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Making the invisible visible: our food system’s dependence on the labor of forced migrants

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[Earth Eats theme music]

ELIZABETH DUNN:  The problem here is income differentials between people who have different positions in our food system, and these aesthetically beautiful alternatives are alternatives for white, middle-class people or upper-class people. But they are not viable alternatives for working-class people of color or immigrants.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This week on the show we talk with the director of IU's Center for Refugee Studies, Elizabeth Dunn, about her research with Rohingya and Somali workers in Greeley, Colorado. She talks about the role of forced migrant labor in maintaining our food system and shares important insights about our impulse to hide certain realities about where our food come, and what's at stake when we continue to look away. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Many of the cows raised in the Mid-West graze in open pastures that used to be forests. Clear cutting trees to make it easier to raise cattle eliminated much of the landscape known as Mid-West Savanna. But as Harvest Public Media's Jonathan Ahl reports, an experimental farm in the Ozarks is trying to prove that grazing animals in the forests is better for the environment, for farmers and for the cattle.

JONATHAN AHL:  Ashley Conway-Anderson is driving a four-wheeler down a dirt road on the University of Missouri's Wurdack Farm. On the left side of the road is a thick forest, on the right side is a big open pasture where cows are huddled under the few trees along a creek bed. The Professor of Agroforestry says neither side is what should be there. Conway-Anderson says before Europeans arrived, all of this was a forest but much less dense than what's on one side of the road.

ASHLEY CONWAY-ANDERSON:  That habitat was created intentionally by a lot of indigenous communities that lived here, intentionally managed with fire and then once fire opened things up, what came next was grass and then what followed the grass was large grazing herbivores.

JONATHAN AHL:  Those herbivores were bison and elk, but Conway-Anderson says they could be cows today. She's leading a multi-year study at this farm to first thin out the forest areas, get native grasses growing and then bring in cows to graze. It's called silvopasture, and it's a very old way of raising animals. Conway-Anderson says her research is getting more attention because healthy forests can be a critical part of combating climate change. Trees are good at keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and they're also resilient in the face of extreme weather caused by climate change.

ASHLEY CONWAY-ANDERSON:  When we do have floods, when we do have droughts and fires, it won't be wholesale destruction. It will be able to recover much more quickly and maintain functionality for longer when it experiences those inevitable challenges.

JONATHAN AHL:  Conway-Anderson says she wants to get the data and create an example to help farmers move their cattle from open fields into forests. She says it should be a short trip because so many want to and some already are.

BRUCE CARNEY:  Everybody probably thinks I'm a silvopasture expert, but I'm really not. I'm just a guy that's planted trees.

JONATHAN AHL:  Bruce Carney raises cattle on his family farm, north of Des Moines. More than ten years ago, he decided to convert 200 acres from corn and soy bean fields to land for cattle to graze.

BRUCE CARNEY:  What I learned after seeding a crop farm downtown was that I needed trees. I needed windbreaks, I needed shade, I needed a living barn, okay? To me that's what trees do for you.

JONATHAN AHL:  Carney says trees make cows happier, healthier and bring in more money when they're sold. While Carney is considered a success story of silvopasture development, he says he'd like to do more. And the kind of research going on at the University of Missouri could help and advocates for having more trees on farms agree. Kaitie Adams is with the Wisconsin-based Savanna Institute, she says another benefit from the movement is that it can make small farms more viable by increasing the amount of money they bring in.

KAITIE ADAMS:  By its very nature it's intentional and intensive so it allows for us to do more on one piece of land.

JONATHAN AHL:  Adams says silvopasture can combine raising cattle, growing food like apples or walnuts and a timber business all into one small piece of land. There are a lot of challenges to making a go of having cattle graze in forests, including the time it takes for trees to grow, the inefficiency of raising cattle that graze as opposed to a factory farm, and the time and effort to manage a forest properly. But Conway-Anderson says it's worth it and she's optimistic that she can prove it.

ASHLEY CONWAY-ANDERSON:  I want to get more people thinking about this as a viable possibility because, even if everybody does this on forty acres that they have, that's a huge amount of landscape that can add to this mosaic and help rebuild out the tapestry of Savanna landscape that once was here.

JONATHAN AHL:  Conway-Anderson is also banking on the increased need for such measures, as climate change puts pressure on agriculture to come up with solutions in the coming years. I'm Jonathan Ahl, Harvest Public Media.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Harvest Public Media covers food and farming across the Mid-West and Great Plains. Find more from this reporting collective at

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanks for listening to Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young. Think back to those early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. So many things were shut down, we saw widespread disruption across multiple industries, including the meat industry here in the US. I had IU Geography Professor, Elizabeth Dunn, on the show back in 2020 to talk about the meat processing industry and in particular the role of refugees as laborers in that industry. Elizabeth Dunn's work focuses on refugees and displaced people. In fact, she's the Director of the newly established Center for Refugee Studies on the IU campus. I've also had her on the show recently to talk about her trips to Poland, working with Ukrainian refugees pushed from their homeland by Russia's war with Ukraine.

KAYTE YOUNG:  The interview you're about to hear is not about Ukraine, it's about the contradictions and instabilities that plague our food system, and Elizabeth Dunn doesn't just advocate for eating organic or shopping at farmer's markets, she takes a broader view and points to a systems-based approach to addressing these issues, and she suggests we start by looking at labor practices.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Elizabeth Dunn spent some time in Greeley, Colorado as part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation, looking at essential workers in the US food system. I started our conversation by asking her about that project.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  So along with Seth Holmes who is a Professor at UC Berkeley, we're looking at essential workers in the US food system during the pandemic. So we're particularly focused on three groups, we're looking at indigenous Mexican workers in the strawberry fields of California. I'm looking at Rohingya and Somali refugees in the meat-packing plants in Colorado, and as a kind of control group, we're looking at white, working-class workers for the Kroger system who have been out on strike recently and, as we found out, about 70% live below the poverty line.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  So, we have three groups which have really different relationships to essential work in the food system. But one of the arguments that Seth and I are trying to advance is that the American food system, and therefore the American economy, depends heavily on forced migrants of various types. People who are forced out of their homes and must come elsewhere, to the United States is where they end up, where they take jobs in the food system that native-born Americans will not take. So, we're really investigating how the dirty work of the American food system gets done and by whom, and as we found out during the pandemic, startlingly, that if the meat chain goes down, if the meat-packing plants have to close, which they did for several days during the pandemic, the entire meat system falls down within three or four days.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  We have so much just-in-time production and grocery stores are holding so little in reserve that the meat supply lasted three days when the plants shut down because of COVID, and they were COVID hot-spots. So, the argument we're making is that the US food system has depended on forced migrants since 1619, which is the arrival of the first African-American slaves.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes, so do you want to start with the research, the part that you've been doing?

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Sure. So, I was in Greeley, Colorado for six months where I did not work in the plant, but I worked with employees of the plant who were trying to learn English and to pass the US Citizenship exam, and they were attending classes at the Immigrant and Refugee Center of Northern Colorado. And so, because I was helping to teach this class I got to know these people pretty well, and understand why they were working in the plant and how they were managing the risks they faced in the plant.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  So, meat packing is an extremely dangerous job. In the first place there is COVID and thousands of meat packing workers got COVID during the pandemic, before vaccines were available, and many of them died. So, the risk in a very enclosed, concentrated space is very high and then these meat packing plants are essentially very large refrigerators. Once the animal is slaughtered on the hot side of the plant, they cross into the cold side of the plant, where workers are working all day long at about 40 degrees. In those conditions, the way you keep the air cold is to recirculate the air. So, virus-laden air was being taken in to the refrigeration system and then pumped back out through the plant.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  So, the meat packers put in some nominal precautions. They hung shower curtains between workers as a barrier, which doesn't make sense because you have to go forward from that because of the carcasses swinging in front of you, you can't stay behind the shower curtain. They gave people masks. These were in fact very ineffective measures because of the recirculation of air in the plant. So, people take that risk and then they take other incredibly dangerous risks.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Meat packing is still the most dangerous job in America. So, while I was working with this community, a man got a sleeve caught in a machine and lost his arm above the elbow. One of our clients lost a finger. We heard of another person, not an immigrant, who fell into a vat of chemicals being used to tan hides and died of his injuries. So, it is an incredibly lethal injury-related industry and then on top of that there are just endemic repetitive motion disorders because you're making the same gestures with your hands hundreds or thousands of times a day.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  So, that was quite dangerous and then there's the financial risk because many of these workers live at or about the poverty line, so the plant actually pays really good wages. When I was there, they were starting people at $23 an hour and after six months you could go to $31 an hour, which is not an unreasonable wage. But the cost of living on the front range is so high, and one worker is supporting so many people including relatives, for example, who are stuck at Cox's Bazar, in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, that that money didn't go very far. So, many times people had to go to work even though they knew they could get COVID, even though they knew they could lose an arm because they were financially coerced into do so. So, I think people did a lot to try and manage their risk.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  One of the ways they did that was by rotating among different jobs and different employers. So, even though the meat packing plant paid the highest wages, people very often said they just couldn't continue working there. The plant itself told me that they have 85% turnover annually, but it looks like it's probably worse than that. The other figure I heard was 80% every 90 days, because it is such hard work. So what happens is people work there for as long as they can take it, and then they go to another employer. Many of the Rohingya went to OtterBox, which is a company that makes cellphone cases. So they work at OtterBox for a lower wage, but it's easier work and not cold and they work there for 89 days. But OtterBox fires people on the 89th day, because at the 90th day they have to provide benefits.

KAYTE YOUNG:  OtterBox has not yet responded to our request for comment on this policy.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  So once people get fired at OtterBox, they go onto a food manufacturer, very often a place called Fresca Foods where they're packing for the natural and organic industry, and they will work there for a few months until they run out of money and then they have to go back to meat packing.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And what are the wages like at Fresca?

ELIZABETH DUNN:  As far as I know, about $15 to $17 an hour, which sounds really good for Bloomington, Indiana, but the front range of Colorado has one of the fastest growing real estate markets in the country, and the cost of housing there is just astronomical. Housing is in radically short supply, like everywhere, and most people who arrived as refugees are really tied to various forms of subsidized housing. So, for example, there's an apartment building that is all subsidized housing and it's affordable, but it's in Aurora, Colorado, which is an hour and ten minutes from Greeley. So, that means you need a car. People carpool together but you're showing up for a 3pm shift, you may get off at 3am, you may have to work mandatory overtime until 5am and then, exhausted, you have to crawl into that car and drive an hour and ten minutes back and that's unpaid time.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Okay, so one of the things that I want to understand is: Are you specifically talking with or focusing on Rohingya refugees?

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Yes. Most of the people I worked with were Rohingya. Some were Somali, but mostly they are Rohingya.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And so how are these folks ending up in Greeley? What's drawing them there? How do they end up getting there?

ELIZABETH DUNN:  So, they come one of two ways, which is really interesting. Many of them were resettled there by Lutheran Family Services and as part of the US Federal Resettlement Program. It's really interesting that when you look at where resettlement agencies, like Lutheran Family Services, have located, their satellite offices are in places that ordinarily you wouldn't think you would want to place refugees. Greeley, Colorado. Fort Morgan, Colorado, which is way out on the Eastern Plains, there is nothing in Fort Morgan, except a pork packing plant.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  So, they get settled there by Lutheran Family Services precisely because there is work in the meat packing industry. I think that this is a really compromised position for the resettlement agencies because they are then de facto acting as labor contractors.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's what it seems like, that's why I was asking. Is there some kind of connection? Is it just, oh, we happen to have a meat packing plant here?

ELIZABETH DUNN:  No, no, no. The agencies open up offices there precisely because meat packing is a job that you can do without having to speak English.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Okay, and it's also a job that the companies are finding hard to fill because Americans don't want to do them?

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Exactly. So, you can always get somebody hired at the meat packing plant, and the wages are comparatively high, in comparison to the other kinds of work they could do, like cleaning hotel rooms. So, the resettlement agencies place them there, but one of the things that happens is that when refugees arrive in the United States, they are already in debt, because they get a loan to cover the cost of their plane tickets from the US Department of State and they must repay that loan within five years.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  So, they arrive indebted. They are tied to these jobs because they have to pay back this enormous debt, which, for a family of six could be $12,000, $14,000, and they are then kind of coerced into working these jobs and bearing this risk, and that is risk that Americans won't take on. The other thing is that the US Department of State pushes refugees to be financially independent or financially self-sufficient within 90 days, and this means that people go into jobs where they don't have to speak English, but then they're working so hard and so many hours that they don't have time to learn English, which in turn means they can't get a better job. So, they are locked into the job also by their English skills which don't improve.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Right. Okay, so, these resettlement agencies have one thing in the community that can potentially help the refugees and that's these jobs. But there's no housing to support them actually moving there. I think that's interesting. It just feels like, well, why haven't they figured that out and why hasn't some housing been built for these folks?

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Well, most refugees are operating either with Section 8 vouchers or they're on the open market, and so they're crowded into low income housing. Greeley is a town that, very interestingly, is about 40% Hispanic. It is Hispanic because Mexican migrants were attracted there in the 1910s, 1920s by the sugar beet industry where they were used as field labor. Then, because sugar beets were there, and this is an interesting story I found in the archives, I asked myself, "Why are meat packing plants in Greeley, Colorado, and not in Chicago, which they were when The Jungle was written?" And the answer has to do, specifically with Greeley, which is where the feedlot was invented. It was invented by Warren Monfort who discovered that you could, first of all, fatten cattle more quickly by feeding them in an enclosed lot rather than letting them roam the open range, and that you could feed them remarkably more cheaply if you used sugar beet waste, the greens from sugar beets.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  So, those products were given to cattle and Monfort's feeding operation just exploded. I mean, he had 100 cattle under-feeding one year and by the next year he was double that, and five years down the road he had 10,000 cattle. Now, you know, we have hundreds of thousands of cattle at a time being fed in these lots. So in Greeley, Colorado, the feedlots were first developed and grew up, and that's why the plant was located there. It was Monfort Beef, back in the day. That plant, plus the feedlots, ended up attracting even more Mexican immigrants, who largely staffed that plant until 2006 when there was a huge raid by ICE, and thousands of people were arrested, about 3,500 people, of whom 36 were later charged. Only 36. It was a plan to force Congress to act on immigration.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  But it meant that the meat packing industry could no longer rely on undocumented workers. So, they had to switch to a mix of documented workers in Greeley and the town is 40% Hispanic now, which is very high even for Colorado, and find this other source of labor, which was refugees. So, the Rohingya now are trying to fit into the cracks in this town. They're fitting into low cost housing that has been freed up by Hispanic workers, who've gone on to more skilled jobs and better housing. They're living crowded into single-family houses that are out on the Eastern Plains, and they're trying to make-do in a market where finding a place to live is really tough.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Like you said, they've also got to have transportation because they're not living close by.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Right, or if they are, they're still living far enough out of town, you've got to have a car. So, yes, so then they get into car loans and now they're really stuck because they've got to pay off the State Department loan plus the auto loan plus the cost of whatever housing they have, and when you have a single worker in the household, that gets expensive.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I'm speaking with Elizabeth Collen Dunn, Professor of Geography and Director of the Center for Refugee Studies at Indiana University. After a short break, we'll return to our conversation about how our food system is dependent on the labor of forced migrants. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats. We're back with Elizabeth Dunn. She's doing research in Greeley, Colorado, learning about essential food workers in meat packing plants. I asked her about the migrant workers who find themselves trapped in debt to the State Department for their relocations costs, to car dealerships for their transportation to work each day, paying for over-priced housing, all while trying to send money to other family members, many of whom are still stuck in refugee camps.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  I would say almost all of them are sending money back, because the Rohingya that were left in Burma were ethnically cleansed in 2017/18. And so over a million of them were forced out of Burma and into Bangladesh, where they've been held in these large refugee camps. I think Cox's Bazar must be the largest refugee camp in the world right now and it sprang up over six weeks. If you can imagine building a city for a million people in six weeks, with all the complications you can imagine, that is what has happened.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  So, one of the things that men who have come to the United States find out is that they cannot apply for citizenship themselves without proving that they are supporting their dependents. So, they have to keep track of all the money they send back to their families to prove that they have not abandoned their dependents. So, this also becomes a drain on the income and a difficult and challenging thing to manage financially. So, they're juggling risk to their bodies and risk financially, plus risk to their citizenship status, and they're trying to manage all of that through job rotation.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, a lot of the people you talk to, or just that you heard, were doing this job rotation?

ELIZABETH DUNN:  I would say almost all of them. There are a few people who stay at the plant and those people generally start to float up in management, but that requires English skills that many of them don't have. One of the interesting things is that the plant has been trying to give people information in their own language. Obviously they do this in Spanish and they do it in other languages, but they believe that the Rohingya speak Burmese. So, they have all their safety training in Burmese. But the Rohingya were de-nationalized in 1981, which means the Burmese Government decided they were no longer citizens of Burma. So they were thrown out of the Burmese education system and most Rohingya cannot speak Burmese. They speak Rohingya, which is not a related language and they cannot read or write in any language. So, they also arrive functionally illiterate.


ELIZABETH DUNN:  It's a big mountain to climb to get out of the hole they arrive in. So, they are, in many ways, stuck and stuck in this rotation. Even if they move out of the meat packing plant, they will end up back at the meat packing plant. One of the interesting things is that the meat packers used to depend on a steady supply of labor. So, they didn't care if people got used up or injured and quit. What they cared about is that they had a steady stream of people coming in, so they could always replace their laborers.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Now that's not true because of the Trump Administration. The Trump Administration capped the number of refugees to be admitted very, very low, so we went from about 120,000 a year to about 8,000 a year, and that dried up this labor source for the meat packers. So, all of a sudden, for the first time, they are concerned about retention of their workers. And they told me that one way they are doing this is by sponsoring housing, they're building housing, and they are also working on getting their employees mortgages. Which, in some ways, is really good given the rapidly escalating cost of housing in Colorado. It at least allows these people to have some kind of an investment. But, on the other hand, when you have a mortgage that requires that you earn $31 an hour, you can't leave the plant because nobody else will pay you $31 an hour if you're illiterate and don't speak English.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Right, so it's a different kind of trap.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  It's a debt trap and it's interesting that the refugees first are stigmatized because they are people who move in space, right? That's what a migrant is. And then all of a sudden they're people who are problematic because they can't move in space, right? Because they can't get out of this. So, they go from being highly mobile to highly stuck, and the meat packing plants want them to be stuck in space because that is what keeps the labor source available.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This is our food system.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  This is our food system, and one of the things I think that most critics of the food system do not appreciate, is how unbelievably dependent we are on the labor of forced migrants. They're not people who are necessarily here by choice because they're trying to build a better future for themselves, although this is the story that gets told, particularly about migrants from Latin-America. They are people who are here because they cannot return home. My colleague, Seth Holmes, working with ethnically Triqui people who are from Oaxaca State in Mexico has found out that, number one, they can't return because they cannot survive there. The economy for them is so bad that they cannot make a living in Oaxaca. But also very often they are forced out by the Mexican military or by the drug cartels and that kind of related non-state violence.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  So, they can't return or they can't easily return and they can't stay, so they do what they can do, which is to work in the strawberry fields. But all of us depend on these people. Without them, the strawberries don't get picked, the avocados rot in the fields and there is no meat within three or four days. That, to me, is a real ethical quandary. Are we really providing these people access to the American Dream, or are we just reproducing the same conditions that existed when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle a century ago?

KAYTE YOUNG:  Right, and when you talk about the debt trap, it feels really similar to share-cropping and these are the kinds of things that we think are in the past for our nation, and it's part of what we're depending on for our food system.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  First of all I will say that this is perfectly legal. But what is legal and what is just are very often extremely different. What this is de facto is a form of indentured servitude, right? Indentured servitude is where people are forced to work to pay off a debt, usually a debt for their transportation. We outlawed indentured servitude many years ago, but it is still de facto happening and what's interesting is that the whole system of indentured servitude is being set up by the US Department of State. This is not happening somehow out of sight of the US Government, it's sponsored by the US Government.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And also helped along by these charitable organizations which may have a goal of helping the people who are coming, but are actually participating in this unjust system.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Yes, I think that's true. I'm on the board of a resettlement agency here in Indiana and I certainly understand the constraints that the resettlement agencies are under. When you sign a contract with the US Department of State to provide resettlement services, you agree that you will help people become financially self-sufficient in 90 days, even though you know very well that this gets them into the cycle of low-wage work for people who can't speak English.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  In Germany, they do it differently. Refugees in Germany, particularly Syrians, can get a year, two years or even longer to retrain, to learn German, to take civics classes and so on. They're actually required to do this. But that longer period of adjustment gives them time to enter the labor market as skilled workers rather than as low-wage workers. We don't offer that same opportunity here in the United States, so refugees who do get that have to scramble for it by circumventing the resettlement process. They're not being handed that by the resettlement process.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  One of the things I've gotten really interested in is the things people don't want to see, and there are a lot of things in our culture that we set aside and we block the view of, so that they are not seen by the general public. Refugee resettlement is one of them. It's generally taking place out of sight. We let people in slowly and we put them into private housing so you aren't seeing large arrivals of people, and when you are, as in the Afghan evacuation, which I helped with at Camp Atterbury, you had 7,200 Afghans there that were almost invisible to the general population of Indiana because they were behind walls at Camp Atterbury, which was, for those months, de facto a refugee camp.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Refugee camps around the world are very often hidden out of sight. They're put in distant locations. They're kept away from major cities. Many of them are closed and hard to enter and hard to exit from. We don't want to see forced migrants. It's the same thing with ICE detention centers for migrants from Latin-America. If you get sent to an ICE detention center, it's impossible for someone to just walk in and see what the conditions there are like. These people are very deliberately hidden from view so that nobody sees what is happening to them.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  I think that meat packing plants operate on the same principal which is that this is terrible work. It is work that is violent to people and to animals, and the meat packers will tell you that that is true. They will tell you that it's unavoidable and I think that that is probably true. Right now, there is no way to make this work less horrible or less dangerous, and there's no way to kill cows without violence to cattle. We don't want to see that. We don't want to accept that the route of our food system is incredible violence, so what we do is we hide it from view.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Greeley is way out on the Eastern Plains. If you drive up to the plant, there are usually trucks parked all the way around it so you can't see it. There's an overpass by the plant that, before I started this project, was blocked for months so that animal welfare activists could not go up onto the overpass and look down into the lairages where the cattle were kept. We try our best to make it invisible and that is very interesting to me. I find it interesting that when I talk about what happens in the plants, people cannot hear it. It is in many ways unhearable when you describe what happens to people and animals in a meat packing plant. It is so gruesome for people that they turn away, and that reaction of disgust or horror or shame makes it hard to talk about the fundamental violence in the food system.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes, I think it's very interesting too. That's definitely something I've come up against in this show. I feel uncomfortable sharing those stories. Is this what someone wants to hear as they're waking up on a Saturday morning?

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Well, I think that that's a really difficult problem, because I always joke that there's two kinds of food studies: happy and unhappy. Right? Like happy meals and unhappy meals. But people really like happy food studies. A colleague of mine is working on the history of olive oil, which is a beautiful story taking place in the south of Italy and these artisan producers. You can talk about artisan cheese production and the farmer's market and it is...

KAYTE YOUNG:  Urban growers!

ELIZABETH DUNN:  ...urban gardeners, which I've never understood. "Hey, I know how to solve the problem of urban poverty. Let's make them back into peasants." I've never quite understood that. But, yes, we tell these stories which we see as stories of ideological virtue and purity. And then there's unhappy food studies where we confront the fact that our food system is highly industrialized, that specialty production will never replace the industrialized food system in this country. That is not going to happen. You cannot scale-up organic small-scale farming without fundamentally changing the American economy, which is not going to happen.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Well, then it's no longer small-scale organic farming.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Right. Then it becomes large-scale organic farming.

KAYTE YOUNG:  With everything that's problematic about that.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Right, with everything that's problematic about that. Our economy contains a fundamental drive to achieve an economy of scale, and that is nowhere more true than in the food system. The bigger you are, the cheaper it is to make things and that's how you make money in this business. So, I think its really hard when you confront the fact that no matter how many aesthetically beautiful alternatives you have in the food system, the bedrock of it is ugly and violent.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I so appreciate you saying that because it's something that I have thought about a lot and just haven't really been able to articulate. When people talk about solutions to our food system being just buying organic produce from local farmers and that's the way, it's not the way. It's not affordable to the majority of people. It's not accessible, in other ways, not just financially, and it's just producing niche markets for the people who can afford it. It's not changing the food system. So, I think it's important to talk about it in that way.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Yes, it is really important to talk about the fundamental problems of social class that exist in the US food system. Class is not a word that Americans like to hear about either.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Or understand.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Right. Just for a second, let's look at white, working-class people who work for Kroger. Here in Bloomington, they're making about 11 bucks an hour. I think it goes up to 13 if you're doing night-shift work. At 11 bucks an hour, Kroger workers cannot afford to buy arugula at the farmer's market. They can't even afford to buy organic produce at Kroger because their discount only applies to Kroger-branded goods and these fruits and vegetables are very expensive and they're not Kroger-branded. So, to say that you can pay somebody 11 bucks an hour and expect them to eat small-scale organic produce, it fundamentally negates the fact that the problem here is income differentials between people who have different positions in our food system.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  These aesthetically beautiful alternatives are alternatives for white, middle-class people or upper-class people, but they are not viable alternatives for working-class people of color or immigrants.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I always feel like I'm coming up against this dilemma about focusing on food being accessible, so, say, fresh produce being accessible to low-income people and then paying the true cost of food, which is what the local organic farmer is going to argue. "Well, this is the true cost of food, we're not over-charging for this food, this is what it costs to produce at this scale." And that's true, it does cost more to raise meat humanely on pasture.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Without Government subsidy.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Without Government subsidies and with small flocks and small-scale processing. That all does cost. And not feeding this GMO grain or whatever. That all does cost more, but it's also not accessible to the folks who you might argue really need the healthier food.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Yes, I think that that's true. One of the things we really haven't contended with is whether the people who make food get to eat that food. One of the interesting things about the Rohingya I was working with in the meat packing plant is that they actually cannot eat the food they make because it's not Halal. So, they pool their money, they have another Rohingya guy who works on a farm, raises cows and then they'll go out on a weekend and slaughter a cow and share it, because they'll do it in an Halal way. But also they very often can't afford regular groceries in large quantities. It's just their budgets aren't that large, and so they eat a lot of industrially processed cheap food because that's what they can afford.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And just imagine that contradiction of what you're doing everyday being against what your religious food practices are.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  If you can imagine Muslims in a pork processing plant, you can imagine how challenging that is for them ethically. But one of the things I think is true about the way many white, middle-class people look at agriculture is they look first at its impact on their own bodies, and then they look at its impact on their own morals, and then they start to look at what happens to the animals. It is only way down the line that they look at what happens to the workers who produce it. That is the last thing they want to see or think about because what happens to those people disrupts the moral purity of their views of the food system. That's a hard one to contend with.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes, yes. I think you're right. I think a lot of people who are thinking ethically about their food will stop at the, "Well, I just won't eat meat then and then I'm not participating in this horrible system, I'm not gonna eat meat." And they're not looking at the strawberry fields. They're not looking at the places where industrial vegetable and fruit production is also an ugly system, especially if you're thinking about workers.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Yes, I think that's true. Maybe there are people who can manage to eat only from small-scale producers who do all the labor themselves. That's an expensive proposition. Maybe there are people who can just eat out of the farmer's market and never shop anywhere else. But, if you do that, you're maybe opting out of the food system for yourself, but you're not changing the food system. You're not changing it for anyone else and you're certainly not changing it for the workers who produce it.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Right. And it's not just expensive financially, it's expensive in terms of the time and energy it would take for you to manage that kind of lifestyle. That would have to be your full-time job, gathering your foods from the small-scale producers.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Yes, it's very costly in terms of time. You have to go to multiple outlets. You have to find multiple sources. If you're going to be really good at it, go and visit all these places to make sure they're not using undocumented Mexican labor, for example. But I think there are ways that we can support the workers who make our food. The way to do it is to think about this not as a food problem but as a labor problem and demand what we call decent work for the people who produce our food.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  The biggest thing you can do is support unionization. Both the Kroger workers we've been working with and the people in the meat packing plant are represented by the UFCW, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the union has done a tremendous job, particularly in Colorado where the union is managed by an absolute genius, Kim Cordova. They have done a lot to improve safety, to demand training in appropriate languages, to make sure that Federal labor laws are being enforced. The UFCW managed the King Soopers walk-out in December and King Soopers is a branch of Kroger.


ELIZABETH DUNN:  So unionization is really important. There is no unionization for farm workers. There hasn't been a bid for that since Cezar Chavez. But unionizing workers like this gives them a way to ensure that they're being paid a decent wage and that they're working in safe conditions. What we can do is demand that our food be produced under safe working conditions. I support the union.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  One of the things that I'm always amazed at is that you can get food that is marked as "Fairtrade", usually food produced outside the United States, and "Fairtrade" comes with a set of specifications about the kinds of prices that are going to be paid to producers. We don't have a "Union-Made" sticker, but I would pay a premium for union-made food, because I know that it's not perfect by any stretch, but it is better for workers and I would pay a premium for union-made food.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So start asking for that, demanding that?

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Yes, start asking that, start demanding that. Start asking questions. For the last 30 years, we've asked a lot of questions about the pesticides that are applied to our food, the fertilizers that are applied to our food. We've asked a lot of questions about food safety, particularly in meat packing and demanded that meat packers take radical and extremely expensive steps to eliminate pathogens like E.coli or 157:H7. Those moves were made in response to consumer demand because consumers didn't want to eat food that would harm them. Billions of dollars went into making meat safer. We also have the capacity to demand food that makes workers safer.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes, I think you're right that there has been looking at animal welfare and there has been looking at environmental concerns with the food system and food safety, but not working conditions.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  Yes, and I think that there's a kind of fundamental egocentrism about that, which is like, "I'm worried about what's going to affect me." Right? "I'm worried about what I eat and the air that I breathe." Paying attention to working conditions is about the safety and health of somebody else, but we are connected to these people and we know now if we don't pay attention to their safety and health, COVID, injuries, financial risk, if we don't pay attention to that, then the food system collapses, and all of us need that system to go on.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Looks like we're running out of time, that's sad, but you have a meeting.

ELIZABETH DUNN:  I'm so glad I get the chance to be on the podcast and to talk about these issues and I really appreciate you giving me a chance to make the invisible visible.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That was Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, Professor of Geography and Director of the recently established Center for Refugee Studies at Indiana University. I spoke with her on the IU campus back in February, just before Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Elizabeth Dunn headed to Poland shortly after the war broke out to help with refugees fleeing across the border. You can find our conversation about that trip on our website,

KAYTE YOUNG:  A final note to readers of the Earth Eats Digest. You might be saying to yourself, "Hey, I thought we were going to learn how to can tomatoes." We are, just not this week. You can find the recipe and detailed instructions on our website,, and I will walk you through the steps in an upcoming episode. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast so you don't miss out. By the way, the Earth Eats Digest is our newsletter. It's got recipes and previews and stories about food. I send it out every other week, directly to your inbox free of charge, you can find the link to sign up at

[Earth Eats theme music]

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's it for our show this week, thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.

RENEE REED:  Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young, with help from Eoban Binder, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Daniella Richardson, Peyton Whaley, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Special thanks this week to Elizabeth Dunn and to David Gann for the closing music.

RENEE REED:  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from artists at Universal Production Music. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey.

young girl holding red bean bags, about to toss one. browning grass, an apartment complex and other people in the background

Rohingya, Somali, Moroccan, Mexican and Guatemalan refugees settle in Greeley, Colorado since there is employment for low-skilled labor at the meatpacking plant. This child is playing a game at World Refugee Day, held in Greeley in June. Her parents work in the plant. (Elizabeth Cullen Dunn)

“The problem here is income differentials between people who have different positions in our food system. And these aesthetically  beautiful alternatives are alternatives for white middle class people–or upper class people. But they are not viable alternatives for working class people of color.”

This week on the show we talk with the director of Indiana University’s Center for Refugee Studies, Elizabeth Dunn about her research with Rohinga and Somali workers in Greeley Colorado. She talks about the role of forced migrant labor in maintaining our food system and shares important insights about our impulse to hide certain realities about where our food comes from, and what’s at stake when we continue to look away.

Plus, a story from Harvest Public Media about the benefits of grazing live stock in the woods. 


Think back to those early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. So many things were shut down, we saw widespread disruption across multiple industries–including the meat industry here in the US. Indiana University Geographer Elizabeth Dunn was a guest on our show back in 2020 talking about the meat processing industry, and in particular the role of refugees as laborers in that industry. 

Elizabeth Dunn’s work focuses on refugees and displaced people. In fact, she is the director of the newly established Center for Refugee Studies on the IU campus. I have also had her on the show recently to talk about her trips to Poland, working with Ukrainian refugees pushed from their homeland by Russia’s war with Ukraine. 

This conversation is not about Ukraine. It’s about the contradictions and instabilities that plague our food system. Elizabeth Dunn doesn’t just advocate for eating organic or shopping at the farmers market. She takes a systems-based approach to addressing these problems, and she suggests we start by looking at labor practices.

Elizabeth Dunn spent time in Greeley Colorado, as part of a project in partnership with UC Berkeley anthropologist Seth Holmes, looking at essential workers in the US food system. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation

Hear the full interview on the show this week.


Music on this Episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from David Gann and the artists at  Universal Production Music.

Stories On This Episode

Getting cattle into the forest could help climate change, farmers and the livestock

Heard of cattle in the forest

Silvopasture is the practice of grazing livestock in a forested area instead of an open pasture. It’s a very old practice that might see new life.

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