Editor’s Desk — ‘Children of Smithfield’

Whenever FERN does a radio story, I always think we should do more of them. Our latest, a multimedia production with Latino USA, is a powerful portrait of “The Children of Smithfield” — daughters and sons of workers at the Smithfield meatpacking plant in Crete, Nebraska, who turned their outrage over the lack of protection against Covid-19 at the plant into a sustained public protest.

The voices and video captured by reporters Esther Honig and Mary Anne Andrei convey, with an intimacy and an immediacy that even the best print reporting can’t quite match, the rising fear and anger as the virus spreads and Smithfield fiddles.

When news broke of a huge outbreak at another Smithfield plant, in South Dakota, Maira Mendez, a leader of the group, read a BBC story about it that said officials at the plant — which at the time had more than 600 infected employees — offered a $500 “responsibility bonus” to workers if they showed up for all their shifts and gave them the same “beard nets” in lieu of protective face masks that officials at the Crete plant had given Mendez’s father.

Mendez says: “When I read this article, I felt like I was reading a story that I could have written myself.”

Esther and Mary Anne also convey the powerlessness these workers feel. As cases were rising at the Crete plant, Mendez posted the BBC article to Facebook, along with a comment: “Something needs to be done soon about all these meatpacking facilities.”

Her mom soon texted, asking her to take down the post. She was worried that company officials would retaliate against her father, who had been at the plant for 18 years.

But through that post, Mendez started hearing from other kids who had the same fears, the same anger. Together they became The Children of Smithfield, took their protest to the streets, and spurred the company to act.

It’s worth noting how Esther and Mary Anne reported this story during the pandemic. Unlike with a print piece, they needed to get close enough to their sources for high-quality audio and video. For example, when they interviewed Mendez, Mary Anne, who lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, not far from Crete, wrangled a seldom-used room with good acoustics at a community center that had been closed since March. Then, as Mary Anne explains:

“Before Maira arrived, I set up her chair and mic in one corner of the room, my laptop on a table nearby where Esther [who was in Colorado] would join us via Zoom, and my own chair at six feet away. I cleaned everything with Clorox wipes several times before Maira arrived. We both greeted each other with masks on. Once we were situated, Maira removed her mask, and Esther and I were able to interview her together. So much focus on logistics isn’t ideal for an interview, but then again, it’s exactly what we were talking about: what is adequate PPE, how much caution is enough? It brought the subject of our interview into the room.”

This story, including the version that aired yesterday on NPR’s All Things Considered, is part of our ongoing coverage of how the virus is affecting “essential” workers at processing plants and throughout the food system—coverage that is being read by people who have the power to address these problems. Just last week, Sen. Cory Booker cited the work of FERN’s Leah Douglas, who has been mapping outbreaks at food processing facilities since April.

We’re proud of this coverage, and you should be too. We couldn’t do it without you. We would be deeply grateful if you considered making a tax-deductible contribution to FERN to support our work.