Thinking of the Food Workers
“I just can’t help but sit around and look at these workers – some that’s been here for years and all like that, and they’re so devoted and everything, and believe in doing it right – I just, you know, think sometimes somebody, you know – like management or someone – should just think of ‘em… some time.”
One of the first topics to draw my attention after delving into the history of the SOHP as a new intern was that of the Lenoir Food Workers Strike of 1969. In the mid-1970s, SOHP founding director Jacquelyn Hall conducted interviews with many of the key players from the movement to improve the treatment of cafeteria workers on UNC’s campus, and now nearly 40 interviews on the topic can be found in the SOHP archives. During my first semester at UNC, I produced a zine about slaughterhouse workers and the impact of animal agriculture on rural communities in North Carolina for Professor Tanya Shields’ class on ‘American’ Women, Art, and Activism, and the threads of food worker marginalization were immediately apparent between that and the strike. With the 2015-2017 university theme as Food for All: Local and Global Perspectives, now seems the perfect time to turn our attention to the often overlooked individuals involved in food work.
In 1969, black cafeteria workers at UNC Chapel Hill were receiving low wages and working unpaid hours under negligent white management. This was happening during the long and tumultuous years of desegregation on campus, and the newly formed Black Student Movement was integral to raising awareness of these issues and holding the university responsible. Although demands were initially met after the February strike, the university soon outsourced management to independent corporation SAGA, who reinstated unfair policies and practices, leading to a second strike later in the year.
The food worker strikes at UNC nearly fifty years ago were not anomalous, but are one chapter in the ongoing story of our complex relationship to food and its production and dissemination. Food worker marginalization on our campus mirrors that of our state, where most of the major agricultural industries have been relegated to rural areas primarily populated by poor communities of color, a conscious decision by industry leaders to keep the harsh realities of food production hidden from the population majority in cities. We’re presented with humane-washed marketing of idyllic farms where workers and animals are happy. However, the vast majority of the food we buy packaged and prepared in stores is a far cry from its origins, which are deeply intertwined with the lives and wellbeing of workers.
From long, laborious hours in contact with pesticides and under the hot sun while harvesting plant foods to the dangerous and violent practice of raising, slaughtering, and processing animals, individuals in food production face some of the harshest working conditions and often receive some of the least protection and lowest wages. Cafeteria workers at UNC in 1969 used their voices and position in the setting of the academy to influence change with the support of students and faculty, but they still experienced setbacks. Many workers outside the academy do not have access to these resources to address their concerns. Agricultural industries are especially keen to exploit immigrants who may not be aware of their rights, and the rural environments often present limited choices for work that can support a family.
Whether we see them behind counters in Lenoir or Chipotle, or whether we never see them at work in fields and slaughterhouses, how often do we recognize the people who work to feed us? We think often enough about the way the food impacts us as its consumers – whether it’s the memories, the traditions, the flavors, or the presentation. We talk about nutrition and culture and preference, but when do we talk about food workers? How can we get closer to the reality of every stage of the work that goes into feeding people? When examining deeply the injustices often inherent to many of the systems in the US, the risk of losing hope can become overwhelming. How do we envision systems for feeding ourselves that take human health and safety – both physical and emotional – into account?
All these questions point me to a class I am taking this semester with SOHP Acting Director Renee Alexander Craft, in which we are discussing racial politics and reading black speculative fiction. In the course, an emphasis is placed on both learning the history of systems that rely on the exploitation and marginalization of those who exist outside the dominant norm and imagining new and different possibilities for the future. When Mary Smith and Elizabeth Brooks, two black women on the social margins of our campus, led cafeteria workers on strike demanding justice in 1969, they saw both the faults in their immediate situation and a future beyond. We live in a time that is futuristic in many ways but still tied steadfastly to a traumatic past – a time when past oppressions have not ended but have merely morphed into new versions of themselves. I hope we will take advice from Ytasha L. Womack’s Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture and recognize that “the imagination is a tool of resistance.” This means acknowledging the problems that exist and envisioning ways to not just ameliorate them but to uproot them and plant new seeds in their place.
Like many of us, partly as a result of the system’s operations to render much of itself invisible, I am rather removed from the world of food production and work. To bridge the gaps can seem daunting, but a great place to start is in the archives of the SOHP where we can listen to the voices of those who have struggled against the injustices that plague food work. Their lived experiences provide crucial insight into the realities of the past and allow us to begin to imagine a future where our food systems invest less in profit and more in life.