We Are More Than Workers and Consumers in the Food System

A former warehouse worker and a slow food advocate who's father washed dishes for 19 years discuss how their twin movements for healthy food and fair jobs can restore humanity to the food system.

By Yvonne Yen Liu Jul 13, 2012

Uylonda Dickerson and Hnin Wai Hnin enter at different points of the food chain.

Uylonda towers over most people, her height accentuated by the high ponytail that she wears her hair in. A black woman in her late thirties, Uylonda worked up until a year and a half ago in the warehouse industry, which dominates the regional economy around Chicago. She worked long hours, unloading heavy boxes (sometimes filled with processed food) from trailers, to be distributed to Walmart stores in the Midwest or on the East Coast. The work took a toll on Uylonda, physically and emotionally, and also took her away from her responsibilities as a single mother to her daughter and as a caretaker to her developmentally challenged niece. Now, she’s an organizer with Warehouse Workers for Justice, which strives for dignity and respect for logistics workers.

Hnin, in comparison, is a petite Burmese-Chinese American woman in her early twenties. When she graduated from college, she worked with us at the Applied Research Center, which publishes Colorlines.com, as a research intern. Hnin looked into "food desert" legislation, pointing out how geographical proximity to supermarkets alone doesn’t guarantee a healthy diet, and gathered data for what later became The Color of Food report. Now, I’m so proud to say, Hnin works at Slow Food USA. She still lives at home with her family in Brooklyn; her dad recently retired after working for 19 years as a dishwasher.

The two were brought together at a recent conference sponsored by the Food Chain Workers Alliance. Uylonda and Hnin shared their personal biographies, weaving them in with their inspiration to make change in the food chain. I brought them together again, this week, for a conversation in light of the release of our new report, Good Food and Good Jobs for All. The report outlines how the movements for good food and good jobs don’t always work together, much to the loss of the 40 million households considered "food insecure" and the 20 million who toil in the food chain, many of them people of color. We show that good food and good jobs are one and the same, and that theme guided my conversation with Hnin and Uylonda.

The Food Chain Workers Alliance conference was the first time that you two met. What was it like to be on that opening panel together?

Uylonda: I never experienced anything as emotional as that panel. Rita [meat factory worker on the panel] and I really bonded. We were in trainings all day before the conference, with other food chain workers. Rita was the first person that I met. We were doing an exercise to get to know each other. She was the first person that I walked up to and her eyes were filled with water. A translator helped us to communicate. We felt this connection because we both experienced the same problems: meat processors and warehouse workers–both are horrible work where the bosses mistreat you. Stories bring people together, once you hear someone’s story, you can really connect with them.

Hnin: I was moved to hear people’s personal stories. Everyone opened up from an honest and warm place of solidarity. It was a really good experience to see people from different sectors and positions coming together on the idea of good jobs and good food.

In the movement, Slow Food is often seen as just a consumer organization that only focuses on quality and sustainability. But Slow Food supporters are also people. We may have family members or neighbors who are food chain workers. We have the capacity to care and empathize, not just from a consumer point of view, but also from a human perspective. The problem is that many food workers have been invisiblized. The reality is they are a part of our daily lives.

Uylonda: That’s the great thing: for everyone to see each other as human beings, not just workers. We are all more than just workers. It’s important for us to get to know each other as humans.

Hnin: People make a false assumption that if one is a worker, one only cares about justice. We need to recognize that workers, like my father, also care about joy and eating well; it’s the same the other way around. If you’re a consumer, you don’t only care about the product, you care about the ethical and justice issues behind it. Everyone works, and everyone eats.

What is your personal experience with food chain work?

Uylonda: Horrible. The things you have to go through to keep a job. You’re lifting things with your hands, using your whole body, not using a fork lift. Some days, I would come home, I couldn’t take care of the kids, I just needed to lie down. I was paid a "piece" rate, based on how many pieces in the trailers I unloaded, not hourly. If two people unloaded a trailer, they’d get $50 for it, split in half that’s $25 a person.

You don’t get money until you unload an entire trailer. Once, I got one with 14,000 pieces in it; it took three days for me to unload it. The pieces get heavy: trampolines, big air conditioners, and swimming pools. Whatever was in the Walmart stores, they had them in the trailers.

I went to work sick; I got sick at work. If you have kids to take care of, they don’t care. Get to work, then work work work, that’s all they care about. You could go to work today, if you’re supposed to get off at 2 p.m., but you don’t get off till 5 p.m. I’m not saying that women should have better treatment, but women have more stuff to take care of. If women have to take their kids to the doctor, they shouldn’t be fired. If you’re sick, stay at home, and don’t spread it to everyone at the warehouse.

We had two 15-minute breaks and one 30-minute one for lunch. But it took 5 minutes just to get to the warehouse door, so that made your break shorter. In the midst of working, I had a bladder infection, I was taking pills so I had to go to the bathroom a lot. But they didn’t allow me [to go to the bathroom], so that’s how I got sick.

Women are harassed in the warehouse. One went to the police because her boss sexually harassed her, but they put criminal charges on her because she opened her mouth on the boss! You get penalized if you report things like that. I tried to report mine and got told "Stop being so sensitive. Stop being a woman. Stop telling everything." But what are you supposed to do? I got locked in trailers, people told me to reach for boxes at the top so they can check you out, people whistle when you walk by. This happened daily. But when I said something, they told me I was being sensitive, because I was the only woman there.

Hnin: My dad worked as a dishwasher, in the same job for 19 years; he retired last year. I’ve done some parttime work in the food chain, but I don’t live that reality every day. I was a family member and a part of a community who has gone through that. Because my dad had to work 72 hours a week, my mom held a lot of the responsibility of raising our family in addition to working fulltime herself. My sister and I both started working at age 14.

We worried a lot about making rent, stretching our foodstamps. Back in Burma, my dad was a famous athlete who did track and boxing. Then, when we arrived in the U.S., he hawked vegetables, then washed dishes. He was 52 years old and didn’t speak English well. That, coupled with his age, made it hard for him to access any jobs except the lower skilled ones.

In my brief experience working back-of-the-house in a restaurant, you can start out as a dishwasher and then move your way up to being a chef. But that’s not always true if you’re a person of color. My dad never got a promotion in 19 years.

My dad was always proud of the work he did and being able to support the family. His bosses appreciated his work because he worked quickly and efficiently. But I think my parents grew up in a context where there wasn’t much support or resources to actualize their dreams. It was just about surviving, having food to eat. When I talk to my dad about whether he’d want to do other things, it’s hard for him to come up with an answer. I don’t know if it’s because of the political and economic situation in Burma or because there were limited options here for almost 20 years.

How do your personal experiences inform the work you do now?

Uylonda: I’ve been an organizer with the Warehouse Workers for Justice for a year now. It’s something that I’d never thought I’d do. I get to cry and laugh, I get to be me and nobody looks at me funny. I get to tell my story and tears roll. Before, I’d tell my story and people would laugh. Now, people listen and some tears roll with me. Now, people cry together and laugh together.

Hnin: For me, it started with reading "Fast Food Nation" when I was 17. Food is something that everyone has a relationship with. It’s a people topic. When I read the book, it was the first time I learned about the food system or that there was a story behind the food I was eating. A whole system that was structured so that some people didn’t have good paying jobs or didn’t have enough food to eat. That book politicized food for me.

One thing the food movement has been able to capitalize on is using food as an entry point to organize around other issues. Food is really powerful because everyone relates to it. It’s also how we relate to our bodies and the environment. When you get people more conscious about food, you can get people to question their relationships with each other and with the earth. You start to shift culture. But we need to do more work to lift up voices like Uylonda’s, Rita’s, and my father’s. Even though they’re in our communities, we don’t see them because we don’t hear about them or are taught that they’re not there.

A lot of communities face the threat of Walmart moving in. The retail giant aims to open 300 stores in so-called "food deserts." What advice do you have for cities like New York, where advocates are fighting against a store opening, or Oakland, where they’re talking about converting the old Army Base into a warehouse center for big box stores, like Walmart? The latter promises to create 2,000 jobs and to hire local residents and ex-offenders.

Uylonda: Are they guaranteeing jobs? If they’re not paying living wages, that’s not a job. They are promising more jobs, but they’re not the jobs they want. Everyone should have a job they want. Not everyone loves their job, but at least they should have a job that they’re comfortable with. I hated my job at the warehouse.

Hnin: I think the core issue here is that we need solutions that provide sustainable livelihoods for people in the community. One of the founding concepts of Slow Food is the idea of the coproducer movement, that everyone who eats has a direct role in supporting small scale producers who are being squeezed out by the global industrial food system.

A community-based economy is different from a local one. A community-based economy builds and supports a a community and a culture. It’s not just about being located in a certain place. People see local as a panacea, but that’s not necessarily the case. We have to make sure the solutions come from and empower the community in an equitable way.

Any last thoughts on how good food and good jobs can work together?

Uylonda: Without a job they can depend on, people are not considered people. They feel so low, they can’t make ends meet. It’s a necessity to make money to buy food, without food, people can’t live. People get heat stroke, pass out, because they go to work without enough to eat. You go to warehouses and you don’t have enough time to eat, you rush to work and then pass out. But the bosses don’t care, because they just want to get more work done.

Hnin: The good food and good jobs movements are interrelated. There is no pleasure without justice. Slow Food is about good, clean and fair, which includes respect for food workers. The idea of coproduction is important. You’re not just a consumer making a decision at the end of the food chain, but by connecting with your community farmers, food workers and businesses, you have an important role in what gets produced and how it’s produced.