Maddie writes and edits stories about food, health, the environment, and culture. She oversees Mother Jones' research department and manages its Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program. Email tips to moatman [at] motherjones [dot] com.
"I love my big sister so much. She's also the most nerve-wracking bitch on the planet." The writer and poet Mary Karr—known for her bestselling memoir, The Liar's Club—gazes out at the audience without so much as blinking as she flays her relatives live onstage at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse.
Most of her revelations will be like this one—at the same time caring and raw, usually darkly funny. She shares the stage with Grammy-winning country singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, her cowriter on the new album Kin, which also features music heavyweights Lucinda Williams, Lee Ann Womack, Norah Jones, and Rosanne Cash, Crowell's ex-wife.
Crowell teamed up with Karr after reading The Liar's Club and name-checking her in his 2003 song, "Earthbound." "We realized there was a little thread," Karr explained of the collaboration."Songs that mostly involve the people you wanna drag behind your car—your family."
Both artists had written previously about their upbringings; Crowell reflects on his alcoholic dad and zealously religious mother both in his songs and in a memoir titled Chinaberry Sidewalks. Karr wrote about her psychotic mother and her family's troubles with liquor in her acclaimed books, which also include Cherry and Lit. Stringing together their bony memories, the pair created songs that are tender, bluesy, and full of phrases and fragments from East Texas, where both were raised.
Update (9/13/12): The New York City Board of Health approved Bloomberg's ban on the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in places like restaurants and movie theaters. The measure will take effect in six months.
Talking pop is all the rage right now. Scarcely a day goes by without mention of the state of tyranny that will arise if New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg succeeds in restricting the size of sodas sold in some venues in the city (the New York Board of Health gave preliminary approval to the measure on Tuesday). The latest New Yorker cover portrays a couple cowering over a massive cup of a sweetened drink, trying to shelter it from the view of a passing authority. Catalyzed by the sneers of Jon Stewart and polling that suggests a majority of Americans would rather make their own call on soda portions, the hip response to all this seems to be weighted towards "keep the government outta my Coke" libertarianism.
Americans love to talk about food—how asparagus is best prepared, which preservatives to avoid, which types of fish are in peril, where to find the best tacos or most delectable peach pies. Most of us spend far less time contemplating the people that pick, slaughter, sort, process, and deliver the products of this 1.8 trillion dollar industry—a group of workers that makes up one-sixth of the country's workforce.
Lowest Paying Jobs and Median Wages
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011 1. Combined Food Prep and Serving: $18,230 2. Fast Food Cooks: $18,300 3. Dishwashers: $18,360 4. Dining Room/Cafeteria Attendants and Bartender Helpers: $18,420 5. Shampooers: $18,420 6. Gaming Dealers: $18,460 7. Counter Attendants (Cafeteria, Food Concession, and Coffee Shop): $18,510 8. Hosts and Hostesses: $18,560 9. Waiters and Waitresses: $18,570
10. Ushers, Lobby Attendents, and Ticket Takers: $18,610
Unfortunately, the majority of these workers take home crummy wages and few benefits, according to a new report from the Food Chain Workers Alliance. Perhaps most strikingly, among workers surveyed by the FCWA, only 13.5 percent made a liveable wage (an amount FCWA defines as higher than 150 percent of the regional poverty level). And not a single agricultural worker of around the 90 surveyed said they earned enough to live on.
The Food Chain Workers Alliance survey results echo sobering realities about jobs across what the FCWA calls "the food chain": a vast network of laborers in the production, processing, and distribution of food. In 2011, the lowest-paying jobs nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, were combined food preparers and servers and fast food cooks; restaurant servers and hosts, farmworkers, baristas, and food preparers didn't trail far behind (and all made it in the bottom twenty).
"Jobs in the food system aren't seen as high skilled," says Joann Lo, Executive Director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. "It's hard work; you need to know the right way to cut a chicken in a poultry plant. But the general perception is that they are low skilled and don't deserve good wages." Overall, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, food workers earn less than workers in other industries:
Source: "The Hands That Feed Us," Food Chain Workers Alliance
As the report points out, fair market Rent (PDF) for a two bedroom place (think: small family) is $949 a month. An employee would need to make $18.25 an hour to afford it; instead, the median wage in the industry is $9.28 for high school grads, and only slightly more for those with some college under their belts.
Sometimes these low wages had to do with employees being paid piece rate rather than hourly, making earnings more dependent on a worker's physical health and on supply fluctuations. In her intimate account of the working conditions of some food workers across the food chain, The American Way of Eating, journalist Tracie McMillan went undercover at a garlic farm to do piece-rate work. She writes of her coworker:
Even though Rosalinda's tarjeta will show that she came in at 5:30 a.m. and left at 2:30 p.m., a nine-hour day, her check will say she was there for two hours—exactly the number of hours she would have had to work at minimum wage ($8) to earn what she made via piece rate ($16). Later, I ask advocates if this is unusual, and everyone shrugs: Not every contractor does it, but they see it regularly. Earning minimum wage at our piece rate would require a speed that seems impossible: five buckets an hour. (In my month in garlic, I do not meet anyone who can average that for an entire day.)
Aside from crappy pay, most food workers surveyed by the Alliance have few or any benefits such as health care and paid sick days. More than three quarters reported having no access to health coverage through work, and over half had no health care at all. A glaring 79 percent either had no paid sick time at their jobs or did not know if they had this benefit.
Kristen Iversen was raised near the Rocky Flats facility in Colorado, at a time when few workers at the plutonium trigger plant knew exactly what it produced. Eventually, reports of groundwater contamination, missing plutonium (3,000 pounds!), radioactive rabbits, and cancer fears drew protesters—including Allen Ginsberg—to the gates. But it wasn't until Iversen, by then a broke mom, took a job at the plant that she learned what was up. Her memoir is a deft rebellion against the silences, public and intimate, that have proven disastrous for her community.
Ahhh, May. Time to don your sunnies, dig out the sandals, and head for the nearest beach or park for about the next four months. By now, you've probably been lectured enough about the perils of sunburn and skin cancer to bring a tube of sunscreen along, too. But while the stuff is important for staying safe from harmful UV rays, there are still enough confusing labels, dangerous ingredients, and misleading SPF designations in so many common products that you may want to opt for a day under the nearest tree instead. Or pay very close attention to exactly what's in your sunscreen, and how often you'll want to reapply. So says the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which today released its 2012 Sunscreen Guide.
The guide comes less than a week after the FDA pushed back the compliancy requirement for a news set of guidelines (33 years in the making) meant to urge manufacturers to more clearly label their products and toss out misleading terms like "sweatproof" and "sunblock." But even the now-delayed FDA guidelines, says EWG, fall short in some important ways.
For starters, the FDA's new guidelines fail to address the risk of trusting a sunscreen with an SPF higher than 50. For sunscreens that boast SPF 100, for instance, "there's no evidence they provide additional health benefits," says David Andrews, a spokesperson for EWG. The higher value "lends to a sense of invincibility, so that people spend more time in the sun longer," Andrews argues.