Editor’s Desk – Spotlight on Covid-19 and rural America

The show, “The Patriot Act” with Hasan Minhaj, featured FERN’s map of Covid-19 in the food system.

In FERN’s expanding coverage of Covid-19, we’re looking at the way the disease is spreading through, and affecting, rural America. Last week Leah Douglas, in collaboration with the rural news site Daily Yonder, overlaid county infection data with meatpacking plant hotspots. The takeaway: Rural counties with meatpacking plants where workers have tested positive for Covid-19 had infection rates that were five times higher on average than other rural counties.

In the extensive analysis, Leah and Tim Marema, editor of Daily Yonder, also found that 10 of the 14 rural counties with the most Covid-19 cases were home to meat-processing plants where infections had broken out. In many instances, the rates of infection in those counties exceeded those in major urban areas like New York City.

Our reporting on these rural outbreaks has been widely recognized; in fact, we made our first cameo on Netflix this past weekend in the political satire show “The Patriot Act” with Hasan Minhaj. A segment on the spread of Covid-19 that dropped May 31 featured a version of the map Leah has been diligently updating every weekday with plant infection data as well as a second chart of the growth over time of infections in food workers.

We also reported on the way rural Americans are turning back to their independent grocery stores, eschewing larger chain stores that tend to be further away from their communities and which may have higher risk for the virus. Stephanie Parker reported that one grocer in North Dakota, Michigan Hometown Foods, is taking orders via text and Facebook from local residents and offering credit for payment.

In another recent story, we dove into the way asylum seekers camped at the border of Texas and Mexico are getting food. Barry Yeoman interviewed a volunteer who told of the intricate details to deliver food — but avoid infection — in the encampment in Matamoros, Mexico.

We’ve kept the paywall open on FERN’s Ag Insider where we’re publishing a steady stream of daily news stories related to Covid-19. But just because we’re not charging for our work, doesn’t make it any less costly to produce. We know times are uncertain, and we’re grappling with deep societal issues of race and inequity. We continue to explore those very issues within the food system, in the midst of the pandemic. Any help you can provide will support our coverage at this critical time.