Walking into almost any grocery store, you can find any produce that you want or need for your cooking endeavors. Watermelon can be bought in December, and butternut squash can be found in July. While consumers attribute these plants to seasons, all produce is available for purchase outside of its most popular season. This phenomenon of selling produce outside of its growing season introduces complicated problems for the environment and for consumers’ health.
Each fruit and vegetable thrive during a specific growing season. During these, the weather and climate in a distinct region allows for produce to grow successfully. Growing seasons are at least ninety days long, but can span the entire year in certain tropical regions. Since farmers and growers cannot control the weather, the produce they are able to grow is at the mercy of the local climate and how well it aligns with the weather needed for certain crops to grow. In some tropical locations, the warm weather should allow for year-round crop growth, but excess or limited precipitation interrupts the crops’ ability to actually grow. The growing season of areas with stable precipitation are mostly dictated by the temperature; the cold winters are detrimental to plants’ ability to grow. The weather therefore dictates when certain plants are in and out of season and are able to grow.
Despite the obvious time periods during the year when different crops can grow, consumers have access to the same produce year round, meaning that fruits and vegetables are grown outside of their natural window of ideal conditions. This is because of farmers’ manipulations of plants and the environments they are grown in. Season extension is the classification for different techniques for expanding the natural growing season of plants used by farmers. For example, crops can be covered during the winter so that they do not frost over, allowing for them to thrive in cold temperatures. Techniques that allow for plants to sustain life during adverse climates enable farmers to sell and contribute fruits and vegetables when they are not naturally in season.
These techniques are not utilized in countries other than the US, as climates differ and allow for year-round growing seasons. The ability of countries to grow fruits and vegetables have led to imported fruit being the majority of the fruit sold in America. Over half of all produce eaten in the US was imported, according to the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service. This rapid increase in imported fruits and vegetables drastically impacted the market. As the quantity of imported produce increased, it has become more accessible and affordable for consumers to buy both in and out of season produce. Many public health experts view this shift in the market as a good thing because of the increased opportunities for the American population to eat plants in their diet.
Americans having access to foods that are out of season, whether domestic or imported, has been associated with negative impacts on the environment. Domestic produce that was grown with many machines, tractors and pesticides, ultimately emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas that has been associated with increased temperatures). Even though local produce may be grown in a state close to where the food is sold, the process of growing and harvesting both in and out of season produce strains the environment.
Yet concern about the environmental impact of importing food also exists. Imported produce must be flown and delivered to the US, traveling via cargo plane. The many miles that these foreign grown fruits and vegetables have to travel to reach the US relies on the burning of fossil fuels. However, other sources continue to argue that fertilizer usage in local farms emits more carbon dioxide than importing food on a plane.
While it is nice to buy butternut squash during June, the lengths that some farmers had to go to cultivate that crop are immense and could negatively impact the environment. Extending growing seasons, when done incorrectly, not only goes against nature but harms it as well. It may be impossible to always buy and eat food that was grown during its specific growing season, but it is important to reflect when possible.
Walking into Trader Joe’s and quickly buying a bottle of “Two Buck Chuck,” is a staple in many people’s lives. This cheap but delicious wine may be threatened by the external force of climate change. The agricultural industry is sensitive to change, and the COVID-19 pandemic exposed its instabilities, specifically in the meatpacking industry. Its fragility will be tested again and again in the coming years as the effects of climate change continue to impact the weather patterns that farmers, specifically winegrowers, have become accustomed to. The global production of wine will be forced to adapt its methods of growing as more extreme weather threatens to destroy its perfect system of growing grapes.
An abundance of grapevines across the East Coast were present dating back to the early settlements of what we now know as the United States. It was not until the late 1790s that large-scale vineyards began to pop up across the U.S. Although the climates of the various vineyards differed, many of the owners studied the impact of weather on the quality of grapes and their wines. As observed weather patterns continued to diminish the quality of grapes growing on the East Coast, more vignerons moved to California to take advantage of its temperate climate. Its mild seasons allow for wine grapes to grow in ideal conditions during an abnormally long growing season. These well-studied weather patterns shaped winegrowers’ practices and business for centuries.
“Climate change refers to a change in the state of the climate that can be identified,” as defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a subgroup of the United Nations focused on climate change science. These identifiable changes in the climate are caused by human activity that increases the emission of greenhouse gasses, which results in increasing the average global temperature. Temperatures and rainfall in regions known for growing grapes will increase as a result of increasing average temperatures. These changes will drastically affect regions’ abilities to successfully grow grapes. The Journal of Wine Research stated in a study that explored climate change’s impact on wineries that “individual winegrape varieties have even narrower climate ranges…for optimum quality and production putting the cultivation of winegrapes at greater risk from both short-term climate variability and long-term climate changes than other crops.”
Napa Valley is a prime example of the effects of climate change on wine growth. The mild climate of Napa County in Northern California is ideal for growing wine grapes. The region also has an array of fertile soils that allow different types of grapes to grow. This combination of weather and soil allows Napa Valley to produce the most wine in the U.S.
While Napa has reigned as one of the best growing regions for nearly 50 years, its great success is experiencing firsthand the horrific effects of climate change. The occurrence of devastating wildfires in Northern California also increased. Higher temperatures dry out wooded areas, making it easier for massive wildfires to start and spread. In September 2020, the Glass Fire damaged about 65,000 acres of land in Napa Valley. This catastrophic event annihilated the work of many wineries and demonstrated the destruction climate change can cause. Also, rising temperatures due to climate change will affect the ability of grapes to grow in Napa Valley. An increasing number of summer days during the growing season will eventually be too hot for grapes to grow. A study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences stated that by the end of the 21st century, the majority of Napa Valley will be unable to grow wine grapes and the U.S. will lose around 80% of wine production; however, Napa Valley is only one example of the massive impacts that climate change will have on the global wine industry. The melting of polar ice caps is estimated to cause sea levels to rise about 15 feet. This could result in earthquakes and floods that would damage vineyards around the world.
As the international wine industry grapples with the effects of climate change, the average wine connoisseur should also consider how climate change impacts their access to wine. If fewer vineyards can grow wine grapes, fewer manufacturers can produce wine, and the price of this beverage will drastically increase, causing the price of the beloved two-dollar bottle of Charles Shaw wine to skyrocket.
Whether you are bunkered down in your dorm room or home for the rest of the semester, you are still producing food waste. Without the three color-coordinated trash cans in the dining hall, it can be difficult to know what waste should be recycled, thrown out, or composted. And while many have a basic knowledge of the items that can be recycled, composting can be an unknown frontier.
The average person produces 219 pounds of food waste per year, the majority of which ends up in landfills. Items rotting in landfills are then incinerated, which produces almost one-fourth of all methane emissions in the US. However, if all eligible food and produce scraps were composted, landfills nationwide would be a quarter less full.
Composting household produce is a simple task that all family units should strive to make a common practice. With basic knowledge of how and what to compost, a small-scale movement to reduce personal carbon emissions has the ability to drastically reduce the national carbon footprint.
Compost is simply organic items that can break down and be used to fertilize soil and help plants grow. This loose definition sets the tone for the wide array of things that can be composted. All uncooked fruits and vegetables, egg shells, coffee grinds, tea bags, paper, cardboard, leaves, hair and fur, and house plants should not be thrown into the trash, as they can naturally break down. This long list of compostable items is matched with an equally lengthy list of things that should strictly be tossed into the trash, however. Meat or fish scraps, dairy products, oils, and pet wastes cannot be composted because of their odors, which attract pests.
With “organic food items” defined, the at-home process of composting comes together nicely, as those produce scraps can be kept in any closed container. This prevents bugs from potentially being attracted to the food. There are also compostable bags that eliminate odor and allow for easy removal from the container. This little bin or bag can be kept in any easily-accessible place in your home or apartment.
The unwanted produce, however, does not decompose into compost for months. As most people do not want food quite literally rotting in their apartments for long periods of time, there are many ways to dispose of the collected scraps, so that they can transform into compost eventually.
Most apartment buildings have a compost collection system or have a nearby community garden that collects food scraps. Alternatively, many restaurants and grocery stores will accept food scraps. Some suburban towns, like Newton, MA, have even started a compost collection service alongside their trash and recycling programs. This gives households the ability to collect food scraps for a month, and then have it whisked away to a site somewhere in their community that collects and distributes the compost.
By actively collecting and properly disposing of food scraps, households can quickly slash their contributions to the massive landfills in the U.S. that are rapidly releasing methane.
Methane is produced alongside carbon dioxide in landfills but has quickly become a more urgent worry for environmentalists, as it is 84 times as potent as carbon dioxide. This gas has a larger impact on the ozone layer than the other omnipresent gases in the atmosphere. Composting organic food scraps ultimately cuts down on the amount of methane released from landfills, which helps reduce the nation’s contribution to the rapid and harmful processes of climate change.
It is worth noting, however, that this small step is not enough to completely eliminate the emissions of all greenhouse gases, specifically methane. Oil companies are the largest contributors of methane emissions in the U.S., and they need to be held accountable for their environmental impact.
Even though these emissions are due to the actions of large companies, everyday people can make palatable, small changes to help reduce the worldwide impact of these emissions. While one person’s actions may not make an enormous impact directly, the collective effort of consumers to reduce their trash productions and increase their compost production can add up to greatly reduce individuals’ contributions to climate change.
The empty, desolate campus students left in March came to life (though masked and socially distanced) as many students flocked back for the start of fall semester. The palpable excitement of habitating the BC Bubble now floats throughout campus, but the obvious need for precaution and safety is intertwined within this enthusiasm. Students need to do what we can to keep campus open. This entails practicing responsible and safe behavior on and off campus as well as respecting the neighboring communities. With large gatherings at a halt but the desire for social interactions still persisting, the next go-to for many friends is to grab dinner. While supporting local restaurants and employees is vital to the success of neighboring communities, we as consumers need to ensure this activity is approached mindfully. The safety of the campus and restaurant employees should be prioritized, and many principles learned from quarantine can be used to do just this.
Restaurants, having missed large revenues from the height of quarantine, have reopened, focusing on outdoor seating to ensure social distancing takes place. While tables are spaced apart and the fresh air erases the atmosphere of worry regarding the pandemic, the CDC recommends wearing a mask when not eating to ensure droplets are not spread. This acts as a method of protection to those dining around you and serving you. As customers arrive in masks, ensuring that all servers also wear their masks enables both parties to protect themselves and each other. With social distancing practices, eating outdoors, and wearing a mask when not eating, we can dine while avoiding infecting ourselves and others.
As of June 8, Phase 2 of the reopening plan of Massachesetts began. The anticipation for business and activities out of the house finally relieved, as outdoor patrons began enjoying their favorite take-out meals at sit-down restaurants.
Having experienced the hustle and bustle of a Friday afternoon on Beacon Street before quarantine, returning to what once was the well-trafficked area after the reopening felt ominous. The previously hurried and fast paced passerbys have been replaced with stagnant and socially-distanced patrons situated on curbs, allowing restaurants to serve guests in the crisp, summer air. Dining outside and socially distanced felt odd. The pleasures of dining and being with those I was quarantined with returned, but the feeling of worry and precaution never escaped me. This sense of fear increased in many as indoor dining became available on June 22 in Boston.
Such concerns over the worst case scenario were not a feeling confined to my family unit or to other patrons, as many restaurant owners experienced similar worries regarding the potential outcomes of reopening their indoor seating. “Our decision not to reopen was mainly about staff safety. Everyone is in danger all the time right now, and we didn’t want to put anyone into any excess danger,” Jason Bond, the owner of Bondir in Cambridge, told Eater Boston.
With restaurant workers speaking out about their concerns over the safety of their staff if they reopen in person dining, consumers need to ensure that they are acknowledging the risk employees are placing themselves in to make ends meet. Aside from following the COVID-19 precautions previously mentioned, generously tipping as financial support to those who served you is equally important.
Another important facet of the reopening of restaurants in Boston is the narrative regarding food accessibility. Attention has shifted towards discussing eating in restaurants when many members of the Boston community are unable to afford or access this luxury. With unemployment skyrocketing and vulnerable communities continuing to face limited access to income and aid, many are left without financial and physical access to groceries. This is where mutual aids come into play.
While mutual aids are a topic that are tossed around and shared via social media, the great impact of mutual aids derives from their grassroots focus on helping groups of people who are overlooked by government programs. “Mutual aid creates a symbiotic relationship, where all people offer material goods or assistance to one another. Mutual aid organizing is volunteer-run, transparent, and driven by the needs articulated by community members,” notes a VICE article detailing the rise of mutual aid organizations during COVID-19.
Although existent before the pandemic, mutual aids have rapidly expanded and grown to accommodate and assist those suffering during isolation. By relying on social media to spread awareness of the mutual aid and Google Docs to sign up to volunteer or receive aid, mutual aid funds thrived on the interconnectedness the Internet provided the world throughout the worst of the pandemic. This reliance on strangers and volunteers found on the Internet contrasts previous models of providing and obtaining aid, demonstrating how quickly organizers adapted to the influx in need for new forms of assistance. In a time that feels so socially isolated, communities are quickly forming to provide a sturdy social network of aid.
Not only are mutual aid funds being utilized to make groceries and essential items accessible, mutual funds in Boston were started to act as a “virtual tip jar” for restaurant employees who were laid off or unable to work during the pandemic. Although these were formed to assist with those who could not work during the height of the Massacheusettes coronavirus closures, restaurants are not able to fill to capacity, and staff are not receiving the tips they are accustomed to.
Although all mutual aids are not directly aimed at assisting and tipping restaurant workers, this example of financially supporting the community truly encapsulates the importance of being an intentional consumer. Rather than merely taking the services and food you pay for in what can seem to be a disconnected transaction, consumers should acknowledge that restaurant workers rely on the tips and purchases from customers.
With approximately 16,000 restaurants permanently closed due to repercussions from the pandemic, the need to support small, locally-owned restaurants becomes more apparent than ever before. Consumers need to support restaurants that have served their communities to ensure that local, small, and BIPOC-owned restaurants can survive.
The more we return to normal habits of consumption, the more these habits need to be altered to better serve the current economy. When dining with your family units, always ensure precautions are being taken to protect yourself and others. Local restaurants in the community should be prioritized when it comes to spending your hard-earned money.
Finding and exploring new local restaurants can be difficult during the pandemic, but lucky for you many lists of local restaurants have been curated to help out.
With a slight breeze coming off of the Hillsborough River, the Tampa Riverwalk is filled with people aiming to hit their daily steps and others simply enjoying the sights and sounds of Downtown Tampa. The popularity of the Riverwalk is no surprise, as it winds down the river and connects the popular areas of Tampa. By connecting these seemingly distant areas, locals feel empowered to explore different businesses than those immediately near them.
Only a few blocks inland from the Riverwalk resides The Hall on Franklin. As a self-defined “European Inspired Specialty Food Hall,” this dining experience strays from the mall food court and aims to provide a unique culinary affair. Without the typical limitations of food halls—where customers wander around the various food stalls, wait for their food to be ready, and then find temporary seating to gobble their food—the Hall on Franklin allows guests to sit down at a table with a server and order food from all stalls on one on check. With this innovative approach to dining, The Hall on Franklin paved the way for a multitude of dining experiences to later break down the stereotypical method of eating at restaurants.
Guests are more than welcome to wander in and buy food directly from individual stalls, but owner Jamal Wilson wanted to provide guests with an innovative dining ordeal in his hometown of Tampa. Having grown up in Tampa, Wilson felt a pull to return there after playing basketball overseas. Upon doing so, Wilson entered the real estate business, opening his own firm and then his own mortgage company. After years of forging his eye for design, Wilson wanted his next endeavor to center around interacting with people. With the input of his cousin, he became enamored with opening a restaurant that housed a multitude of food stalls featuring local chefs.
Opening in 2017, the Hall on Franklin featured a wide range of flavors and foods—from poke to Mexican street food to baked goods. With coffee vendors and mixologists, this food collective quickly became a popular spot at all hours and days.
My own experience with dining at the Hall on Franklin has been limited. Walking in on a Friday night before I moved to Boston, I chose the traditional “food court” experience of mulling around until a stand caught my eye. At that moment, my eyes were fixated on “Bake’n Babes,” a local bakery with twists on traditional treats. Getting a warmed chocolate chip cookie with sea salt, I can recall the warm energy the entire restaurant exuded, as happy, satiated customers left and eager, hungry customers lined the street outside.
Wilson’s visionary approach to dining is visible in the success of the Hall on Franklin. “Ultimately, people want to be able to craft their own food experience. Some want to sit down, others want to explore. Why not offer both in a space that is intimate and inviting?” Wilson remarked when asked by Creative Loafing, a Tampa-based news source, about his goals for The Hall.
The impact of Wilson’s success is evident in the influx of other dining halls built in the downtown area. The Hall on Franklin, acting as a model for others, demonstrates the power of creativity and striving for more, even in an industry that is so well defined.
Aisles filled with vibrant vegetables and fresh fruits define the stereotypical outer layer of American grocery stores that occupy nearly every street corner in affluent, suburban areas. While this quick access to healthy produce may be expected by many Americans, a large majority of low income and rural areas lack such luxury. Food deserts, areas without grocery stores, negatively impact vulnerable populations and escalate the hardships faced by the residents of these areas. With a lack of access to natural, unprocessed food, populations that are already at risk of poorer health outcomes are at a higher risk of contracting diseases that are preventable. Native Americans, who have been historically and systematically oppressed by the American government, lack access to fresh produce and are at a greater risk for morbidity and mortality.
To understand the vulnerabilities that Native Americans face requires exploring the history behind the formation of reservations, as the original intentions and goals of the US government continue to impact its current relationship with Native Americans. Beginning with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, tribes across North America were forced to leave their land and move to undesirable areas that the US government assigned to them. “For most of the nineteenth century the policy of the U.S. government was to isolate and concentrate Indians in places with few natural resources, far from contact with developing U.S. economy and society,” states Gary Sandefur, a social worker and sociology professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison. This intentional forced isolation from other upcoming economies led to worse qualities of life on reservations. Then, the Dawes Act of 1887 allocated small plots of land to individuals within tribes rather than to tribes themselves, and reservations were broken up and fractionated, leaving many tribes to share or have no reservation at all. This act was merely the beginning of decades of acts, treaties, and crimes committed with the intentions of isolating Native Americans. The blatant separation of tribes from the rest of society has directly led to the poor living conditions on reservations that exist today.
The mistreatment of Native Americans went beyond geographical colonization and expanded into the white washing of traditional cultural and culinary practices. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans lived off the local flora and fauna, thriving on the culinary staples known as the three sisters—corn, beans, and squash. Their growing potential was maximized by farming the three together in harmony. Food waste was minimized by utilizing every part of the animal that had been hunted. These dietary customs were uprooted with the aforementioned forced migration; the land Native Americans settled on was devoid of the local agriculture to which tribes were accustomed. The inability to farm the plants they were used to led to the reliance on rations provided to reservations by the US government. Introducing sugar, lard, and other processed foods, the diets of tribes unnaturally shifted from seasonal and sustainable consumption to dependence on unhealthy, packaged foods.
The lasting effects of where Native Americans were forced to settle and the numerous other atrocities committed against them are evident today in the living conditions of the 1.14 million Native Americans that currently live on tribal lands. With 28.4% of Native Americans living in poverty, the median income of Native American households is $35,062 compared to the median income of the United States, $50,046, according to the 2008 U.S. Census. Housing is another large issue on reservations, as 30% of housing is overcrowded, and about 90,000 families are homeless. While striving to assimilate and isolate the various Native American tribes with the formation of reservations, the negative issues that riddle reservations, including the lack of access to grocery stores, are not shocking.
Food deserts disproportionally affect Native Americans but are also present throughout the United States. Food deserts are “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable healthy food options is restricted due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance,” as described by the Food Empowerment Project. Around 2.3 million people do not have access to a vehicle and live more than a mile from a supermarket, which typically sells less expensive produce than smaller convenience stores. Convenience stores and gas stations are present in areas without supermarkets, but these stores do not sell fresh produce. Individuals living in such restricted areas lack healthy and affordable options and are forced to purchase processed foods.
Native Americans are subjected to particularly high levels of food insecurity. With a low median income and geographic isolation of reservations from major cities, at least 60 out of the 326 reservations in the United States are food deserts. Furthermore, Native American families are 400 percent more likely to not have enough to eat at all.
The Navajo Nation, which spans 27,000 square miles and houses 300,000 people, has 13 grocery stores. For context, the Navajo Nation would cover all of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire if it were in New England. With a quick Google search of grocery stores in Boston, a map with over 20 grocery stores spanning the Charles River alone pops up. While these may not all be in walking distance, public transportation makes many grocery stores that are a few miles apart much more accessible. The Navajo Nation, however, lacks public transportation, lacks the multitude of options for fresh produce, and lacks the accessibility to supermarkets that students of Boston College have. Meanwhile, the average resident of the Navajo Nation must drive three hours to even come in contact with a supermarket filled with fresh foods.
While geographic distance limits those who are able to go to grocery stores, the poverty and low average income of residents makes it extremely difficult to then afford the expensive fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed foods available at said stores. An updated report completed by the First Nations Development Institute found that Native American shoppers pay $7.51 more for a standard “basket of groceries,” which contains bread, ground beef, eggs, milk, tomatoes, and coffee. This reality in which Native Americans struggle to buy affordable fresh food prevents many from obtaining quality ingredients.
The impact of inaccessibility to fresh produce is evident in many of the health outcomes in Native American populations. Native Americans are disproportionately affected by non-infectious diseases, known as non-communicable diseases. Many of these diseases are preventable based on lifestyle factors, specifically diet and weight, but the disparities that Native Americans face leave them more vulnerable to the same non-communicable diseases.
With the forced loss of traditional food sources and the deficiency of affordable fresh foods, their diets now are filled with high quantities of foods with high added sugar content and sodium, which is reflected in the high percentage of diabetes in the population.
Compared to the 8.7% of non-hispanic white individuals, more than 16% of Native Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes. While this alarming rate of diabetes appears within a small population, this rate has been attributed to dietary rather than genetic factors. “Several studies have shown that unhealthy, nontraditional foods like canned meats and fast-food, are a large part of the problem,” notes Dr. Amanda Fretts, an epidemiologist who has studied the dietary habits of Native Americans. With scientific evidence attributing poor health outcomes to diet, the impact of the lack of access to fresh food is apparent.
With numerous resources attributing the poor health outcomes and high prevalence of disease in Native American populations to poor dietary habits, it is time that the American government is held accountable for the history of systemic oppression. To begin to improve health on reservations, federal funding for Native American programs needs to increase. In 2019, the GOP recommended that for the 2020 fiscal year, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would decrease by $17.2 billion, and families with an income of at least $90 per month would have to receive half of their SNAP benefits as canned or shelved items. Potential decreases in funding to programs aimed at mitigating the absence of fresh produce is only perpetuating the harm to Native American communities, and these programs need to receive better federal funding to enable those who rely on their benefits to adequately feed their families and to begin repairing the damages done by colonialist actions.
Furthermore, the federal government needs to utilize its power to provide incentives for supermarkets, who sell affordable produce, to open stores in areas that may traditionally be seen as unprofitable. When opening these grocery stores, incentives and programs that educate and encourage shoppers need to be an integral aspect of the shopping experience. Simply introducing accessible produce will help address the issue of food insecurity but may not immediately eradicate dietary habits.
In tandem with increasing federal funding for nutritional aid programs, additional non-profit organizations have been created to fight food insecurities rampant on reservations. The Fruits and Vegetables Prescription Program, which was started in the Four Corners region in partner with Partners In Health, provides patients with a “prescription” that is worth a month’s worth or free fruits and vegetables at their local store, and Partners In Health then reimburses the local stores. This has made produce more accessible and has demonstrated direct impacts on individual’s health, as one-third of children who were overweight at the initiation of the program are now at a healthy weight. Even though it is an example of a small scale intervention, the program demonstrates that change can be made and the health of a population can be improved with more affordable and accessible options.
While innovative programs are popping up on reservations and amongst other vulnerable groups to address food inequality, the federal government ultimately needs to take greater responsibility to solve the unequal access to healthy food. The 2020 elections offer an opportunity to vote for politicians that are dedicated to advocating for health equity for all populations and equitable health care options. Make sure that you are registered to vote and have signed up for your mail in ballot, if you need. We as voters need to ensure that our voices are heard and that all populations have equal opportunities to live healthy lives.
With shelves empty of the traditionally easy to find toilet paper and aisles barren of baker’s yeast, grocery store aisles across the country were filled with palpably tense air, as stressed shoppers braced for the unknowns of stay-at-home orders and uncertainties within their lives. With an unprecedented increase in demand for large quantities of everyday items, manufacturers began to experience the effects of the consumers’ frenzy. “There is not a supply shortage, but it does take some time for the manufacturing process and our supply chain to catch up from the significant spike in demand,” stated the interim president of Giant Food, an American supermarket chain. While many producers quickly bounced back from the increased demand, the meatpacking industry has struggled to process its normal quantities due to the temporary closures of plants resulting from high numbers of positive coronavirus cases amongst plant employees, a predominantly immigrant population. The outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in meatpacking plants not only threaten the meat supply chain, but more importantly place many immigrant employees at risk of contracting COVID-19 or facing severe financial repercussions.
When the Smithfield Foods facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota closed in April due to positive novel coronavirus cases among employees, approximately 550 livestock farmers lacked a plant to process their livestock. As the Sioux Falls facility accounts for 4 to 5% of all pork produced in the US, its closure greatly reduced the supply of pork in grocery stores and restuarants. Soon after the South Falls facility, multiple other meatpacking plants closed as a result of the spread of COVID-19 among their employees.
Although the various closed meatpacking plants are not physically close to one another, it isn’t shocking that multiple meatpacking facilities experienced large numbers of concentrated cases. Working elbow-to-elbow to utilize all the space in a factory, “some workers had as little as three feet of space at the cutting table.” These close quarters led to 28,303 confirmed coronavirus cases and 102 coronavirus-related deaths among meat-packers as of June, 26 2020.
There is a long history of documented mistreatment and unfair working conditions among meat-packing employees. In Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Sinclair sheds light on how poorly the employees are treated by highlighting the experiences of a recent immigrant to Chicago who began working as a “shoveler of guts” at a meatpacking factory. Addressing the back-breaking labor, low wages, lack of soap and water in bathrooms, and transmission of illnesses, Sinclair hoped this story would lead to reform of the treatment of employees in the meatpacking industry; however, public outrage focused more on explosive information regarding the lack of sanitary practices in meatpacking. This led to the passage of the Meat Inspection and the Pure Food and Drug Acts of 1906, which were major strides for improving the safety of consumers. Despite the major improvements in the quality of meat, the treatment of workers, specifically immigrants workers, did not improve.
The thousands of positive coronavirus cases among meatpacking employees reflect an industry that has historically thrived off of mistreating a vulnerable population. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 30% of meat and poultry packers are immigrants. This percentage does not account for the number of undocumented immigrants who also work in meatpacking plants. In addition to being exposed to potentially unsafe work environments and intense physical labor, immigrants already are at risk for worse health outcomes, often due to lack of access to adequate healthcare. Without access to COVID-19 testing, workers continue to go to work until their symptoms physically prevent them from doing so.
When the Center for Disease Control reported in April 2020 that positive coronavirus cases were emerging in meatpacking plants across 19 states, the industry responded by increasing preventative measures; however, the number of cases among employees has only continued to rise. This drastic increase in positive cases follows President Trump’s Executive Order on April 28, 2020, which invokes the Defense Production Act to label meat packing plants as “critical infrastructure” and thereby encourages meat- and poultry-packing plants to stay open amidst the pandemic. This order comes as an attempt to decrease the impact on the meat supply chain and prevent a shortage of meat across the country.
While the executive order only encourages meatpacking plants to stay open, many are offering large bonuses and raising hourly wages to incentivize employees to come to work. JBS USA, a leading producer of meat and poultry products in the United States, has begun to increase salaries by $4 per hour with a $600 bonus. While workers who remain home for health concerns do receive normal or slightly decreased salaries, the increase in wages from JBS USA and many other meat manufacturers provides an opportunity for increased financial security during the economic downturn. This has led many immigrant employees to continue working at the plants, posing a risk to themselves and others.
In an interview, Achut Deng, a Sudanese immigrant who works at the aforementioned Smithfield Sioux Falls Plant, discussed how she supports her 4 sons and 5 family members who live in Africa with the income from her meatpacking job. After being exposed to a coworker who tested positive for coronavirus, Deng was sent home to quarantine for 2 weeks. “Overtime is, like, $500 extra. $500. That, for me, it covered a lot of things,” Deng explained, noting the financial impact of only being paid for 40 hours a week, which was much less than the overtime she normally worked. Deng recently tested positive for coronavirus but is recovering well and focusing on her health.
Deng’s story resonates throughout the immigrant community as many are not just responsible for financially supporting their own families in the US but also their families in other countries. Yet, many employees have not had the same experience with their employers. At a Smithfield plant in St. Charles, South Dakota that closed only briefly to look into positive COVID-19 cases, a woman stated that she witnessed social distancing guidelines not being followed at work. “If I don’t go to work, they’ll say OK, but then I won’t have a job,” stated the woman. This puts many employees in a situation where they must choose between their physical health and the money they rely on to live.
The difficult decision and sacrifice to go to work that meatpacking employees are forced to make is only an issue because of the meat supply chain. With large manufacturers and processors of meat and poultry closing down due to coronavirus outbreaks, farmers have nowhere to send their animals to be processed. The enormous number of pigs that will be euthanized as a result of this may be the only option that farmers have.
With more meatpacking plants opening as restrictions across the country are lifted, the amount of processed meat and poultry will soon increase and meet the demand of the country, yet this ability to process meat relies on the sacrifices and risk-taking of vulnerable immigrant populations. From the toilet paper industry to the meat industry, this pandemic has shed light on the need to restructure the supply chain so that it can withstand the unpredictable future.
If we as consumers are only able to obtain our desired goods at the risk of other human lives, there is a major flaw in a system that has been accepted and relied upon for far too long. The meat supply chain therefore needs to be restructured and redistributed throughout smaller communities, enabling local farmers and processors to play a larger role in the meat industry.
With the frailty of the meat supply chain and its historic reliance on the exploitation of immigrant workers exposed, it is time to demand the fair treatment of all employees and the restructuring of these systems that harm society.