There was a rather feeble story on the NPR radio news yesterday morning about COVID-19 and meat packing plants. So feeble that it gave the impression that it was just one plant in Colorado rather than many plants all over the country. Beef, pork, and chicken slaughterhouse have been affected; in CO, NE, SD, PA, NC, GA. What gives? What is the real story behind so much mismanagement of food processing?
It is a story of vertical integration and consolidation.
It is a story of an industry whose profit margin is so small that it needs to kill and process animals as quickly and “efficiently” as possible where they cut corners on both worker and food safety all the time. An industry who doesn’t care about either animal or worker welfare. Both, in the eyes of management, are expandable. Senior managers earn large salaries; while farmers and workers are lucky to make minimum wage, living paycheck to paycheck, while working long hours in arduous and challenging conditions.
It is a story of an industry whose story of animal and worker abuses go back to before Upton Sinclair wrote the Jungle in 1906, which led to the passing of the first federal Meat Inspection Act and the first federal Pure Food and Drug Act.
It is the story of a country whose soul is based in eating red meat; whose heart is in the fresh faced cowboy riding the range and whose very breath is in the American dream of [white] immigrants making it big.
It is the story of a country that is much uglier with the American soul being one of stealing land from indigenous people and stealing labor from stolen Africans. The heart is one of exploitation and the breath is one of white supremacy.
The story of the American dream is one of freedom and rugged individualism; of good Christian men telling lesser people how they should live and behave. At the heart of America is conformity. Even the idea of rebelling is stereotyped. The ideal is that everyone should toe the line and not criticize this great and God-given country.
Red meat is at the heart of this story of America. Eating red meat puts hairs on the chests of young men and allows them to grow up to be true Americans. They can be individualistic as long as they go to church on Sundays and hide their emotions every day of the week.
Few of us fit into this American ideal. Many of us are women. Many of us are immigrants. Many of us are not Christian and shudder from the hypocrisy of the many apparently practicing Christians. Many of us struggle to believe in the American dream when it prevents 80% of the population from having a life of their own choosing.
The story of COVID-19 and meat processing hits hard at the soul, heart and breath of the American dream. It shatters the American dream into pieces everytime another food worker is diagnosed with the virus. The American dream is killed when anyone dies of COVID-19 because we as a country cannot sit on our sofas, in our houses, to stop its spread.
How can we change this story?
There are many ways we can change our own stories. At the moment the most challenging is to suck up that fact that everything fun is being cancelled. Be grateful that your state leaders are cancelling memorial day parades, summer concerts, July 4th activities. Big events will cause, at a minimum, the most vulnerable to get very ill and quite possibly die. Find ways that you can celebrate at home; perhaps include friends and neighbors while socially distancing. Look for ways to build a community. Find your local food pantry online; find a mutual aid group to volunteer. You can buy books for children who are off school. Make bread and give it to a neighbor. Start a garden.
Think of the future. Do we want to return to how life was before? It is very tempting, isn’t it, to say yes! I want my good life back. Think about this carefully. Was it that good? Did you love going to work? Were you treated fairly by your bosses? Did you have the kind of life you would choose for yourself? Was it right that so many couldn’t get food to eat and that farmers and food workers struggled to make ends meet. Once the pandemic is over, are you going to forget who the essential workers really were?
We need to rebuild a country that has a resilient, sustainable, and equitable food system. We need a country where all workers have the right to paid sick leave, to decent livable wages, and to time off. We need a country that supports the less well off. Where it isn’t your fault for being poor. That the social safety net helps us to recover from misfortune. Where an illness or accident won’t bankrupt you and your family. Everyone needs to have equal access to a decent education and housing. There needs to be no more school to prison pipeline, no more redlining of housing.
Oh and wash your damn hands.