Who, What, and How Much Is Essential?

Tony VanWinkle | 06.22.2020

Every other year I teach a course titled, “Security, Sovereignty, and Justice in the Global Food System” at a small, environmentally-focused college in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. We adjusted to COVID-induced remote learning while maintaining the spirit of the course as a socially engaged learning community, refocusing our attention on course themes as they were playing out amid responses to the pandemic. We engaged with real-time media coverage of relevant topics and participated in national and international conversations about food and farmworkers in relation to COVID. Anthropologist Teresa Mares  guest lectured on her work with migrant farmworkers in Vermont’s dairy industry, and her participation in webinars hosted by Vermont-based Migrant Justice, the New York Chapter of Friends of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST), and Food First titled “Farmworkers, COVID 19, and Our Capitalist Food System”. What all of these conversations shared was an interrogation of the widespread usage of the word “essential.” Farmworkers who are classified as “illegal” under U.S. immigration law, and are deemed expendable by policies prioritizing deportation, were nonetheless quickly declared “essential” in the context of COVID.  An organizer from Migrant Justice explained: dairy farmworkers in Vermont, many of whom are undocumented, went from “criminal” to “essential” overnight.

Despite being deemed essential, farmworkers were excluded from COVID relief packages  including the CARES Act. While non-essential workers are at home, essential workers, as one of the panelists in the Food First webinar put it, must, “Go to work!” While the general population have received orders and mobilized to practice health and safety protocols, these actions have rarely reached farmworkers whose working and living conditions make it difficult, if not impossible, to observe such measures.  Yet, as another panelist pointed out, the label of “essential” also presents an opportunity to mobilize a counter-narrative that illustrates how industrial agriculture’s exploitative, racialized labor system has always operated under fundamental contradictions that render these workers both essential and expendable.

President Trump’s usage of the Defense Production Act requiring the continued production in meat packing plants exposes a related and long-running injustice in the conventional food supply chain. The history of meatpacking’s geographic transition from an urban to rural industry is a micro history of systemic worker disempowerment of the neoliberal era. While Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is mostly remembered for catalyzing the first food safety laws in the U.S., it exposes the dangers and labor injustices that were rife on the killing floor and disassembly lines of Chicago’s meatpacking plants. Sinclair’s meatpackers were mostly recent immigrants from eastern Europe, who, along with African Americans following the waves of the Great Migration to cities like Chicago,  became the “essential” meatpacking workers of their time. Under the slogan, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!,” the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) successfully organized meatpacking workers across race and gender under a model of social unionism, and demanded dignified working conditions, an end to industry discrimination, and secure wages. The gains of the UPWA, however, were negated as the meatpacking industry left unionized urban centers to relocate in rural locations closer to the confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that currently dominate the industrial grain and livestock complex. A new labor force, composed increasingly of Latinx immigrants, emerged from this exodus. While union activity has continued in the meatpacking industry with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, many of the industry’s laborers lack union representation due to their immigration status. It is perhaps unsurprising that Trump’s executive order further endangers a population for whom he has expressed nothing but disdain.

It is worth asking what exactly is essential in this scenario: the endless supply of cheap meat produced by a perilously unsustainable and exploitative industrial grain and livestock complex? One year ago, the National Agricultural Statistics Service reported record high red meat production for the month of May. In that month alone, the U.S. produced 4.57 billion pounds of red meat. While Trump and meat company CEOs called for reopening meat processing facilities to “protect” the food supply, what they really were doing was protecting an industry that depends on the overproduction of meat for business. Trump’s invocation of the Defense Production Act to force open meat processing plants conflated “essential” with “profitable.” Those profits come from essential workers whose cramped and dangerous work in meat processing plants puts them at greater risk for exposure to COVID 19, as well as surrounding rural communities, as has been illustrated in numerous instances. Indeed, the animal protein complex, from CAFO to meatpacking plant, devalues the lives of animals and people alike, though both are now determined to be “essential.” As Raj Patel stated in a recent interview on the podcast Belabored, in this context, “essential is a synonym for sacrificial.”

In the aforementioned Food First Webinar, a panel of participants discussed the implications of COVID 19 for farmworkers and other “essential” workers in the conventional food supply chain. Australia Hernandez Cosby, an organizer and promotora with Community to Community Development (C2C), a Washington-based farmworker organization, suggested that enacting solidarity with farmworkers might be realized through creating greater opportunities for “farming that doesn’t exploit.” She continued, “We don’t need bailouts to corporations. Why don’t we invest in our local economies and rural communities that really do need that help, and have always needed that help, before the crisis? And supporting the workers who have historical and ancestral knowledge to create the food that is needed. How much food do we need . . .? What is culturally appropriate for our [communities]? what are those gifts and talents we can provide at a local level?”

Those gifts and talents provided at local levels have proved themselves essential as corporate monopoly production and supermarket supply chains have fissured and fractured during the pandemic. People are turning to some of the kinds of alternatives Hernandez Cody suggests. While some have been hit hard, other Native American communities are turning to traditional subsistence strategies and decolonizing tribal food systems. Some farms offering Community Supported Agriculture have seen demand rise almost 50%, and small poultry producers are thriving on direct sales. Small, specialty seed companies have witnessed an unparalleled surge in seed sales. Seed industry insiders report that people are genuinely interested, many for the first time, in growing food for themselves or their families. Others are finding “a little bit of peace” in seeds and gardening during this unsettling time.  Some are organizing  cul-de-sac sized cooperatives, where each member commits to growing a particular crop to be redistributed.

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Beyond these more consumer-oriented strategies, organizations like C2C, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, and the UFCW are actively working toward a just transition for food system workers to non-exploitative and sustainable alternatives. What all of this could mean is moving away from what is essential for profits to what is essential for local food sovereignty, community resilience, and collective well-being. When seeds, subsistence, sharing, and caring relationships are understood as essential, the work and dignity of farmworkers and other food supply chain workers might be simultaneously recast toward the realization of a more just, sustainable, and resilient food system.

Cover image courtesy of USDA ( CC BY 2.0).