Sonjia Hyon loves to cook. Her legendary Easter feasts and Saturday dinner parties draw groups of her friends to her Brooklyn kitchen on a regular basis. The parties are on hold, of course, since the arrival of Coronavirus, but food still plays an important role in her family’s life. Sonjia—like humans all over the world—can thank an army of workers behind the scenes for making sure she and millions of others can still get the food they need, even though so much else has come to a screeching halt.
So, what’s Sonjia serving for dinner? “We’re eating more pasta now,” she notes, “I made a lasagna that everyone loved. And my husband likes having an excuse to buy frozen pot pies and chicken strips!” With so much to be afraid of in the news, families like Sonjia’s are taking comfort at the dinner table.
All those chicken strips have to come from somewhere, of course. Today, America’s 40,000 grocery stores and two million farms are working harder than ever to make sure families from Brooklyn to Boise can count on a stocked fridge. And it’s not just staple foods—when we reach for treats like ice cream to blunt the edges of a stressful day at home with the kids, grocery stores and farm workers around the world make sure it’s there.
Every meal, from cornflakes to pork chops, starts from the ground up. Dave Rodibaugh and his family know this firsthand—they’ve been farming the rich fields of Indiana for generations.
The Rodibaughs are as rooted in their farm as their plants are in the soil. Dave manages his crops and animals with three brothers, and their family members are always close at hand, especially since schools have closed. “My grandson is loving this,” says Dave. “He does his e-learning and then spends the rest of the day telling me how to run the farm!”
The virus may have brought the Rodibaughs closer together, but it’s also taking a serious toll. “Our community has been able to look like it’s functioning normally, though we miss ballgames, church, and community,” says Dave. “Farmers are able to get fertilizer and seed, and we’re happy to be able to continue to work.” Time may be running out on normalcy, though. The two major meat processing facilities in Indiana are both closed for now, causing tremendous upheaval for his farm and others.
He clearly empathizes with his friends in the processing industry, many of whom he’s worked with for decades, saying “We are nothing without them. It’s devastating to the local community.” At the same time, Dave is facing some tough decisions.
A delay in processing of as little as a week can cause major disruption on the farm where hogs are scheduled for market at a specific time. If there isn’t a market for the hogs, producers are faced with the tough decision of whether to continue to invest money for feed or cut losses by euthanizing their hogs.
It is a gut-wrenching decision for farmers like Dave—especially when there are people who need and want the food they produced. Unfortunately, there is a glitch in the system that gets food from farm to consumer.
Since the advent of COVID-19, the grocery workers who are normally invisible to most consumers have taken a much more prominent role. They are a beacon of normalcy in a completely abnormal time.
Kacie Ackley is a deli clerk at a small, family-owned store in Maine. In general, she’s happy with her job, saying “It’s a great environment, because it’s such a small business and there are lots of regulars. There’s only 11 or 12 employees, so we all know each other. That puts me at ease.”
Kacie spends her shifts roasting chicken for the store’s famous fresh chicken salad, slicing meats and preparing other ready-made foods. But in other parts of the store, virus-related drama has begun to unfold. She recites a list of shortages, saying, “We’re sold out of sugar, flour, pasta, and yeast, and we’re limiting customers to two packages of toilet paper”. One customer took issue with this rule and caused a bit of a scene. Another started a fight over a bag of flour.
It’s clear that anxiety has gotten the better of many shoppers, but workers have their own worries. Some have gone on strike to protest hazardous work conditions, demanding better hygiene, access to personal protective gear, and hazard pay. The New York Times reported that many workers are reporting clocking in 70 hours a week or more to keep up with demand for groceries, and these lengthy stints of exposure to the public are a risk factor for COVID-19.
To keep up with demand, the industry is adding new workers by the tens of thousands, many of whom have been recently laid off from less resilient sectors of the global economy.
In these extraordinary times, millions of grocery and farm workers around the world are keeping calm and carrying on, making sure that the simple comforts of chicken salad, ice cream, and hearty breakfasts stay within reach. “I’m grateful,” Kacie says—for the paycheck, the steady job, and the ability to make customers smile. When we sit down to eat, we’ve got something to be grateful for, too.