immigrants: the essential workers our food system can’t survive without

The U.S. food supply chains, like so many things today, are being disrupted by the coronavirus. Food that was destined for now-shuttered restaurants can’t easily be re-routed to grocery stores. Relationships and contracts built up slowly over time were severed almost overnight.

You can’t talk about ecology in the U.S. – or at least the Midwest – without talking the history of agriculture, which spans 127 million acres in the Midwest. Most of the acreage is used for the production of meat and dairy products that the majority of us eat. Equally prolific have been the many food documentaries detailing this dynamic (with varying levels of accuracy) but I won’t list them all here.

I normally think of the story as starting with the forest clearing and drainage in the 1800’s, but of course agriculture was independently developed on the continent in multiple locations has been practiced and developed and honed over 10,000 years on the continent.

Corn, a human creation indigenous to the Americas, developed from the wild plant Teosinte. (Moontree Studios, summer 2019)

But with the plow and drain and engine came ever increasing intensification & consolidation. The closing of small meat processing facilities & concentration into fewer and larger corporate processing plants has been a multi-decade trend. Today, 84% of meat processing for a nation of 330 million people is controlled by just 4 companies.

This system values the maximum output of calories at the lowest financial cost. Just-in-time supply chains source labor from around the world to crank out a huge amount of food. And by those metrics, it has been remarkable successful.

When I go to rural Iowa now, where my ancestors made their way in the 19th and 20th centuries, I see a mostly empty landscape. Most of the old farmsteads have decayed back to the earth. The prairie is punctuated infrequently with massive facilities run by immigrant labor, a product of mobile finance that seeks the highest return on the shortest timeframe. The small farming towns are simply disappearing.

Just as one can’t talk about American ecology without agriculture, one can’t talk about agriculture without immigration.

I don’t have the qualifications to go into the full social-ecological history, but to mention only parts: European peasants who were given millions of acres in the west and midwest from which they could develop an economic base (my own heritage); Africans brought in chains to labor in agriculture and then freed without any recompense or economic base (see this amazing piece in The Atlantic about how this theft continues even through recent history); the terrible early 20th-century processing plants of Chicago detailed in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle; and waves and waves of laborers from Latin America and Asia connected to various regions and crops.

Aside: Some of these ethnic groups – such as Italians, Romanians, and Irish – were eventually assimilated into whiteness. That’s a tale for another blog post, but relevant to the social-economic stories and patterns of today.

Aside #2: stop reading me and go listen to this 2 min clip of Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. describing much more eloquently the economic implications of how this played out.

More locally, many of Marshall County’s more recent immigrants from Latin America can trace their lineage to the agricultural migrant camps.

And so in this context I read the headlines about processing plants having to shut down as cases of COVID-19 spread through the thousands of laborers who are standing shoulder-to-shoulder while they earn their daily bread. It took the closure of just 4 individual plants to shut off 15% of the nation’s pork processing capacity. This consolidation has decreased flexibility and increased fragility.

But ecological systems – which is what agriculture is – cannot be turned on and off with a switch. Millions of hogs were planning on going “to market,” feed was scheduled to be delivered, and laborers were planning on working. We are now faced with the gut-wrenching proposition of having to euthanize 4,000,000 hogs, a quantity that would not even fit tail-to-snout between San Diego and New York City. Likewise, milk is being dumped down the drain chickens “depopulated“.

And now it is hitting close to home.

The Tyson plant in Logansport closed last week, after an outbreak of COVID-19 among the workers, the majority of whom are immigrant laborers. After all the employees were tested, hundreds of positive cases were identified. Now, the Tyson-related infections around 1,000.

Monday’s new COVID-19 cases in Indiana nearly hit 1,000, after hundreds of Tyson workers tested positive (Indiana State Department of Health)
Positive COVID-19 cases by Indiana county as of April 30 afternoon update.

Cass County now has one of the highest infection rates in the country. With 1,164 official cases in a county of 38,000 people, that’s 3% of the population. The official infection rate in hard-hit New York City is 2%.

I reached out to a friend familiar with the situation locally and they replied:

Two ways you can pray for Logansport specifically:   #1 That with all the positive cases (we currently have one of the highest per capita rates in the country/world right now – most communities with this many positives are exponentially larger), my prayer has been that most (if not all) will NOT move into serious or needing hospitalization (we are a small community with an amazing, but small hospital that can quickly be pushed past the limits if even a small percentage of our positive cases become serious or require hospitalization – we currently have 10 hospitalizations due to COVID-19 and 2 deaths) and #2 Unity/compassion/love/juntos.  This is starting to wear our community down along lines of ethnicity, culture, language.  It is exposing frustration, animosity, and hatred towards “the other” – it’s easy to point fingers and blame Tyson and Tyson workers.  I think some community members have been waiting over 20 years (since Tyson arrived) to have some reason to blame Tyson and the population that came with it – and now they have their excuse.  I don’t want this to fracture our community even more – so I’m praying that Jesus will bind us together in this time more than ever.

I want to think the best of people (and I want others to think the best of me), but Tuesday night I had a rather dark thought: “You know, there are people who would force immigrants to chop up chickens even if it kills them. We won’t even stomach a minor change in our diet in order to help them in the midst of a pandemic.”

Immediately, and perhaps naively, I replied to myself: “Adam, you’re being too hard. Stop being so judgmental of others. Get off your high horse.”

And then the next morning I read this:

President Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday aimed at addressing concerns about meat shortages.

The order invokes the Defense Production Act to ensure beef, pork, poultry and egg plants keep running.

“It is important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry (“meat and poultry”) in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans,” the order reads. “However, outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers at some processing facilities have led to the reduction in some of those facilities’ production capacity.

And this:

Environmental Working Group called the order a potential death sentence. The United Food and Commercial Workers union said in a statement that if workers aren’t safe, the food supply won’t be either. At least 20 workers in meat and food processing have died, and 5,000 meatpacking workers have either tested positive for the virus or were forced to self-quarantine, according to UFCW.

Sadly, this confirmed my dark premonition. Above all, the system must be preserved.

I’m someone who has “disassembled” exactly one chicken (taking as much time that professional workers probably do 100’s). I’ve done a lot of field work, but nothing near as back-breaking as migrant laborers. So I won’t pretend I have the answer. I know that certain sectors of the economy can provide opportunities for families that they would not have elsewhere. The American in me is deeply proud of being a historic place of refuge and opportunity, as checkered and blood-stained as that history is.

But it boils my blood to watch our immigrant friends, neighbors, and spouses be so consistently and methodically vilified, demeaned, and harassed while we dine on the fruits of their labor. We are clinging so hard to our racial-economic hierarchy that we won’t even let go to butcher our own food. (See here for the Poor Handmaids’ 2017 statement on immigration, along with Bishop Rhoades).

Residents of Marshall County hear immigration testimonies at the courthouse in Plymouth during the nationwide rally “Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Detention Camps” July 12, 2019.

When my (American) friend first moved to Bolivia, she lived with a middle class host family. They employed an empleada, a woman who performed all the cooking and cleaning tasks. This is a pretty common arrangement for middle class households across the world. Years later, my friend herself would hire an empleada to help raise their 4 children.

My friend quickly saw how disrespectfully her host mother treated the empleada, who kept the house in order, but was always kept in her place: below everyone else.

My friend tried her best to respect cultural differences, but she’s also very passionate about her beliefs. After all, she moved to another continent to serve the most marginalized of the poor.

One night she had had enough. She told her host mother that she would not be eating dinner unless the empleada was allowed to eat at the same table with the family. It made for an awkward dinner, but they all ate together.

At the risk of making the powerful person the hero of the story, I will say this: She leveraged the power afforded by her wealth and nationality to lift up those who were ignored. Not in charity, but in solidarity. She literally made space at the table, extending the boundaries of kinship instead of respecting barriers.

Sorry, this post is getting painfully long. Before I wrap up, know that several Indiana non-profits have started a support fund for undocumented Hoosiers. As you probably know, they are not getting the federal stimulus checks that the rest of us are, and many have had their work hours cut. They’ve raised nearly $30,000, but the need is huge and that is only the equivalent of 25 stimulus checks; you can give here if you wish.

Reflecting on what this whole situation could mean as we re-imagine what a new and better “normal” might look like… I return to Pope Francis’ Laudato si‘, the encyclical that was written 5 years ago this May. I will leave you with portions from paragraphs 28 & 29:

“We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. Yet the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines…

In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity. For example, there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops. Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production. To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power. To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practise a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute. Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.

One Reply to “immigrants: the essential workers our food system can’t survive without”

  1. Baird Mary

    Right on, Thada
    As Tamsin says, “Make Shift Happen” now. Plant stuff. Work with your neighbor. Change your wants. Travel less. Learn how to make things you need. Enjoy the outside. Laugh.


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