My family of five is planning our own Memorial Day cookout this year, but burgers and a favorite grilled chicken dish won’t be on the menu.
I love those holiday fixtures, and my kids adore them. But for now, we’re not eating meat— not until the people who work in America’s meat and poultry-processing plants are safe. We made this decision about a month ago when I learned that several families at the school that I lead in Clarkston had been sickened by the coronavirus.
In each case, a parent in the family contracted the virus at northeast Georgia’s poultry-processing plants, where they work and where hundreds of employees have been sickened by COVID-19 and some have died.
Our school, Fugees Academy, serves middle and high school students who came to this country as refugees. About 70% of my students’ parents work at the chicken-processing plants. The conditions are horrendous. They work too close to each other for long hours, share equipment that hasn’t been properly cleaned, don’t receive COVID-19 testing, and aren’t provided with a safe place to isolate from their families when they do get sick.
Federal guidelines have been recommended to keep poultry plant workers, and those in the meat-processing plants in other parts of the country, safe. But those aren’t mandatory and haven’t been complied with in the case of the plants in which our families work. What’s more, President Trump ordered meat and poultry plants to stay open, declaring them critical infrastructure and overruling any state or local decisions to close the plants.
Here’s what the picture looks like when one of the members of our community gets sick from the virus. They live in small apartments around Clarkston. In one case, a father became ill and had to share the one bathroom in the residence with the six other people who live there. In another instance, one of my high school juniors stayed awake each night crowded into a bedroom with her parents and siblings listening to her grandmother struggling to breath in the apartment’s only other bedroom next door. “I’m so worried she’s not going to make it, and we’re all going to get sick,” my student texted me in the middle of the night.
My heart broke for my student and her family, and I’m deeply worried about the safety of the broader school community. We plan to resume in-person school on August 11. It’s unclear that, without a shift in policies and by taking important precautionary steps, the situation in the plants will get better. That means more people will get sick. The risk to all our students, teachers, and the broader community around us is real and, frankly, is terrifying.
In ordering the plants to stay open, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act. I understand the need to protect the nation’s food supply, but we also have to ensure our workers and their families are safe. In the case of the plant workers, they need testing, personal protective equipment, barriers between employees, and adequate cleaning of work spaces and equipment. They also should get free health services, safe places to convalesce away from their loved ones if they get sick, and combat pay. We are at war with this virus, and our food-industry workers are on the frontlines of that war.
I’ve never been a vegetarian before. While a plant-based diet has health benefits, I’m now fasting each day this month for Ramadan. Ending my fast at sunset with a meat and rice dish would be my typical inclination. But I can’t reconcile eating meat while the people ordered to make it available to me aren’t even remotely protected.
This virus is upending our way of life in so many ways. For me, being a vegetarian, at least while this pandemic is risking and claiming lives, is a small sacrifice compared to the enormous risk the parents of my students are taking every time they go to work.