Crow: This ban is a challenge to every loyal American citizen, what can we do to help win the war with food? The answer to that challenge comes from Washington, from the Office of civilian defense, Victory Gardens.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of course, chicken keeping has a big, more fraught history for Black Americans. Accusations of petty theft, including stealing chickens or eggs were grounds for disenfranchising Black Southerners during the Jim Crow era. Today, outside of rural areas, backyard chicken-keeping ordinances are typically restricted to single-family detached homeowners with large yards, that the housing scenario far less available to African Americans.
How have Black folk built this rich culinary tradition? Community practices, and economic possibilities connected to and centered around chickens and their eggs. I'm joined by Thérèse Nelson, chef and founder of the Black Culinary History Project. Thérèse, welcome to The Takeaway.
Thérèse Nelson: Thank you so much for having me now. This is so cool.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, as a Black Southerner, who also keeps chickens in my backyard in a relatively urban area, I feel like there is a long tradition of backyard chicken keeping among Black folk. I wonder how that tradition has maybe shaped our culinary traditions.
Thérèse Nelson: I feel like we think about chickens in this modern context where we argued about commodity new chicken farming or have distorted ideas about chicken in this overblown, industrialized framework. Chickens are easy to raise, like you said, in some of the backyards, from the time of sharecropping to family farming. Chickens are eggs, they're meat. The economic and ecological footprint of chickens are so simple that you go to chicken-in, what everybody's table is absolutely right because they are a simple and easy, and delicious bird to grow around the world as well.
In our community especially, you read a book like Psyche Williams-Forson Building Houses out of Chicken Legs and you see that chickens were political empowerment. They were, I don't know, just these stories of economic freedom and also delicious and simple and prolific.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Say more about that. I got to say, that is one of my favorite books, Building Houses out of Chicken Legs is the text there. Tell us a bit about how a humble chicken and the egg that it lays, how was a part of political and economic power for Black and brown folk.
Thérèse Nelson: As a chef, I think being more connected to Black farmers in particular is a trend that is so beautiful to watch, become more part of our practice, especially in the modern context. I think so much about what life for us must have been like, after emancipation in sharecropping, and the idea of your plot of land and your couple of chickens and your hands and what you can do. Immediate empowerment, immediate agency. I think so much about women like Judge Gilmore, thinking about the farmers as our source for political organizing. Chickens became this source of immediate empowerment.
Psyche in that book talks so much about the way that, if you had chicken women on the railroad be able to essentially start cottage food businesses, with very little effort and just their hands and time. I think so much about the footprint of a farmer being able to, again before commodity farm, before the war, and the overblown and perversion of simple family farming. Having your small footprint of land, being able to raise chickens in a way that meant economic freedom for your family. I think all of those elements, make it so that surely chicken was a part of and is important to the history of Black empowerment from a historical standpoint. Legitimately unbroken chain of proof.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of course, chickens also figure prominently in racist myths, in racist imagery, especially from the Jim Crow era, and really all the way up to our current moment. Are there ways that eggs and chickens also carry some racial baggage?
Thérèse Nelson: The thing I get stuck on, and I think I've been doing this work for about 15 years. I started this project mainly because I was so steeped in my own disinformation. I felt negligent in my own little cultural practice as it related to my professional practice. I was like something about the tales we tell about ourselves, especially when it relates to our cultural foodways, seems untrue. There's something that just felt disingenuous. Why don't we talk about a cultural foodway that sustains generations of people, food that I know for sure is beautiful and thoughtful and meticulous, being told to me as this less event? I don't know.
There was something strange about a story about our culture that I knew intuitively wasn't true, but I didn't know enough about the honest truth. I started this project to learn to be a better steward of my own culture in this work that I was doing, but also to figure out where those lies come from. I think the food is an easy way to weaponize culture against folk and we accept the primary.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When we come back, we're going to stick right on this topic a bit more with chef and founder of the Black Culinary History Project, Thérèse Nelson. Stay with us.
This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and I'm back with Thérèse Nelson, chef and founder of the Black Culinary History Project. Thérèse, I love this language of being a better steward of our culture. When I first started keeping chickens, I think maybe it was the first or second summer, I'd also been growing watermelon. I found there was a moment when I'm standing outside like in my blue jeans, and I've got my hair wrapped up in a scarf to keep it up above my head. I had opened a watermelon a little too early, so it wasn't what I wanted to eat. So I put it out and chickens in my yard were eating watermelon while I'm standing there with my head wrapped up.
It was gorgeous. It was beautiful. It felt connected. I thought, "I must look like somebody's racist stereotype, but in this moment, I am so happy and so connected and my family's going to eat these eggs so well." I really do wonder, you were talking about the ease with which culinary practices are weaponized against us. I thought, "If I was afraid of this moment, of what it looked like, then none of this could be happening."
Thérèse Nelson: When I was a young chef, thinking of working for a lot of white people who didn't really see or understand our food and our culture, it felt very much othering, it felt very much like there was no room or place for this food that I knew was perfect and delicious and in balance. I had to do better by myself in terms of my own development, but also to generations of cooks who came before me I think there's something particular about the stories we tell ourselves.
I'm not interested in what other people think about our food. I'm interested in practitioners who are putting on their ways or opening their restaurants or farming their farms or creating their product every day. What story are you telling yourself about the culture from which you start? Culture becomes this bomb that starts and reframes your practice. I think it makes it all better.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there a Black Culinary tradition around the egg? Are there ways that Black folks make use of eggs that is in part a distinctive contribution?
Thérèse Nelson: That was really interesting, the framing you gave in the beginning about the price of eggs and the usefulness of eggs. It made me think about chicken in terms of demonizing factory farming but egg production is really the most ecological perfect expression of what chickens do for us. I think about bacon traditions actually. Most often I think there's something really-- I did a small podcast called Black Desserts and it was so interesting to talk to all of these such disproportionately Black women to be sure.
To think about this continuum of black bacon and the perfection of the [unintelligible 00:21:24] History with not a lot of training, not a lot of I guess reverence in terms of the Kona industry but just the perfection of, I have an aunt Florraine in South Carolina who can make the most perfect [unintelligible 00:21:43] She doesn't call it that but it is this light fluffy, airy yellow cake and she does it just from feel. Eggs are so critical to our baking traditions and Black women disproportionately make magic out of simple ingredients and eggs are also central to that. Those are the smallest of ingredients. You don't get pound cake without eggs.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Aunt Florraine in South Carolina, I am lighting an ancestral candle to her today. Thérèse Nelson is chef and founder of the Black Culinary History Project. Thérèse, thank you so much for your time.
Thérèse Nelson: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: So far today, we've been having an eggcellent discussion and it's one that y'all have a lot to contribute to as well. Some of you told us about how these high egg prices are affecting your households.
Karen: Hi, this is Karen and I'm calling from Covina, California. Absolutely I am a vegetarian so I rely on eggs as a staple in my diet. This new higher price is quite substantial.
Kim: This is Kim and I'm calling from Tampa. Eggs used to be a staple in my house because they were inexpensive and a high-end protein and now I can't afford to buy them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: While nobody likes to see these kinds of prices for eggs, we also noted that you shared some pretty clear understandings of the complicated reasons for this spike.
Wayne Nicholas: This is Wayne Nicholas from Las Cruces, New Mexico. The price of eggs is just astronomical and it's troubled. Unfortunately, so many laying hens have been killed because of bird flu.
Debra: Debra from Cascade, Colorado. In Colorado, people are blaming the high prices on the fact that we require cage-free eggs which means an entire square foot for each chicken and it's not really a reason for eggs to cost $8 a dozen. Fair prices for food are something that we should have been doing all along and humane care of farm animals including chickens is another thing that we should have been doing all along.
Speaker 4: I have been affected by the price of eggs. I'm a farmer and raise chickens for eggs and the price of chicken feed has gone up so much. I understand why eggs have gone up but it's all a chain and it's all connected. The price of eggs is going up because the price of feed is going up
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's not just farmers. Other industries and businesses are also navigating how to absorb this increased cost of eggs. For the owner of a bakery in Harlem, that means figuring out how to keep her arugula affordable.
Speaker 5: We have seen a dramatic change in the price of eggs. We've seen the prices triple and it has caused us to look around for other entities that sell bulk eggs which is unfortunate for our little bakery but nonetheless, we persevere.
Greg Keenan: Hi, I'm Greg Keenan calling from Sanford, Connecticut. I'm in the restaurant business. We're used to locking up our liquor, making sure none of it disappears. We've actually started to lock up our eggs.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What it all means is folks are facing some really tough decisions about egg consumption.
Scott: Hi, I'm Scott from Grand Junction, Colorado. Egg prices have caused me to seriously reevaluate my breakfast habits and even forbid my baking habits.
Terry: Hi, my name is Terry from Massachusetts. I have been greatly affected by the price of eggs. I am a 70-year-old woman. I have severe food allergies and I usually eat eggs every day. Before the prices went up I would have two eggs a day and that would give me enough protein. Now due to the price of eggs, I have now cut that to only having one egg a day.
Melissa Harris-Perry: While some are cutting back on eggs, others are going for a more creative plan.
Kazu: Hi, this is Kazu from Oakland. The cost of eggs going up, I've noticed it over the last few years and we actually decided just this past week that we were going to enclose our front yard and turn it into a chicken coop.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As always, thank you for your calls, and keep them coming at 877-869-8253.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.