When Big Meat Comes to Town

Nov. 4, 2021

The real costs of cheap animal protein.

A fascinating two-part series on what it means to live with a gigantic meat processing plant is now available online. The articles, by David Condos of High Plains Public Radio, take a look at two communities that were in the running four decades ago to host the world’s largest meatpacking plant: Lamar, Colo., and Garden City, Kansas.

Garden City got the IBP beef processing plant in 1980. Both towns were affected by the decision. Lamar is in visible decline, with shuttered storefronts and a painful lack of economic opportunity. But getting the IBP plant – now owned by Tyson Foods – wasn’t exactly an unmitigated blessing for Garden City, either, even though it directly provides about one-fifth the county’s jobs.

Finney County, of which Garden City is the seat, grew from about 24,000 residents when the IBP plant arrived to about 38,000 today. The population growth comes in large part from immigrants, many of them refugees, who flooded in to work at the beef plant. Those people needed to be housed and fed, and their children educated. But there just wasn’t enough housing, and there still isn’t – at least, housing that’s affordable on a starting salary of $20 an hour (recently raised from $15).

That’s why some of the plant’s workers live in hundreds of mobile homes known around town as “the IBP trailers,” because that company pushed to have the area rezoned when it came to town. Some of them have holes in the floors or lack windows. It’s why two-thirds of Garden City’s schoolchildren are eligible for free or reduced-cost meals. And it’s why half the people who line up at Emmaus House, which Condos identifies as “the largest food pantry in southwest Kansas,” work at the Tyson plant, or are related to someone who does.

There’s a familiar and depressing pattern here. The taxpayers who pay for the Garden City schools, and the kind souls who contribute to Emmaus House, are in effect underwriting the low wages for Tyson’s workers. Ditto the taxpayers in general who pay for any food stamps that those workers require.

I understand that Tyson, like every other food company, needs to keep its prices competitive, and part of that means keeping wages as low as possible. But any company that doesn’t pay its workers enough to live on is just foisting onto the rest of us the problem of how they are expected to eat and live. It’s like a water balloon – squeeze one section and the rest bulges. And eventually breaks.

One more little bit of cheap irony: A lot of the food at Emmaus House that ends up with Tyson’s workers was donated by, yes, Tyson.