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The Essentiality of Food Workers

March 20, 2020

The people who keep us fed can't "shelter in place."

Like a lot of people, I’m working from home until further notice. My state, Illinois, has joined the list of states whose governors have directed citizens to stay home as much as possible.

But there are some people who just can’t do that, as I was reminded when I went to the grocery store a few days ago.

I walked in with some trepidation, fearing to be greeted with empty shelves. But to my relief, they were almost full. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think they were just a little behind on their stocking.

The only truly off note was the crowd. Even though I went on a late Monday afternoon, the place was more packed than I’d ever seen it. To keep up, the grocery workers were racing around like hyperactive beavers, while the checkout clerks slaved away, barely having time to look up.

I looked for Dane, my favorite clerk, but didn’t see him. When the shelter-in-place order came down, I thought of him. He and his wife have a four-year-old daughter, and I wondered if they used day care, and if so, whether it were interrupted.

That came back to mind when I read that Minnesota and Vermont have added grocery store employees to their lists of “essential or emergency workers.” This makes them eligible for the free child care that those states are organizing, much of it in now-empty schools. (They’re taking safety measures, such as no more than 10 children in a room at any time.)

I hope other states do this. I especially hope that they follow the lead of Vermont, which includes “others involved in the food supply chain,” like food plant workers, as essential.

So far virtually none of the food manufacturers we’ve contacted for our coronavirus coverage have reported any absences. Some, like Perdue Farms, are promising to keep employees on the payroll if they have to shut down a plant due to coronavirus.

Those of us who are able to “shelter in place” all day owe a lot to those workers who have to labor in proximity to each other – and, in the case of grocery workers, to random strangers – to keep us fed. I hope more state governments will step up to make their lives at least a little easier during this awful time.