By Ligaya Mishan
AN ALTAR IS a sacred space, but you can make one anywhere, out of anything; out of what you’re given. On Dec. 5, a small group gathered in downtown Springdale, Ark., to line the cement steps of a public square with Our Lady of Guadalupe candles, chrysanthemums and white cards bearing the handwritten names of local poultry workers who had died of Covid-19. Under each name was the legend “¡Presente!” (“Here!”) at once invocation and exhortation, used in Latin America to proclaim the continuing presence of the dead among us, particularly victims of oppression. White helmets were set beside the cards, and blue vinyl aprons hung from the railings: part of the uniform the workers once wore as they stood shoulder to shoulder, breaking down up to 175 birds a minute even as the pandemic raged, in a city dominated by chicken and turkey plants and decreed by the state to be the Poultry Capital of the World.
For months, the worker-based organization Venceremos (We Will Win), which arranged the vigil, had fought for protective equipment and staggered shifts at the plants to decrease the risk of exposure to the virus. (By the end of May alone, more than 16,000 poultry- and meat-processing workers across the country had been infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) “You were in the hurricane, just surviving,” says Magaly Licolli, 38, Venceremos’s Mexican-born executive director. “And suddenly you start counting the deaths.” The people whose names were inscribed on the cards had died because they were “essential workers,” as the government calls them now: essential, which implies value, but in this case there was neither esteem nor reward, only coercion.
Yet for a number of Americans, the phrase “essential workers,” with its heroic overtones, has revealed for the first time something of the long-ignored lives of the farmers, meat processors and grocery store employees without whom there would be no food on our tables. “Covid has illuminated for a broader public that we have a food system,” says Navina Khanna, 40, the executive director of HEAL (Health, Environment, Agriculture and Labor) Food Alliance, who lives in Oakland, Calif. This is in part because business leaders stoked fears of empty supermarket shelves, warning in the early days of the crisis that lockdowns might jeopardize the food supply. (In the blunt equation of capitalist production, the workers are worth less than the chickens they are processing.) Tyson Foods, headquartered in Springdale and the nation’s largest meat processor — in 2020, it reaped $43.2 billion in sales, $800 million more than the previous, non-pandemic year — took out a full-page ad in major newspapers in April. “We have a responsibility to feed our country,” John Tyson, the chairman of the board, wrote. “It is as essential as health care.”
Taken alone, it was a radical statement from a corporate titan. For years, social reformers have been pointing to the dangers of a food system focused narrowly on profit. To treat food as a commodity rather than a necessity is to accept that there will always be people who can’t afford it and must go hungry. Feeding America, a Chicago-based nonprofit network of food banks, estimates that in the past year roughly 50 million people, one in every six Americans, lacked reliable access to food — witness the 60 percent rise in demand at food banks across the country, with lines sometimes stretching for miles, and the dramatic increase in shoplifting of staples like bread — but even before the pandemic, that number was already 35 million, yet few companies were insisting on the importance of feeding the country. Nor were people turning to food banks in 2020 because of shortages: After the president issued an executive order in April to keep meat-processing plants open, ostensibly to “ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans,” levels of production allowed top companies to export hundreds of thousands of tons (and billions of dollars) of meat abroad.