The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many of our society’s frailties — and here’s a big one: In the 21st century, we still operate our farms and food systems as if they were a 19th-century plantation.
Despite the technology and logistics we apply to producing and distributing food, it still turns on exploiting vulnerable people for their labor. Everywhere there are headlines about food-chain workers — the people paid a pittance to pick our vegetables, butcher our meat, stock and ring up our groceries, and perform other essential jobs for all of us — having trouble feeding their own families and even staying healthy themselves. Now, the nation’s food supply chain is disrupted because workers are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 infections because their work environments aren’t safeguarded.
Cavalier assurances from the food industry at the start of the pandemic — about food supply disruptions being a temporary matter of adjusting supply and demand through the grocery channel — took some things for granted. For example, some humans still need to get in the dirt, cut up produce, hack away at carcasses, move mountains of canned goods, and work and live in the cheek-by-jowl environments that make it plain what a luxury it is for others of us to be able to “practice social distancing” and to earn a living through telework.
Vice President Mike Pence told these workers directly on April 7: “We need you to continue, as a part of what we call critical infrastructure, to show up and do your job.” But there is a massive gap between that grandiose statement and the reality of how we treat food-chain workers, from poverty wages to the lack of basic health and retirement benefits — or workplace protection guarantees — that many of us count on. In that same speech, Pence promised that the government would “work tirelessly” to ensure that the workplaces of food-chain workers were safe. Since then, hundreds have fallen ill in meat processing plants, the latest hot spots of the pandemic…