How Fostering Empathy for the People Who Feed Us Could Change Our Food System | Civil Eats

How Fostering Empathy for the People Who Feed Us Could Change Our Food System

Experts weigh in on how we can best support food and agriculture workers during the pandemic—and beyond.

Juana Gonzalez, 28, has been an agricultural laborer for 10 years. She worries about Covid-19 Coronavirus, especially working so close to other workers all day long without protection. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.)

As much of our nation confronts deeply entrenched, systemic racism, it has also become clearer than ever that foundational systems such as education, housing, healthcare, food—capitalism as a whole—have cared for some, but not for all. Over the last few months, as the pandemic has blazed through the country, we have seen the system’s deficiencies and fragilities: from dumped milk and euthanized animals to growing rates of hunger and a relentless push by the Trump administration to restrict access to the nation’s largest food assistance program.

This fraught, historic moment reminds us the past is prologue, and gives us the opportunity to not only recognize the fissures, but better understand the exploitation woven into this system intended to nourish and sustain. These breakdowns invite us to reconsider the people who Chef José Andrés characterized on Twitter as those “we treat as invisible when [the system] is working and only notice when it’s not.”

Many of those working in food and agriculture are Black and brown people who have suffered, and continue to suffer, from systemic inequality, poverty, and discrimination. Yet despite these difficulties—and also because of them—they have continued to harvest produce, catch fish, and cut meat. They have crisscrossed their way through the country driving long-hauls, stood shoulder-to-shoulder in slaughterhouses and on factory lines, stocked store shelves, taken our payment in checkout lines, and delivered food to our homes.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Black Americans make up 12.3 percent of the nation’s workers, but are overwhelmingly represented in animal slaughtering and processing (22 percent), trucking (19 percent), wholesale grocery (14 percent), and food service (13 percent). Latinx workers comprise around 18 percent of the labor force, but make up a similarly outsized percentages of laborers in crop production (28 percent), animal slaughtering and processing (35 percent), and food service (27 percent).

Exacerbated by diet-related comorbidities, the Black and brown people on the frontlines of the pandemic are also among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. As of today, nearly 24,000 food workers have tested positive for the virus and at least 85 have died.

The people who risk their lives to feed us deserve better. But as the world starts to slowly open up and regain its footing, how do we keep these folks centered in our consciousness?

Recognizing our shared humanity is the first step, says Brown University psychologist Oriel FeldmanHall. Although empathy is not singularly defined, “at its core,” she says, “the empathic experience is sharing in somebody else’s pain—and feeling for them.”

As the world starts to slowly open up and regain its footing, how do we keep the people who risk their lives to feed centered in our consciousness?

This connection is what Niaz Dorry, coordinating director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition, describes as a “silver lining” to this difficult time. “Not to diminish that pain and the grief we are experiencing,” she says, but there is hope “in reestablishing the connection to the physical hands that put food on our tables.”

While it is much easier to have empathy for those with whom we directly engage, we have to allow ourselves to feel the grief, frustration, and cares of the entire chain of people who make our lives possible. It’s not easy, but in this moment, it is essential.

Civil Eats reached out to a handful of the country’s most committed food advocates to learn how to deepen our empathy for the people behind our food.

Recognize Each Story is Singular

Building empathy, FeldmanHall says, starts with getting a better sense of how many people, across a number of industries, get food to our tables. “When I go get, say, Brussels sprouts at the grocery store and bacon to fry up with them, how many people were involved in that process of getting those items to me? I don’t even know what the layers are—how many people it takes and in various different industries—nor do I know what their stories and hardships are. Without the knowledge, there’s nothing to talk about.”

We need to understand who they are, not as “farmhands” or “factory workers,” but individuals. Those who share our history, carry hope and joy, and dream of a better world—the same way we do. “It seems like a no-brainer, but there needs to be tangibility,” FeldmanHall explains. “You can’t empathize with somebody unless there’s something to empathize with.” This connection can be forged by prioritizing direct contact with producers through farmers’ markets or CSAs.

“Some people don’t want to see those faces because it makes them think twice about their [food] decisions. Well, this is the time to rethink our connections.”

Dorry agrees. “We need to recognize each other. We need to see the faces of the humans, or the animals, who make our food possible,” she says. “Some people don’t want to see those faces because it makes them want to think twice about their [food] decisions. Well, you know what? This is the time to rethink our connections.”

Obscuring these relationships, says Anuradha Mittal—the executive director of Oakland Institute, a think tank focused on land rights and sustainable food systems—is deliberate. “The industrial agriculture/food system has been wonderful at creating what Wendell Berry calls a ‘one-night-stand’ relationship with food,” she says, noting this is a strategy that has been crafted and implemented by the monopolies that control our food supply. “This invisible virus is a wakeup call to start doing things differently.” Our expansion of empathy, she stresses, can’t be intellectual, “it has to be transformational and push us to reclaim our food system.”

Transformational and also enduring, Dorry says. “We can’t be doing this solely as a response to crisis. We need to harness our powers as eaters and put our muscle into creating something new.” What this looks like on the ground, she explains, is “a growing number of food providers building relationships directly with people in their communities.”

Shorten the Supply Chain

Although some worry that the interest in local food will be short-lived and isn’t sustainable over the long-term, Dorry remains optimistic based on what she’s seen unfold. “When we first started community-supported fisheries, we were told, ‘Oh, that’s really cute, but who’s going to want to wait in line to buy something from a boat? Who’s going to want a whole fish?’ Everything that we were told would never happen because eaters wouldn’t have a taste for it is happening,” she says.

Miguel I. Gómez, associate professor of economics and director of the Food Industry Management Program at Cornell University, says this shift has, in part, happened because consumers stared at empty shelves in supermarkets and were forced to seek out alternatives. A more decentralized food supply chain, he explains, has fewer disruptions and can better buffer shocks.

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“We can’t all of a sudden go to a completely local system in which farmers deliver very close to the households in their area, but there’s going to be a rebalancing,” says Gómez. “We’re going to see households that are more flexible to consume what is closer to them supporting a food system that doesn’t depend on two or three big companies.”

The people who’ve been committed to creating and manifesting these models, Diaz says, are beginning to see their efforts pay off. “Not only financially, but spiritually. The first thing [these fisherfolk] tell me is, ‘All I want to do is feed people.’ For them to be able to do that—actually see some of the faces of the people they are feeding—that’s what we eaters can support.”

This shift isn’t just happening on the coasts, she says. “In Iowa, they’re selling out of their CSA shares, too. People are beginning to see there’s a farm not that far away from them, there’s a boat not that far away from them, there is a little store that’s not only supplying ready-made food, but toilet paper and produce . . . It doesn’t take that much effort to reconnect—not only to support their businesses, but to support the foundations for a whole new food system.”

If we don’t start seeking out more local options and shortening our supply chains, she warns, “Every few years, we’re going to have to fight another crisis.”

Advocate for Those Who Feed Us

In the face of growing food insecurity, it is hard to remember that, for decades, Americans have spent less on food (in proportion to their incomes) than people in any other country in the developed world. One of the core reasons is the fact that farm and food labor is so low-paid.

Robert Egger, the founder and president of L.A. Kitchen, explains, “there’s plenty of food, and it’s relatively affordable, but [it’s] built on workers who are crippled by age 55 because they’ve been stooped over their entire lives or can’t take a day off.”

Patricia (whose last name was withheld so as not to compromise her job security), a farmworker leader with Burlington, Vermont’s Migrant Justice, says while many people know that farmworkers work long grueling hours for little pay, their focus is not sustained. “Yes, we’re being called essential workers now. But then we’re forgotten. We’re treated as nothing,” she says. “What is important is for people to tell elected representatives that farmworkers have to be taken into account—not only now with this pandemic, but in the long run.”

That is why, Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and director of UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center, explains, consumers need to fight for changes at the policy level. Her efforts are focused on those working in restaurants, the vast majority of whom, she says, work “in dive bars, Applebee’s, and IHOPs—really casual joints all over the country.” They are mostly women, “earning $2 or $3 an hour and very little in tips.” Political pressure to improve these wages must be ongoing.

Jayaraman has campaigned to end the federal minimum wage of $2.13 cents for tipped employees for years. The pandemic, she says, “just blew it wide open because at least 10 million workers in the restaurant sector lost their jobs.” Her organization estimates the majority of them are being denied unemployment insurance. For some, this is due to their immigration status, but for the majority, she says, “it’s because states are telling them their wage plus tips is too low to meet the minimum threshold to qualify for unemployment insurance. That has woken up a lot of them.”

Another way individuals can demonstrate care for workers, Jayaraman suggests, is by encouraging establishments to enroll in High Road Kitchens, a network of independent restaurants that are providing food on a sliding scale to low-wage workers, health care workers, first responders, and others in need.

Although the effort is currently California-based, she explains they can sign up their favorite restaurant through the “Adopt a Restaurant” program, and High Road Kitchens will help them join the initiative, allowing diners and restaurants to “work with us to spread the amount of restaurants around the country that are part of this movement for change.”

Egger, who helped conceive the High Road Kitchens initiative, adds, “as restauranteurs come back online and imagine reopening, there will be a small, really empathetic group of folks who are going to try to engage customers in a very different approach to food.” The shift may include a change in portion sizes, “in the footprint of animal protein,” or in affordability. Regardless, he says, “this empathetic menu is a real trend of the future.”

But Sekou Siby, executive director of Restaurant Opportunity Centers (ROC) United, says any menu built on empathy must include two key components, focused on food workers. “We have to see an increase in wages and a commitment to welfare, including providing staff with personal protective equipment, making sure there are enough paid sick days, and encouraging staff to stay home if they are sick,” says Siby.

Unfortunately, the tension between economic and personal health means workers are not always able to prioritize self-care. “I want to acknowledge how little choice there often is,” says Jocelyn Jackson, chef, activist, and cofounder of People’s Kitchen Collective, a food-centered, grassroots organizing group based in Oakland. “People are living in their cars. Food bank lines are miles long. It’s not always a free-will choice to enter into the danger of what these jobs require.”

That is why consumer advocacy and political participation are critical. In this moment, Jackson says, we have an opportunity to “catalyze folks’ awareness and manifest our heartfelt instincts of protection towards the folks who are putting themselves at risk—whether by choice or by desperation.”

We can do this by being “one another’s advocates” and making wealth redistribution a tangible goal. “And by activating relationships with grassroots organizations that are already present, effective, and have integrity, such as Food Chain Workers Alliance and California Farmers’ Markets Association,” Jackson says. “That’s where the connection needs to happen. Not just in the grocery store, [but] down the entire chain.”

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Eat Differently

As Gómez reminds us, the food system holds “maximizing the productivity of labor” as its highest goal. But this cheap food comes at a heavy price. A hyper-focus on efficiency is regularly used as justification for increases in line processing speeds in meat processing plants and decrease in line inspections—including during the pandemic.

“Unions are very concerned, with very valid reason, that these facilities are exposing workers to a risk of getting sick,” he says. And the unions are concerned for the sustainability of the system as a whole: “If you don’t have workers, you don’t have food.” Businesses, he explains, must take a different approach and “sacrifice a bit of economic efficiency” in order to protect workers. They need “to treat workers in the food system with the same care as healthcare workers.”

On a societal level, Gómez says, we must reconsider the value of food and the labor behind it. “We should be willing to pay a little bit more for food in order to sacrifice some economic efficiency.” And, he says, consumers should also see the challenges borne out of the pandemic as a chance to change consumption. “In the U.S., we are spoiled. We find all products, all year round, in a huge assortment.”

The recent disruptions in the supply chain give us a chance to not only have greater reverence for what we have, but also consider what might go missing in the future. “If there are shortages on meat because of the disruptions and or price gets more expensive, we should feel more incentives to look for substitutes like pulses and plant-based proteins,” says Gómez.

Strive for Solidarity

Empathy, Mittal says, must be expressed across a continuum. “Starting within families, as we discover new foods and cook from scratch, as we plant food and take care of the earth. Working in school systems to dismantle the lies that have been fed to us about convenience—the convenience of using glyphosate to kill weeds, the convenience of frozen dinners, the convenience of clean-looking, wrapped-in-plastic meat,” she says, “And standing in solidarity with workers who are asking for basic rights such as disinfecting wipes, immigration status, and a livable wage. Stand up for the rights of essential workers, and campaign for not only making them ‘essential workers,’ but essential human beings.”

“We’ve always lived in a world where workers are exploited,” says author, filmmaker, and academic Raj Patel, “but increasingly we realize how dependent we are on the worlds of work from which we’re kept apart.” Drawing on years of activism in South Africa, he echoes Mittal’s suggestion to go beyond empathy for the people who feed us to build solidarity. When fighting apartheid, he says, those practices started with education—”reading, listening, and learning” about the conditions under which Black communities had persevered.

“The only way our food system, or our world, will get better, is if we fight—and win.”

People then took what they had learned, taught others, and began to engage more widely. “The actions we took ranged from boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against the perpetrators of these cruelties to protests and political demands, art and satire, working to fund and support those in the frontlines, as well as their families,” says Patel. “Supporting them with money, shelter, personnel, courage—and organized demands for change.”

That historic struggle for justice offers important lessons for today. The only way our food system, or our world, will get better, he says, is “if we fight—and win.”

And that choice—that opportunity—belongs to all of us. “A year from now,” Jayaraman says, “it could be a totally new world, or we could be in a much worse place. Those are the two options. It’s really about how hard are we willing to fight collectively to put a stake in the ground right now to say—not just as workers but as employers and consumers—“we stand together for a totally new vision of what this industry and what our economy and what our country looks like.”

Top photo: Juana Gonzalez, 28, has been an agricultural laborer for 10 years. She worries about Covid-19 Coronavirus, especially working so close to other workers all day long without protection. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.)

Simran Sethi is a journalist, scholar and public speaker who’s endlessly curious about food, psychology, and the people and places beyond the plate. Read more >

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  1. Manjari
    This is an excellent article, covering keys issues, many invisible to even the sustainability community. At the bottom of the supply chain is our exploited worker. It reminds me of Ursula Le Guin''s story the OMELAS
    • Brian Bennett
      Excellent article. I have been attempting to produce food since 1976 and am very familiar with the perpetual lack of empathy for food and farmworkers. As I age I am becoming more concerned. Our sales and our CSA for organic foods continue to decline as does our income and health. La vie campensina. LA Times Product of Mexico 2014. Lynn R Miller's The Land Stewardship Act 2020.

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