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How Fostering Empathy for the People Who Feed Us Could Change Our Food System

June 3, 2020
Civil Eats

Simran Sethi

As much of our nation confronts deeply entrenched, systemic racism, it has also become clearer than ever that foundational systems such as education, housing, healthcare, food — capitalism as a whole — have cared for some, but not for all. Over the last few months, as the pandemic has blazed through the country, we have seen the system’s deficiencies and fragilities: from dumped milk and euthanized animals to growing rates of hunger and a relentless push by the Trump administration to restrict access to the nation’s largest food assistance program.

This fraught, historic moment reminds us the past is prologue, and gives us the opportunity to not only recognize the fissures, but better understand the exploitation woven into this system intended to nourish and sustain. These breakdowns invite us to reconsider the people who Chef José Andrés characterized on Twitter as those “we treat as invisible when [the system] is working and only notice when it’s not.”

Many of those working in food and agriculture are Black and brown people who have suffered, and continue to suffer, from systemic inequality, poverty, and discrimination. Yet despite these difficulties — and also because of them — they have continued to harvest produce, catch fish, and cut meat. They have crisscrossed their way through the country driving long-hauls, stood shoulder-to-shoulder in slaughterhouses and on factory lines, stocked store shelves, taken our payment in checkout lines, and delivered food to our homes.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Black Americans make up 12.3 percent of the nation’s workers, but are overwhelmingly represented in animal slaughtering and processing (22 percent), trucking (19 percent), wholesale grocery (14 percent), and food service (13 percent). Latinx workers comprise around 18 percent of the labor force, but make up a similarly outsized percentages of laborers in crop production (28 percent), animal slaughtering and processing (35 percent), and food service (27 percent).

Exacerbated by diet-related comorbidities, the Black and brown people on the frontlines of the pandemic are also among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. As of today, nearly 24,000 food workers have tested positive for the virus and at least 85 have died.

The people who risk their lives to feed us deserve better. But as the world starts to slowly open up and regain its footing, how do we keep these folks centered in our consciousness?

Recognizing our shared humanity is the first step, says Brown University psychologist Oriel FeldmanHall. Although empathy is not singularly defined, “at its core,” she says, “the empathic experience is sharing in somebody else’s pain — and feeling for them.”

As the world starts to slowly open up and regain its footing, how do we keep the people who risk their lives to feed centered in our consciousness?

This connection is what Niaz Dorry, coordinating director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition, describes as a “silver lining” to this difficult time. “Not to diminish that pain and the grief we are experiencing,” she says, but there is hope “in reestablishing the connection to the physical hands that put food on our tables.”

While it is much easier to have empathy for those with whom we directly engage, we have to allow ourselves to feel the grief, frustration, and cares of the entire chain of people who make our lives possible. It’s not easy, but in this moment, it is essential.

Civil Eats reached out to a handful of the country’s most committed food advocates to learn how to deepen our empathy for the people behind our food.

Recognize Each Story is Singular

Building empathy, FeldmanHall says, starts with getting a better sense of how many people, across a number of industries, get food to our tables. “When I go get, say, Brussels sprouts at the grocery store and bacon to fry up with them, how many people were involved in that process of getting those items to me? I don’t even know what the layers are — how many people it takes and in various different industries — nor do I know what their stories and hardships are. Without the knowledge, there’s nothing to talk about.”

We need to understand who they are, not as “farmhands” or “factory workers,” but individuals. Those who share our history, carry hope and joy, and dream of a better world — the same way we do. “It seems like a no-brainer, but there needs to be tangibility,” FeldmanHall explains. “You can’t empathize with somebody unless there’s something to empathize with.” This connection can be forged by prioritizing direct contact with producers through farmers’ markets or CSAs.

“Some people don’t want to see those faces because it makes them think twice about their [food] decisions. Well, this is the time to rethink our connections.”

Dorry agrees. “We need to recognize each other. We need to see the faces of the humans, or the animals, who make our food possible,” she says. “Some people don’t want to see those faces because it makes them want to think twice about their [food] decisions. Well, you know what? This is the time to rethink our connections.”

Obscuring these relationships, says Anuradha Mittal — the executive director of Oakland Institute, a think tank focused on land rights and sustainable food systems — is deliberate. “The industrial agriculture/food system has been wonderful at creating what Wendell Berry calls a ‘one-night-stand’ relationship with food,” she says, noting this is a strategy that has been crafted and implemented by the monopolies that control our food supply. “This invisible virus is a wakeup call to start doing things differently.” Our expansion of empathy, she stresses, can’t be intellectual, “it has to be transformational and push us to reclaim our food system.”

Transformational and also enduring, Dorry says. “We can’t be doing this solely as a response to crisis. We need to harness our powers as eaters and put our muscle into creating something new.” What this looks like on the ground, she explains, is “a growing number of food providers building relationships directly with people in their communities.”