PART 2: From farm to someone else’s table: People who work along Missouri’s food chain are food insecure, too

On an otherwise open stretch of U.S. 54, just south of Jefferson City, sits a boxcar-size gas station that quit serving gas in 1999. Only the skeleton remains: concrete slab, red beams, white signs and a boxy metal canopy that hangs over the space like a thickly furrowed brow.

Until last year, it sat vacant. These days, it’s still a place where people come to fill up empty things, but instead of tanks, it’s stomachs, and with a different kind of fuel: ice cream.

After haggling with the owner for a good four years, Greg and Taris Tellman upcycled the station into “Ice Cream 4 Ice Cream,” an asphalt oasis that sells sweet noms and hosts get-togethers including car shows and movie nights. They wanted to provide locals and travelers a gathering spot reminiscent of bars, churches and ballgames, but without the dividing lines that sometimes accompany them. Greg Tellman calls the shop “undenominational.”

“People of all ethnicities, all religions, they meet here. This is our goal. This is why I wanted to be out here,” he said. “I wanted to create an unbiased meeting place for my community.”

The former gas station looks quite different than it once did, but Greg Tellman, 53, and Taris Tellman, 47, haven’t yet had their own “before” and “after.” This winter was “rough as hell,” she said. When business was slow, they could barely keep the lights on. There were times when they didn’t have their own food to eat.

The road has been, for many years now, long and hard. Just over 20 years ago, the Tellmans were living expectantly — {/span}Taris, with their second child, and Greg, with the $80,000 worth of construction jobs he’d lined up as a self-employed businessman. But before the baby and the work came, Greg Tellman was working on a building project when a slab of rock, big as a table, fell on his back.

The injury broke his construction business and the paychecks that came from it. The house went next, and in its place, years of paperwork: filing for bankruptcy; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, enrollment; the county health program; and, later, the free- and reduced-lunch for their kids. Things like health insurance, which Greg Tellman calls a “luxury,” fell by the wayside. Goodwill and yard sales became their shopping malls. The food pantry became their grocer.

“It’s been hand to mouth, worse than paycheck to paycheck,” Greg Tellman said. “It’s whatever you can do to survive.”

A family’s ability to keep nutrient-packed food in the fridge month to month is easily compromised when margins (of time, money, community, etc.) are thin. Across Missouri and the country, that lack of margin is so common among people who work in low-wage jobs that even those employed along the food chain — those who pick, pack, cook and serve food for other people — sometimes struggle to keep enough on their own tables.

In 2016, the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a national coalition of organizations that represent and advocate for people who work with food, published a report detailing the low wages and hard working conditions of people employed along the food chain.

Its analysis found that food workers are more likely to be food insecure, or unable to consistently access nutritious food, than employees in other sectors. Specifically, it noted that in 2016, 13% of U.S. food workers received SNAP benefits, more than twice the rate of other industries.

“One thing that I think has happened with the local food movement … is that it places a lot of emphasis on health, the environment and sometimes animal rights, humane treatment of animals, things like that, flavor, freshness, all the things a lot of people really like about food. But it leaves out the workers,” said Bill McKelvey, project coordinator for MU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security.

“It’s one of these lingering issues that has been around for a very long time that doesn’t really get a lot of attention,” he said. “Those workers are humans, and yet, for whatever reason, their story and their plight is not really elevated to the same degree that some of these other attributes are.”

Local, up-to-date data is difficult to find. This is partly because each food pantry operates differently. Pantries that distribute food from USDA programs are required to collect self-reported information about income, but not where it comes from (a job, federal benefits for people with disabilities, etc.).

When it comes to distributing other foods, pantries differ in what they require from and ask people. To understand the local need, some pantries ask about whether a person is unemployed or employed part-time, full-time, or seasonally — answering is optional. Some ask for Social Security numbers.

Still, others, like the Good Neighbor Pantry in Sikeston, keep things even simpler; Casey Guzman, who manages the pantry, asks people to bring in an ID and a piece of mail, so she can prove that they live in the county. If they don’t have the proof of residency, they’ll still receive food.

Still, there are snapshots and there are anecdotes. In 2014, Feeding America, a nationwide charitable food network, prepared localized reports for each food bank that operates in Missouri about the people they serve, although some of the food banks serve neighboring states and the reports don’t differentiate between their numbers and Missouri’s.

Across the six food banks, in around 40% to 60% of homes that received food from their pantries, the person in that home most likely to have a job had one in the past year. In homes where that person wasn’t working or looking for a job, a majority were elderly, disabled, sick or acting as a caretaker for someone else.

Job-specific data does exist when it comes to public assistance. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a D.C.-based, nonpartisan research and policy institute, published a paper in 2017 analyzing common jobs held by people who live in homes that received SNAP benefits in the last year.

The report found that, across the country, a disproportionately high number of these people work in retail, including grocery workers, and in hospitality, the majority of whom are restaurant and food service workers.

Furthermore, compared to other industries, restaurants and other food services employ the largest number of workers — close to 1.8 million, or about 12% — who live in homes that participated in SNAP in the last year. The report notes that jobs like these typically offer low pay, inconsistent schedules and fewer benefits like health insurance or paid sick leave.

According to the center’s state-level profile for Missouri, about 1 in 3 people who have a job and live in a home that received SNAP benefits in the last year work in the service industry. This includes roles like home health aides, correctional officers and housekeepers.

However, a plurality of service workers, over 31,000 Missourians, work specifically in the food preparation and service industry and live in homes that participated in SNAP in the last year. That’s over 1,000 more than MU’s entire student body in fall 2018 who live in homes that need food assistance yet work in roles that feed others: cooks, waiters and waitresses, fast food workers, dishwashers and more.

Many Missourians in these jobs don’t make a living wage — one that’s high enough to maintain a typical standard of living: $11.14 per hour for a single adult, according to MIT’s living wage calculator.

For example, the mean wage for people who both prepare and serve food, including fast food, in Missouri is $10.15 per hour and just over $21,000 per year, according to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The mean wages for waiters and waitresses in Missouri are slightly higher — $10.30 an hour and close to $21,400 per year.

But the food chain begins long before these employees come along, in the fields of rural Missouri.

Near Lexington, a small community east of Kansas City, immigration attorney Suzanne Gladney works with migrant farm workers who pick apples and peaches from local orchards. They’re highly skilled — many come from families that have done this work for generations. According to Gladney, their long, hot days of treetop picking require dexterity and strength.

“These folks are up and down a ladder many times an hour with 100 pounds on their shoulders. It’s extremely dangerous,” Gladney said.

Many emigrated from Mexico, and their access to healthy food, education, health care and legal representation is her concern. She’s the founder and executive director of the Migrant Farmworkers Assistance Fund, a nonprofit that provides that access.

Getting good and healthy food can be a big problem. The work is rural — in small communities without grocery stores — and many farm workers don’t own a car. Some don’t speak or read English, some don’t read or write well in Spanish, and the labor camps where they sleep don’t receive mail.

These factors compound to make navigating the application process for federal programs like the supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children nearly impossible. That’s where Gladney and her organization come in. They help register people for food assistance and hold weekly, or monthly, depending on the season, food distributions to help the workers keep food on the table.

This need is what Gladney calls the “great irony” of migrants.

“Without food distribution of some sort, they’re picking food for people but they can’t live on apples alone, and the apples aren’t theirs to eat anyway,” she said.

To the northeast, and further along the food chain, Axel Fuentes works with people employed in processing plants. He’s the executive director of the Rural Community Workers Alliance, a local nonprofit that equips immigrants and refugees to address their needs at work and home.

For some of the food chain employees he’s met, food insecurity is one consequence of a larger problem.

It’s not always those actively working who experience it. The pay for line workers in meat processing plants tends to be better than, say, on large-scale farms where people raise animals for slaughter, Fuentes said. Some plants still pay “really low wages.” It can be especially hard for employees with more mouths to feed at home.

But it’s the site conditions that make keeping the jobs hard, putting these workers at risk for food insecurity. For many, the repercussions can be long lasting.

For more than 10 years, Fuentes has listened to stories about grim working conditions in meat processing plants: conveyor belts zipping by at ever-increasing speeds; hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder injuries from trying to keep up with them; mutilated fingers; a punitive system that tallies strikes against people who miss work, even if they’re sick; skipped doses of medicine; and urinary tract infections from few if any bathroom breaks. For contracted members of the plant’s cleaning crew, their work invites acid burns and inhaled fumes. The environment leaves little room for error.

“A lot of these companies are actually located in isolated places — in rural communities where they pretty much are the biggest employers,” he said.

So if a lineworker loses his or her job, it can be tough to find another one in town. If that lineworker is injured, it’s even harder.

“Obviously, they’re going to be struggling,” Fuentes said. “It is hard for a former worker to provide or to have money to buy food.”

Ask others who work in food organizations across Missouri, and they’ll share similar stories of work and toil. Guzman, the manager of the pantry in Sikeston, knows three school cooks who regularly pick up boxes of food. Barb Mannering, who manages the Cargill Cares Food Pantry in California, Missouri, said fast food workers are a common recipient of her pantry’s stock.

And then, there’s the Tellmans.

They’ve converted the pump stations into picnic tables at Ice Cream 4 Ice Cream. A tub of Crayola chalk sits nearby; it’s used often, both in doodles on cracked concrete and the “Where are you from?” wall. There’s something vital and giddy about the place, from the tire marks left by travelers’ abrupt turns to flavors with words like jamocha, burgundy and brickle.

Greg Tellman calls selling ice cream “stupid simple.” The shop fulfills many visions for him: It provides his family an income (ice cream is “recession-proof”), his back a respite and his community a watering hole. More than anything, it’s a small, methodical path toward doing something he calls “real.” For him, that looks like helping his family — and the people around him — no longer need a safety net.

Twice now, they’ve held a food drive to give back to the local food bank. This past winter, even when they needed a few meals themselves, they parked a life-size Santa sleigh out front and asked people to fill it with coats and cans for Christmas. Admittedly, the turnout wasn’t great, but Tellman had other ideas.

To create these opportunities, they harness the power of the parking lot. On any given weekend, it might hold food trucks, entrepreneurs, cars for sale or for a show. They’ve started to host semiregular “community sales” — like yard sales, but with a crowd of vendors peddling their hand-me-downs and artisanal crafts. They even let a man park cars for sale along the edge closest to the highway. The hope is that, maybe, just maybe, these people can use the space, earn a little money and not need to go to the food pantry that month.

“I feel like we have a platform here to enable people to put a little extra money in their pocket,” Tellman said. “We’ve got a good location, and it’s positive — it’s fun.”

In the end — or perhaps the beginning — food is both the question and the answer. Tellman’s been mentoring a young man who wanted to start his own food truck business.

So, they made a deal.

If the young man took care of the truck, Tellman would lend him a slice of the lot. Over the course of a few weeks, the young man parked his truck by their shop and passersby dined on smoky pulled pork along with their ice cream.

As for Tellman, he said he still doesn’t feel “100% secure.” But the plan is stupid simple: They’ll continue to ride out the long days and cold, dark winters. In the meantime, they’ll be filling up cones, coffers, stomachs and sleighs, and when they climb out of the emergency food system, they won’t be alone.

“I’m not crawling out of that system unless I bring a bunch of people out of that system with me.”