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The Pandemic Reveals The Fragility Of Our Food Systems: An Interview With Elizabeth Dunn

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KAYTE YOUNG: Production support for Earth Eats comes from: Bloomingfoods Coop Market, providing local residents with locally sourced food since 1976. Owned by over 12,000 residents in Monroe County and beyond. More at Bloomingfoods. co-op. And Elizabeth Ruh, Enrolled Agent with personal financial services. Assisting businesses and individuals with tax preparation and planning for 15 years. More at PersonalFinancialServices.net.

(Earth Eats Theme Music)

From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats

DR ELIZABETH DUNN: Until we can figure out how to do small-scale processing and small-scale distribution, we can't have small scale farming. 

KAYTE YOUNG: This week on our show we talk with IU professor Elizabeth Dunn, who has studied the meatpacking industry for more than a decade. She offers insights into the recent outbreaks of COVID-19 in meat processing plants and into the role of immigrant labor in our food system. Stay with us. 

Let's start with the news from Renee Reed. Hi Renee.  

RENEE REED: Hello Kayte. Agricultural workers have been deemed essential since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still many AG laborers without basic protections against the virus, including health care, sick pay, workplace protections, and access to unemployment benefits. And some of them are striking in response. Workers from several agricultural companies in Yakima county Washington, including Frosty Packing, Allen Brothers, and Hanson Food, have walked out in protest over unsafe working conditions, and a lack of hazard pay to compensate for those conditions. The workers are protesting an inadequate supply of personal protective equipment, and inadequate sanitizing and social distancing inside the plants. Workers also told the Yakima Harold they fear they will lose their jobs if they call in sick. Yakima county is home to a 2 billion dollar farm industry, it also had the highest rate of COVID-19 cases of any country on the west coast as of May 6th. United Farm Workers, AFLCIO and Familias Unidas Por La Ustedes are currently suing the state of Washington for not producing mandatory guidance for employers to protect their agricultural workers. 

The state has proposed rules for preventing the spread of COVID-19 at agricultural operations, but they are not yet finalized. The Yakima county strikes and walkouts, come amid a COVID-19 crisis in the meatpacking industry, where almost half of U.S. hotspots originated in factories where employees work in cramped conditions, according to the Guardian. Three of the warehouses where workers are striking have reported cases of COVID-19. Yakima health district figures show there are more than 300 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the agricultural and food production industry there, accounting for roughly 15% of total cases in the county. 

The U.S. Department of Justice has given the green light to the pork industry to deal with the mounting problem caused by plant closures due to the coronavirus. There are too many hogs and not enough workers. Many plants have temporarily shuttered or reduced production lines to staunch the spread of the virus, but that has taken a link out of the supply chain and left farmers with nowhere to send their animals. The national Pork Producers Councils, NPPC said in its DOJ request, that the industry would have to euthanize up to 700,000 hogs per week due to plant shutdowns, and the industry needed a pass on anti-trust rules preventing collaboration. Pork producers, working under the direction of the USDA and state agricultural agencies can now humanely and efficiently euthanize hogs have grown too large to be processed and are thus unmarketable. The NPPC said last month that hog farmers would lose up to 5 billion dollars this year. 

Thanks to Taylor Killough and Chad Bouchard for those reports. For Earth Eats news, I'm Renee Reed. 

(Earth Eats News Theme Music) 

KAYTE YOUNG: The pandemic has revealed many things. Massive unemployment has exposed economic fragility, and exacerbated poverty all over the country. Emergency food providers like food banks and food pantries cannot keep up with the increased demand for food, and food producers-- from farm workers to meat processors to grocery store workers have put their lives on the line to keep shelves stocked. While some like to frame this work as heroic, the conditions and the pay for laborers in our food system demonstrate that those in power often view them as expendable. 

Earlier this year, I spoke with Dr. Elizabeth Dunn professor of geography at Indiana University. We met on the IU campus, and with our microphones spaced more than six feet apart, we talked about her research on the meatpacking industry, and the refugees who process America’s meat supply. Dunn's research in meatpacking started more than 15 years ago. 

  1. ELIZABETH DUNN: I became really interested in the question of consolidation. How and why particular industries consolidated really fast, and meatpacking is a great example of that. It was widely distributed in America until the 60's, and then became rapidly consolidated outside of cities - where people couldn't see the conditions of the meatpacking plants, and where there was an easily exploitable pool of low-wage labor. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] Much of her research was in Eastern Europe which was just going through the process of consolidation. She'd done research in Poland, and had planned to study the issue in Georgia, when the Russians invaded and conducted an ethnic cleansing campaign, sending all of the farmers she had planned to work with into refugee camps. Listeners might remember a previous Earth Eats interview with Elizabeth Dunn on food in the refugee camps at the border of south Ossetia. 

  1. ELIZABETH DUNN: And what I became interested in was refugee resettlement in the United States, and I served on the executive board of Exodus Refugee Immigration in Indianapolis. I became really interested in who was coming through, the refugee resettlement process, and how they were fitting into American society here, in Indiana. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  [Narrating] Refugee resettlement agencies like Exodus work with refugees to help them find employment. 

  1. ELIZABETH DUNN: Exodus is not placing in meatpacking, but other agencies in Indiana are. There's big concentration at Logansport, and other meatpacking plants. So that's kind of where my two interests began to cross. So, I'm really interested in finding out more about the ways that the shutdown of the refugee pipeline has affected meatpackers. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  [Narrating] I asked Elizabeth Dunn if she could talk about how refugees became such a large part of the labor force in meat processing.  

  1. ELIZABETH DUNN: It's kind of a long story actually. Which starts in the early 2000's when most of the meat plants in this country employed Mexican workers, who had varying statuses. And many of them were undocumented, many of them were working on false documents. and in 2006 there was an immigration raid coordinated on six Swift meatpacking plants, and the Swift raids. And the Swift raids arrested about 1,300 people. They did not arrest any of the officials at Swift who had probably knowingly hired these people, even though they were undocumented. But it had a hugely disruptive effect on communities for one thing because I think this was Christmas eve in Greeley Colorado, they're rounding people up and taking them away from their children. It's just a brutal scene, and it shut down the meatpacking plant for days. 

In the meatpacking industry, those lines process thousands of animals a day. So, when that line shuts down it costs millions of dollars a day to have that line not running, and it usually runs three shifts a day, so it runs almost 24 hours a day. This put the meat industry in a real bind. Which is you know, how are they gonna get somebody to do a job which is dangerous; it is according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration the most dangerous job in America. It is dirty, it is smelly, it is miserable. I mean it's just an incredibly hard job, and how are you going to get someone to do this job for $15 bucks an hour? 

So, the meatpackers were looking for a source of easily exploitable labor that could be underpaid, and they turned to refugees. In the Greeley plant it was mostly Somali refugees, in other meat plants its very often Burmese workers. Chicken still tends to have a lot of people from Mexico, again mostly undocumented. There was another raid, I don't know, maybe three or four months ago that turned up a lot of undocumented chicken workers, but in beef and pork it's largely refugees. They're perfectly legal to work, but they have very low language skills so they can't work at any job that requires them to speak English, they have very few alternatives, and when they come to this country they have 90 days of support from the federal government and then it ends. So, 90 days is not a lot of time to get yourself set up and running in a new country. And so, it would seem like a match made in heaven? Right, you have this group of people that was desperate for work, you had very low unemployment rates in the United States so it was hard to hire anybody else, and you had meat packers that were willing to pay $15 even $20 bucks an hour for people to work in the plants. So, a lot of resettlement agencies came to set up shop in these towns, so they became a direct chain to supplying labor to the plants. So if you look at Greeley it's a federally approved resettlement site, there's a resettlement agency there, which is getting people who are sent by the state department to them, and then those people are being placed by the resettlement agency in the meatpacking plant. So, it's been an extraordinarily reliable source of labor for the meatpackers until the Trump Administration.  

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] I asked Elizabeth Dunn to define refugee status.  

  1. ELIZABETH DUNN: To be a refugee in this case, we're talking about a very narrow definition. You have to meet the criteria of a refugee under international law, which means you have crossed an international border largely due to war. You have to have come through a camp where the United Nations High Commission for Refugees was active. UN and HCR passes the names of eligible refugees to the U.S. State Department which runs them through vetting by 13 federal agencies. It's an incredibly elaborate process, and then they arrive here in the United States. 

The last year of the Obama administration we resettled about 110,000 refugees in this country, so given that they're 71 million refugees and internally displaced people this very small number. But a 110,000 was give or take around the average of what the U.S. has resettled historically. And that 110,000 was a great population to run through these meat packing plants - for the meatpackers, not so great for the refugees.  

Now that is down, this year's quota I think was 28,000 and there was a complete shutoff of the refugee pipeline at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. So I think in this fiscal year which started in October we've to date brought in less than 10,000 refugees. So, the numbers are dropping phenomenally, and finding people that will do these jobs and live under the really gruesome conditions that people have to live in in these meatpacking towns, that's incredibly difficult. So, what's happening now is that although Trump issued an order mandating that the meatpacking plants stay open, I don't think they can. If they're workers are sick, or their workers are too afraid to get sick that they won't show up for work, there is no one to replace them. So, the plants can't help but shut down. And we're seeing the enormous fragility of the U.S. meat supply chain. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] I asked Professor Dunn to clarify, are these workers asylum seekers from central America? Are they agricultural workers on H2A visas? And she said that while there are immigrants from Latin America working in the meatprocessing industry, refugee status is different. 

  1. ELIZABETH DUNN: The refugee population is coming in through a completely different route, this is an entirely different group of people, very very few of whom are from Latin America. The biggest groups coming into the country have been Burmese. Indiana, and Indianapolis has one of the biggest Burmese populations in the country actually - Chin Burmese mostly. There’s Burmese, there's Somalis, up until the Trump administration came there were Afghans, Syrians. There's also Sudanese, both the Somalis and the Sudanese’s are coming in through camps in Kenya. So that's where we're seeing the biggest population draws from.  

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] I asked about the possibilities for social distancing for these workers. 

  1. ELIZABETH DUNN: It's very difficult for... I mean people work in very close quarters, particularly on the kill floor, and it's very difficult to socially distance that. When you have an assembly line - or a disassembly line, you know there are fixed stations along it, and you've got achieve certain number of tasks per meter of line. You can't change that or the plants not functioning. But the bigger issue is not just in the workplace, the bigger issue has also been the housing conditions for these people. Which are incredibly run down, these towns are just dilapidated. The housing is of very low quality, and they're living 6, 8, 10 people in a house trying to save money. So, it's the way they're living closely together that also makes it impossible to distance. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Interviewing] So, the housing is substandard, and could you talk a little bit more about the job itself? You said it was really dangerous, so are there already high rates of injury and people needing to take time off?  

  1. ELIZABETH DUNN: Yes, there are incredibly high rates of injury in this industry because you're, I mean you're working with tools that are designed to cut flesh. Right? That's what a meat saw does, that is what a boning knife does. And in many of these plants you're disassembling a cow every six seconds. A carcass is coming by you, and you have to perform whatever your task is, sawing it in half, or cutting off the tenderloin, or whatever part of the slaughter you're doing, you have 6 or 10 seconds to do it. So, people are moving very fast with very sharp implements. The other kinds of things we find are repetitive motion injuries, muscle strain, tendon strain. You know people's bodies just wear out doing the very heavy physical labor. I think it's a job with incredibly turn over, also. People try and get out of this job because it's so unpleasant to do, and so dangerous.  

The Trump Administration has a massive disconnect going on. You know so, on the one hand they're saying, "Meat workers are essential workers, meatpacking workers need to be protected, we need to safeguard the U.S. food supply, get in there and get to work."

And on the other hand they're saying "We don't like refugees, refugees are foreigners, refugees are dangerous." 

You know they are literally willing to cut off immigration, and they don't see that they're cutting off their own labor source for an industry they want to protect. We had up until the coronavirus a 3% unemployment rate. It's one of the lowest rates historically in the history of this country. And then we cut off almost all of our supply of agricultural labor. Who is gonna pick the avocados? Who do they think is picking strawberries? Who do they think is sawing apart chickens? You know, or collecting eggs? Or killing cattle? These are... this is all work done by immigrants. And if you decide that you're going to be anti-immigrant because they're quote unquote "stealing American jobs" you have completely lost out on the fact that these are jobs that Americans refuse to do. 

KAYTE YOUNG: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with IU Professor Elizabeth Dunn. We'll be back with more from our conversation after a short break. 

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Production support comes from:  

Bill Brown at Griffy Creek Studio, architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at GriffyCreek.studio.
Insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch Insurance. Offering comprehensive home, auto, business and life coverage, in affiliation with Pekin Insurance. Beyond the expected. More at BillRescheInsurance.com



And Bloomingfoods Coop Market, providing local residents with locally sourced food since 1976. Owned by over 12,000 residents in Monroe County and beyond. More at Bloomingfoods.Coop.  

(Transition music) 

I'm Kayte Young, you're listening to Earth Eats, and we're speaking today with Elizabeth Dunn, professor of geography at Indiana University. We're talking about one of her fields of study, the meat processing industry in the U.S. I asked Professor Dunn if she thought it was possible for meatpacking plants to operate safely, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus infection.  

  1. ELIZABETH DUNN: I think that the meatpackers will put a lot of effort into finding ways to do that because they have no choice. But when you're talking about working in a hot, loud, dirty environment, finding PPE that will keep people safe is quite difficult. So, you know we would be talking about plexiglass visors, we would be talking about regular mask and glove changeouts. And none of this really changes the fact that those people could be getting sick at home. Cause they cannot isolate, it's not really an available choice when you live in a house with 10 or 12 people, you can't really isolate yourself. The meatpacking workers themselves are in a real jam. The other thing they're in a real jam about is that for many of them they're trying to support families, they're trying to send money back home, so they're really caught between a rock and a hard place. What do they do? I mean either they fail financially, in which case their immigration status is put in jeopardy, because it'll be hard to apply for a green card and citizenship if you’re using any kind of public assistance, or they risk their lives and they go and get sick. These people don't have a choice. They really have to work if they're able to work, and they can't work from home obviously, and we're asking them to risk their lives. And I think it's says something about how the current administration feels about their lives, which is to say they say them as disposable. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Interviewing] Do you think that meatpacking is an essential service? 

  1. ELIZABETH DUNN: I think meatpacking is certainly as it stands right now, an integral part of the United States' food supply chain. You know, it's certainly possible for people to be vegetarians, but one of the things that politicians, including senator, or representative Trey Hollingsworth, has said it's worth some deaths to protect the American way of life. And certainly, protecting the standard American diet has been seen as integral part of protecting the American way of life. So, whose deaths are we willing to risk to maintain our ability to eat meat? It certainly a good question and I think we will start to see real gaps in the meat supply chain showing up, and people are going to have to really think about the ways that the use meat, in the ways that Americans who have a traditionally very meat heavy diet have not had to think about before. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] I brought up something that we heard about on the news report today, with processing plants closed, farmers have had to euthanize animals.  

  1. ELIZABETH DUNN: The American meat supply chain depends on animals moving very very quickly through the process from birth to death. There is no farmer who can continue to feed animals without having them move out into a slaughterhouse. And what we have seen has been the wholesale slaughter of animals for whom there is no buyer.  

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] I asked about the impossible situation where of farmers with animals that cannot be processed. 

[Interviewing] There's this chain that's already in motion of these animals that are being raised, and it's their time to go to the slaughterhouse, and if the production plant is closed down, then they all have to be killed and wasted. And you can't put workers lives on the line, and it just feels like such a dilemma. 

  1. ELIZABETH DUNN: Oh yeah, it's such a dilemma. And the other people it really threatens, at least economically, are farmers and ranchers who themselves are very often working on contracts. So, they have borrowed the money, they got a contract from the slaughterhouse, they have borrowed the money for the chickens or the pigs or the cows, and they are feeding them knowing that they'll have a purchase price at the end, and all the sudden there's nobody to purchase them. So those people are really in a panic state. This is an enormous financial investment, which again depends on animals moving down the chain. And when the chain stops, it costs everybody millions and millions of dollars. I think we’re in a strange balance point where the question is sort of whose lives do we put in jeopardy to keep the economy going so that other people can survive financially? 

And I take that dilemma extraordinarily seriously, I don't think you can just write it off and say "Well, shut everything down.", because you have other people whose lives and livelihoods depend on that chain moving. But I understand that there's a federal order, telling the plants to stay open, I don't think they're gonna be able to do it, and if I was a refugee I wouldn't be going to work. So now we're really on the horns of a dilemma. You know we've seen milk being poured down drains, we've seen eggs being thrown away, because there are no buyers for them - even though we have food shortages because they were heading into the institutional market, and the chain is different. And so now we're gonna see meat wasted in the same way because there's just no way to process it and get it to consumers. This is crazy. We produce more food than anyone else in the world, it's piling up and we're destroying it while we have people who can't afford food. Yeah. It's really a dilemma.  

I think one of the things this tells us is how fragile our society as a whole is. And one of the big reckonings I think we're going to have to do in the food system after this pandemic is thinking about how we backstop that fragility by having multiple chains. Multiple methods of getting food to consumers, multiple pathways for harvesting, for processing, for delivering. And we have up until now been so focused on consolidating those systems that we didn't realize that while we were making it more efficient, we were also making them incredibly fragile. Right now, about 95% of American beef is produced by one of three companies. Because they're getting economies of scale in these giant meat packing plants, but again to get that economy of scale you've got to be able to put 3,000 workers in a plant, and right now we can’t do that. So, the question is do we start planning for disruption, which clearly because of climate change, because of political reasons is going to be more and more frequent. We’ll have another wave of pandemic. Are we going to start planning for that kind of social resilience now in the food system? Or are we gonna stay on this consolidation track knowing that we could have a shutdown? 

If we wanna distributed food system, and here I think the goal is not just farming, everybody thinks about farming, it's processing. You can’t have distributed farming until you have distributed processing, because large processing firms are built to take in animals or grain, or vegetables from large scale producers. They won't take in odd little batches of 5 pigs or 10 pigs or a cow or two. Right? You need these little small slaughterhouses that can do that work. And to do that you have to reduce all of the barriers that they face in terms of regulation, while still keeping the food supply safe. And until we can figure out how to do small scale processing and small scale distribution, we can't have small scale farming on a wide scale. 

And open up the gates in some controlled reasonable way to farm workers who engage in circular migrations, and to processing plant workers and meatpacking workers who need livable conditions in order to do that job. And that's a big question of reforming the, not just the infrastructure, not just the plants, but also reforming labor laws and immigration laws in the ways that are not reactive, that aren't simply anti-immigrant, and aren't open borders either. But are talking about carefully planned ways that we allow immigrants to enter into our food system, because we need them if we want to eat.  

There's this saying about never let a good crisis go to waste, and that has been used sort of infamously for nefarious purposes. But here we have a crisis that we can actually use for good if we figure out what it requires to have a flexible, resilient, distributed, rather than consolidated food system. And clearly if we want to continue having a reliable food system, in a post-pandemic America, we need to start pushing for those kinds of reforms, as voters.  

KAYTE YOUNG: That was Elizabeth Dunn, professor of geography at Indiana university. Find out more about her work at EarthEats.org.  

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Stay in touch with our new e-newsletter. Subscribe to the Earth Eats Digest for extra stories, photos links, and more. Go to earth eats dot org to sign up. 

RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eobon Binder, Chad Bouchard, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Taylor Killough, Josephine McRobbie, Daniel Orr, The IU Food Institute, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Elizabeth Dunn.  

Production support comes from: Elizabeth Ruh, Enrolled Agent, providing customized financial services for individuals, businesses, and disabled adults including tax planning, bill paying, and estate services.  More at PersonalFinancialServices.net. Bill Brown at Griffy Creek Studio, architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at GriffyCreek.studio.And Insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch Insurance. Offering comprehensive home, auto, business, and life coverage in affiliation with Pekin Insurance. Beyond the expected. More at BillReschInsurance.com

Elizabeth Dunn standing in front of a bed of red and white tulips near the a limestone arched wall.

Elizabeth Dunn is a professor of Geography at Indiana University. Her areas of research include the meatpacking industry and refugee resettlement. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

“Until we can figure out how to do small scale processing and small scale distribution, we can’t have small scale farming.”

This week on our show we talk with IU Professor Elizabeth Dunn, who has studied the meatpacking industry for more than a decade. She offers insights into recent outbreaks of COVID-19 in meat processing plants, and into the role of immigrant labor in our food system.

Plus food news from Chad Bouchard and Harvest Public Media's Jonathan Ahl.

--

The pandemic has revealed many things. Massive unemployment has exposed economic fragility, and exacerbated poverty all over the country. Emergency food providers like food banks and food pantries cannot keep up with the increased demand for food, and food producers-- from farm workers to meat processors to grocery store workers have put their lives on the line to keep shelves stocked. While some like to frame this work as heroic, the conditions and the pay for laborers in our food system demonstrate that those in power often view them as expendable. 

Earlier this year, I spoke with Elizabeth Cullen Dunn. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and the Department of International Studies (joint appointment) at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. She also serves on the Executive Board of Exodus, a refugee resettlement organization in Indiana.

We met on the IU campus, and with our microphones spaced more than 6 feet apart, we talked about her research on the meat packing industry and the refugees who process America’s meat supply. She also shares insights into the fagility of our consolidated food system and how we might work towards a more resiliant system.

Read More:

You’re an essential worker. Do you get essential protections?-The Uncertain Hour

Greeley JBS Meatpacking Plant Reopens Without Testing All Employees For Coronavirus-CPR

How Shit Happens, or, How Audit Systems and Sewer States Lead to Tainted Beef-Limn

1,000+ Tyson Infections And One Hospital: Cass Co. Braces For Even More COVID Cases-WFIU News

The Sickness in Our Food Supply-The New York Review of Books

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

Additional music on this episode from Universal Production Music.

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