The Food Workers Facing the Pandemic

During a crisis, the luxury of working remotely does not extend to emergency personnel like nurses, paramedics, and firefighters. Now, after the COVID-19 outbreak, there is another group of workers that have become absolutely essential: the people who ship, handle, and stock the food we need.

Across America, with more than half of U.S. states in lockdown, grocery stores are one of the last places functioning close to how they were before the pandemic. They are also one of the only places to find a job, with chains like Costco and Kroger recruiting thousands to manage the surge in panic hoarding. For employees, this boost in staff has increased their likelihood of falling sick; worse still, many are uninsured and ineligible for paid time off.

But grocery stores, while essential, cater to those who can afford them. In 2018, thirty-seven million Americans were unable to buy enough food for their families. And, as layoffs soar and unemployment applications reach record numbers, food insecurity will almost certainly rise in tandem. Already, food banks and food pantries—the first supply food, and the second distribute it—are struggling to keep up with longer lines and a dwindling pool of volunteers. 

The photographs below highlight the conditions faced by a handful of workers across the food chain—each of them, in one way or another, puts themself at risk so others can eat.

“It’s killing me, man,” says truck driver Hopeton Francis, sixty-two. He had stopped in Madison, Wisconsin, after two days of driving, to do his laundry and maybe grab something to eat. At the moment, his only option is a drive-through. Francis is from Jamaica and lives in Miami, Florida, but spends most of his time on the road.  

Judy Mitchell, fifty-four, works the late shift at a truck stop in DeForest, Wisconsin. Her two daughters are in their twenties, and both have been laid off in the last month. “I’d go crazy if I couldn’t work,” Mitchell says, adding that truck drivers depend on the showers she cleans, and the coffee she now must serve from behind the counter.

A cashier at the Willy Street Co-op, a member-owned grocery store in Madison that specializes in organic and locally sourced foods. To slow the disease’s spread, stores are requiring that employees wear gloves and sanitize surfaces regularly; some have even installed Plexiglas sneeze guards to limit contact in the checkout lines. 

Laura Gaffney is the events manager at Second Harvest, a local food bank in Madison. When stores closed, Gaffney received a wave of phone calls from individual and corporate donors, asking what they could do to help. “It gave me chills,” Gaffney says. 

A closed fruit and nut aisle at the Willy Street Co-op, draped with a plastic tarp. Person-to-person contact remains the most likely source of infection, and there’s currently no evidence that the coronavirus can be transmitted through food. 

Keith Binder (left), twenty-nine, hands a week’s worth of groceries to Greg Klein, forty-one. Binder works at The River, a food pantry in Madison that recently switched to a curbside service to prevent contamination. Klein, who does construction, says he was out of work all winter, and that he’s lucky to be employed now. Klein doesn’t “pay attention to the news,” believing that many of the COVID-19 precautions are unnecessary: “We need to keep building. This is America, man.” 

A clerk wipes down a checkout conveyor with a rag dipped in sanitizer at the Willy Street Co-op. The Centers for Disease Control recommends using sanitizer that has at least 60 percent alcohol. Earlier this month, when cases began to spike, stores—including the online retailer Amazon—sold out of sanitizer and other cleaning products. Unfortunately, many of those shoppers purchased alcohol-free sanitizer, which is not effective against COVID-19. 

Normally, Second Harvest sends food in bulk so those in need can choose which items they want to take home. They are now pre-packaging boxes with staples like soup, cereal, and pasta. Second Harvest, with CDC guidelines prohibiting gatherings of more than ten people, has had to rely on a skeleton crew to pack hundreds of these boxes each day, at an assembly line pace. Despite the challenges, Gaffney is “happy that we have so many volunteers” who are showing up “even though they’re scared of going out.” 

Jalondo Jackson, a seventeen-year-old senior at Madison East High School, quit his job at Woodman’s, a local grocery store, a year ago. He came back because the grocery store was understaffed. Though his parents were worried, Jackson wanted to “help people get food.” 

“You have to keep moving,” says Amanpreet Sekhon, thirty-two, a truck driver from Winnipeg, Manitoba, who was returning to Canada after a delivery in Michigan. On March 20, the U.S.-Canada border was closed to all non-essential crossings. The transport industry is exempt from this rule, but many of Sekhon’s co-workers are going into quarantine. Sekhon doesn’t plan on staying home, even though he sees truckers as among the most vulnerable to the pandemic. “It’s not just coming into contact with people,” he says. “The virus can live on dashboards for up to seventeen hours.” 

Jane Thurow, twenty-two, a senior at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, didn’t want to sit at home feeling guilty about not doing enough. A week before she decided to volunteer at Second Harvest, Thurow was in Jamaica for spring break. Being young, she was more worried about the future than her personal safety during the pandemic: “What’s going to happen to the economy? Will I be able to get a job?,” Thurow says, highlighting how the uncertainty of the pandemic adds to the anxiety of graduating into a post-virus job market. 

Jon Clark is a supervisor at Madison’s River Food Pantry. Clark had to improvise to safely and efficiently deliver food to the 191 families who pulled up on the first day after local restaurants shut down. The pantry also stocks essential supplies, like diapers, for those in need. 

“I kind of feel like a house rat,” says Jose Tercero, a senior at Madison East High School who works at Woodman’s. Though his dad was recently laid off from an Olive Garden restaurant, Tercero has a second job at a Wendy’s, which—along with other fast food drive-throughs—has stayed open as sit-down restaurants shutter.

Jeff Nord, forty-three, is restocking a near-empty cleaning supplies aisle at Woodman’s, where he has worked for twenty-three years. Nord, in all of his time at the store, has never seen shelves as empty, or lines as long, as they were this March. 

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