Voices From the Front Lines of America’s Food Supply

Former farmworker, Immokalee, Fla.


CreditCredit…Video by Alfonso Duran

I worked on and off over the years. I worked for the last full season here, including during the pandemic. I started in August of 2019 in planting, then I worked all the way to the end of harvest, around May or June last year.

It’s a long day, it’s very challenging work. We would be picking, for example, cucumbers in the morning and tomatoes in the afternoon and they’re both very heavy work. My fingers would hurt by the end of the day. It hurts your back and makes your lungs ache to work that hard. I would sometimes come home and would just cry.

We were working long days, but they put a lot of protections in place. Lipman Family Farms were a part of the Fair Food program, and followed the procedures.

We would clean all of the tables with Clorox or bleach and make sure that everyone was washing their hands well. Thank God no one I know got sick. I wasn’t too afraid of the pandemic because of the precautions that the company was taking. They hired people specifically to clean the buses every day.

In the beginning of the pandemic, we knew that if we didn’t do this work, prices could go way up. We knew that when there aren’t people to pick the food, it could have a much bigger impact on everything else.

Our work is important, but the phrase “essential worker” is a title that we were given. We should have been not just thanked, but given real support. Especially in the beginning, when everything ran out in the stores. They had big gallons of sanitizer at work, and I brought a little bit home to keep our house clean.

If what we’re doing is so important, I thought we would be paid extra. All we got from the government was the one Covid check.

I found another job in landscaping, which is a bit lighter. But I believe that field work is incredibly important. It’s not just a tomato. Behind every vegetable is this long process.

The most beautiful thing is knowing all of the other workers, chatting with them, learning about their lives and their experiences. Many have left their families in order to put food on the table. I would try to encourage them and say, “Don’t worry, paisano.”

Commercial fisherman, Ventura, Calif.


CreditCredit…Video by Adam Amengual

I have two small fishing boats, 22- and 24-footers. I live in Ojai Valley, 15 minutes from Ventura, and I trailer my boats up and down the central coast. All the way up to Monterey and Santa Cruz, and all the way down to Oxnard.

I would say that 65 percent of my fish went to one wholesaler. That was pre-Covid. I remember getting back from a black-cod trip the third week of March and within 48 hours I realized two-thirds of my market had just collapsed. It was over. I was like, what do I do?

I have two teenage daughters that I single-parent, and they obviously had to sacrifice time with me and help me. I sat them down and had a conversation right at the beginning and said, “I’m going to need help for a couple of months.”

I had this retail list in Ojai of 175 people, and I texted them that I would be direct selling. People didn’t want to go outside their houses, so we were going to be delivering, too. I got a mad rush for that first month. I went from 175 to 350 orders. It was like we were heroes for two months.

It was exhausting. I would go fish two 17-hour days in a row, then go process and deliver for 12 hours. I would cut 500 pounds of black cod for six hours by myself, and I had my deck hands delivering the fish all over the place. In one fishing trip, I can feed anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 people.

When you direct sell, it’s a lot of time and labor. I know that because I have direct sold, but we were scaling up times three within a week. I couldn’t do it all alone, I knew that. I have to repair and build my fishing gear, fix my boats. I have to fish, sell fish out of a text list and phone calls and emails, record all the orders and addresses; you have to label the bags, get the ice, cut the fish and get it out there.

My daughter lost her job at an organic market here that closed down for two months. I said: “You’re 17 with a driver’s license, and you’re sitting at home. I’m going to need your help.” She wasn’t too happy about it, but we’re in the middle of a pandemic. This is the time to rally.

Farm owner, Live Organically, Oak Grove, Minn.


CreditCredit…Video by Jenn Ackerman

I am a professor in educational leadership. My day job is training special education teachers for the state of Minnesota. Right now, I teach fall and spring. In the summer months, I work as a farmer.

I produce organic fruits and vegetables. I have 50 chickens now for eggs. I produce food for local schools and for C.S.A.s. We’ve sold to local communities and through partnerships with schools in St. Paul and in North Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered. We gave away produce to that community. As a result of the killing and everything that was going on, the grocery stores were shut down.

I deal with the business side, but I’m also out in the field. I have staff and interns, and we work together as a team. When I tell people I’m a farmer, they look at me like, “Are you really a farmer? You get out there?” Yes, I do it all.

Since Covid happened, people have been wanting a lot of organic food. We saw an influx. We had to create an online platform to sell the produce, and that was something that I wasn’t prepared for.

A lot of people in Minnesota have been wanting to help farmers because they know we are being hit. They’ve been willing to buy local and invest in farmers, especially farmers of color.

There aren’t a lot of minority farmers, especially African-Americans in Minnesota. I’ve still been trying to manage the greater demands in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing. I’ve been doing this for three years, and the same people that I would try to sell to before now say, “I want to help.”

In order for me to stay afloat, I had to grow with the demand. We had to have a safety plan to prevent the spread of Covid on the farm. Two of my interns were white females, and they had never been on a Black person’s farm before. We did some markets in predominantly African-American communities, and it kind of broke some of their thoughts about the people.

Before I got into farming, it wasn’t something that you were praised for. I know the history of slavery. I think about people who weren’t considered, or didn’t get the honor and the respect for the time that they worked. It was essential then, and it is essential now. It’s been essential. We’re just now becoming aware.

Meatpacking plant processor at Smithfield Foods, Sioux Falls, S.D.


CreditCredit…Video by Chris Machian

I work nine-hour days, six days a week with ham bones at the Smithfield plant. In the morning I wear my mask, I go to the checkpoint, the people ask if you have any symptoms. I go to my locker and get my helmet, which I clean the night before. I get my equipment, my knife and go straight to work.

In March, everybody was scared. We saw people praying in the lockers, asking for protection. If we came to work and didn’t see someone, we’d ask.

I got coronavirus symptoms in April. The day I got sick, I was at work. I started feeling chilly, I started coughing and sneezing on the line. I had a headache and a fever. I don’t remember how long it took to leave. I was so confused. A co-worker came close to me, and I told him to get away because I didn’t know if I had the virus. That day was a very bad experience.

The day my husband took me to the hospital, I thought I was dying. I thought it was my last day. My last minutes. Nobody was in the room, only me. I said to God, “I’m sorry for whatever I’ve done.” My body was shaking. I’ll never forget that day. I thought about my family, my kids.

After I got out of quarantine, I felt like I was born again. I started seeing life differently. We are so fragile. We can die at any time.

I stayed home about one month. You get paid for time at home if you get the virus. These jobs are important for the community. It’s important that the company is still open, but in the beginning, they didn’t protect us like they should have.

I emailed H.R. to suggest that they sanitize the tables in our break room in order to fight the virus.

After we came back to work, I saw sanitizer at every single table. I felt good because I fought with the union to push our company to protect us. We have masks and face shields, and there are monitors to tell us to keep our masks on and shields down. We’re still shoulder by shoulder, but with plexiglass.

We didn’t have a birthday celebration for my daughters. At home, I take off my shoes and clothes in the basement, then I go straight to the bathroom. I social distance with my husband and my kids. When we are close, sitting on the couch, we have to wear a mask.

I feel proud to be an essential worker. We are the front line. We have to help each other. If nobody talks, then nobody will help us.

[Keira Lombardo, the chief administrative officer of Smithfield Foods, said: “We did take early and extraordinary actions to protect our employees as the first wave of community spread of the novel coronavirus impacted the nation from coast to coast. We have exceeded or met all prevailing guidance from medical and public health experts, whom we have consulted throughout the pandemic.” She added, “There are plexiglass barriers between each workstation that ensure separation — along with required masks and shields — in accordance with public health guidance.”]

Long-haul trucker, Greenwood Lake, N.Y.


CreditCredit…Video by Kriston Jae Bethel

I drove a truck in the Marine Corps, where I was an artillery man. I’m a lease operator now, and average about 2,500 miles per week. Well over 100,000 miles each year.

There’s nothing you can touch that hasn’t moved on a truck. Nothing. Everything within your sight range: your shoelaces, your eyedrops, your food, your clothes, medicine. And I just still find it fascinating.

I try to control what I can control. A lot of that is my comfort and my sanity, because my days are all over the place.

Sometimes, depending on the customer, you don’t even get out of the truck. You do everything at a security gate, they take your paperwork or your license and sanitize it. You wear a mask, and you don’t have to go in. There’s one place where they do everything on the phone now.

I’ve been to a lot of those plants, out in Sioux Falls and the Tyson meat plants, where people have lost their lives. I talk to the people at the desk and I tell them: “I saw you guys on the news. I’m really sorry to see what’s happening out here.” It’s really disheartening.

People come into truck stops without a mask, or they’ll come in and say, “I’m not wearing a mask.” It’ll say clearly on the door, you must have a mask, and people couldn’t care less. It’s a really strange mentality in this country.

I see bumper stickers on company trucks. There’s a guy that had his truck all made up in Trump memorabilia. He had a cutout of the president so it looked like he’s sitting in the seat. If you’re a company guy, you shouldn’t be adding any decorations, or any political declarations. That’s just my old-school beliefs.

Back in March, remember when everybody loved truck drivers and first responders? You’re a hero. Around the country I’d see banners on bridges, in yards and on farms. The kids would wave at you and everything was great. The kids still do, but it’s back to normal now. You drive too slow, you’re in my way. I get the finger again.

Co-owner and head of product development of Bridgewell Agribusiness, Clackamas, Ore.


CreditCredit…Video by Moriah Ratner

My role is to oversee global factory operations. We produce products on every continent that you can produce products on. We deal with farmers and factories, and we take that finished good, stick it into an ocean container and we’ll bring it to the U.S. or whatever country we’re shipping to.

When Covid hit, the strategists thought the U.S. consumer would slow down. They would be at home, and there wouldn’t be as many big purchases. No problem. So the carrier companies started taking vessels out of service — and the consumers have done the absolute opposite.

They have gone on a purchasing surge where everything from materials to fix up their homes to — gosh, just go down the line. I mean, it’s just been crazy how the consumer has completely increased their buying habits, which has caused an extreme shortage of shipping equipment around the world.

Our team, the people that run the raw materials [like the forklift driver above], we work 24 hours a day. Every night, it has become an issue of making sure that raw material gets off the dock at origin.

I won’t mention any names, but let’s just say it’s a snack bar. In a snack bar situation, I would say 30 percent of those ingredients are probably imported. And if the supply chains break on the snack bar, then you don’t get to see it at the retail level.

The global food supply activity is a really fine-tuned machine and there’s a lot of stakeholders involved to make sure that your French cheese shows up in the grocery store. There’s a lot of parts to that movement. And if any one of those supply chain parts breaks down like it has with Covid, it is completely destabilized.

I’ve been in the food business for a very long time. And the adage in the food business is: People gotta eat. What I enlightened my team about is all the riots that we have seen, all the instability we have seen, would be magnified multiple times over if the country felt like it didn’t have food to eat.

Associate at Amazon Fresh, Avenel, N.J.


CreditCredit…Video by Timothy Smith

I work the day shift. I pick and pack orders, scan them and add shipping labels. I take a van that picks me up, and it takes me right back home. It’s not provided by Amazon. Sometimes it can be very full, more than 10 people.

I live with my sister, who also works at Amazon. My parents and my family live in New York, and I haven’t seen them since last year. My mother’s a diabetic, so I don’t want to risk getting her sick.

Before the pandemic, you worked from 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., but now we end 30 minutes early so they can do a deep clean and disinfect for the night shift.

There are what they call scattered breaks to help with social distancing. But they are constantly hiring people, and it’s not working. It bothers me because people are getting sick. I’m a picker, I’m around people all day.

It’s not a bad job. What makes it bad is the way we’re being treated. We’re not paid enough. We should be getting hazard pay. When the pandemic was really first taking off, they gave us a $2 raise, but they took that away.

They tell us we’re heroes and essential workers and people depend on us, and we know we’re heroes. But you at least have to treat us right coming to work every day, putting our lives on the line, and our families’ lives. We’re not replaceable.

The purpose of the group United for Respect is to get fair working rights for those at Amazon and Walmart. Even if we can’t change too much for us, we can work to change it for future employees. That’s what it’s about.

Our safety is the number-one priority. We don’t have a problem working. That’s a big misconception people have. We have a problem with the way we’re treated. We just want to be treated with respect.

Assistant customer service manager at Bashas’ Diné Market, in Tuba City, Ariz., in the Navajo Nation


CreditCredit…Video by John Burcham

The next grocery store is 75 miles from here. Flagstaff, that’s the next Walmart. Page, that’s another 70 miles in the opposite direction. That’s the next Walmart, the next Safeway, the next anything. We actually have several communities surrounding us that we service. It’s an extremely big job.

We don’t get first dibs on anything. When it was the Great Toilet Paper Famine of 2020, we weren’t at the top of the list to get the best or the most product. We had long lines, just like everywhere else. We had people lining up at 5 o’clock in the morning. I think the longest line was probably about a quarter-mile outside.

I’m a hugger. With all my little grandmas that come into the store, you know, give them a hug. Those things have come to a halt. We’ve had to really put emotionality on hold and do what we have to; keep everyone safe.

A lot of the grandparents that used to come in and do their monthly shopping, they’re no longer with us. We have family members from our workers here in the store, some have passed on because of Covid. They’re no longer with us.

When it first started, they’d come in and they’re just so sad, and they’re shocked and they’re scared. This is in March, when masks weren’t mandated. The last week of March, I had a 100-plus fever, and just a sore throat, but during this time, they didn’t have tests. So unless you couldn’t breathe …

I was told to go home and stay home until you go 72 hours without any type of symptoms. I stayed in my room. I’m blessed to have a two-bathroom home. So one bathroom was solely my bathroom.

The one thing that gets to you is isolation, because you’re separated, you can hear them laughing, you can hear them talking. But at the same time my whole family quarantined with me. Nobody went out. Nobody did any type of shopping or anything like that. I’m blessed that nobody else in my family got sick.

Since March, I have learned more than I had learned in the 22 years I have been with Bashas’. I’ve had to learn to be humble, and had to learn to be patient. I’ve had to learn to be more kind. And to learn huge steps real fast.

Lately, my voice at work has been: “I’m here to help you stay safe. I’m here to make sure that we stay safe.” We’re doing everything possible to keep our community safe because we’re from the Navajo tribe. There’s not a whole lot of us left. We have to make sure that we’re safe. That’s what we work for.

Instacart shopper, Harrisburg, Pa.


CreditCredit…Video by Rosem Morton

I started at Instacart around the last week in January. I had no idea that a couple weeks later it would become what it was, in terms of being so essential for so many people. Not only that, all of my other work went away, because you know, Covid. So it became not only essential for other people, but for me.

I’ve met some incredible people, other Instacart shoppers and of course the customers. It’s amazing how you can connect with somebody over tomatoes. I live alone. So I could have been in my apartment doing nothing, or I could be out there interacting with the folks in the store.

I often shop for a family who are still in full lockdown in their house, and they have ginormous orders. I think the last one I shopped for them was 115 items. It took me three or four shopping carts to get that one done. But I really enjoy that family, I like helping them because I know that they’re still in full lockdown.

We actually lost our mom to Covid — that was in early May, and I ended up going over to my sister’s and staying with her for about three-and-a-half weeks. So I was shopping just outside the Philly area. At my sister’s, I didn’t stop. I was staying as busy as possible. Our mom was in assisted living; she had been on lockdown since the second week in March. We couldn’t get in. That’s the worst part of it, there’s just no closure. It hits you every now and again. You want to at least have had that last hug, you know? You never get that.

I have another customer that I shopped for and connected with. She left me a goodie bag, which was full of soap and hand sanitizer, which was really sweet. She shared in the feedback that she appreciated me, but the reason she appreciated my service so much was because she has a son who has special needs. They’re trying to be very safe, because if he had to go to the hospital, it would be very difficult for her and her husband.

I picked up her order a couple more times and she is just a lovely, lovely person. In a time of unprecedented weirdness and isolation, we’re all not really interacting much. That kind of interaction is, to me, everything — and unexpected in a lovely way.

I’ve never thought about being the essential-worker kind of person in terms of “Thank you for your service.” I can see why it is essential. I was glad that it was, because I wanted to be working and I needed to be working. For that, I was very thankful.

Cafeteria food services worker, Big Sky, Mont.


CreditCredit…Video by Janie Osborne

The schools shut down in mid-March, and went virtual within two days. Then we went to the 50-50 model at the beginning of this school year, at the end of August.

We offer lunch for the kids that are at home, as well. They can sign up for and pick up a bag lunch, either the day that they’re gone or the day prior, to take home.

We’re still doing a lot more scratch-made food. So today, for instance, we had soup, salad, biscuits, fruit and milk. The soup and the biscuits are made from scratch, and the salads are assembled. The brown bags had all of those items, plus silverware, napkins, et cetera. So it’s spreading all of that out and constructing it all. I’ll take those lunches, the assembled bags or boxes or whatever we have; I have a little airline cart and I push it to each elementary school classroom.

They’re masked and six feet apart, and there aren’t as many of them, but they were so excited to have school lunch. They’re really cute about it. I’ll see them popping their heads out the door. It’s like, “Oh, lunch is coming! Lunch is coming!”

Several of the high school students were eating outside when the weather was still nice, but now they mostly eat in their classrooms, and there’s a few other areas in the school where they can eat.

My children are in second grade and fifth grade, and I asked them what they thought of the new lunch system. Both of them were overwhelmingly positive about it. They get more time to eat their lunch, they’re not standing in line to wait for hot lunch, and it’s quieter in their classrooms. They can talk to their friends a little more easily. Especially the younger grades, the teachers will turn on music or turn on short videos. They do enjoy it. I haven’t talked to as many of the high school kids, but I don’t think they really like it.

I don’t know that I consider myself an essential worker in the same way as frontline medical, or people who are actually getting food to where it needs to go. But it is a pretty essential part of our community. I do feel good about being able to do that and to be helpful.

Baker support hotline specialist at King Arthur Baking Company, Norwich, Vt.


CreditCredit…Video by Kelly Burgess

We take incoming calls and answer emails from home bakers who are in some form of baking distress. I average about 30 to 40 calls per day on my end. The bakers’ hotline went from 104,000 calls in 2019 to 134,000 in 2020. Some calls are as simple as 1 minute 30 seconds; they have a question and want to get off the phone. Other calls are 50 minutes or more.

Because so many people have lost jobs as a result of the pandemic or had their income obliterated, they are very conscious about making sure they’re not wasting ingredients. If they can salvage a recipe that may have gone wrong somewhere by calling us and asking how to fix it, they will absolutely do that.

They’re usually calling us because they need help with an ingredient substitution, or they want to know if a certain pan will work even though it’s not the one called for in a recipe.

Very early on, we were impacted by a lack of supply simply because the number of people who were at home baking was far higher than it would normally be at that time of year. With the interest in sourdough in particular, which is a huge consumer of flour, a lot of our calls initially were “Where is flour? How can I get flour? When is flour going to become available again?”

The other products that were in short supply back then were yeast, which is a vital ingredient in making bread, so a lot of times questions were about making bread without yeast, and that goes back to sourdough and it sort of cycles.

Some of the lengthier calls are simply folks who just want someone to reach out to and speak to. I think the pandemic is largely isolating, and a fair number of our customer base are in the 60s-to-80s age range. So for better or worse, a lot of those folks tend to be isolated or quarantined. Reaching us by phone is a great way to have human connection. So it certainly moves into other areas outside baking as well.

A lot of times people will call back a week later and say: “I spoke to you last week, it was fantastic. Thank you for that advice, everything went well so I’m calling back again.”

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