Maddie Oatman

Senior Research Editor

Maddie is the senior research editor at Mother Jones, based in the San Francisco office. She writes and edits stories about food, health, the environment, and culture, and is the co-host of MoJo's food politics podcast Bite. Her work has also appeared in Grist, Huffington Post, Outside, the Rumpus, and the Best American Science and Nature Writing. You can reach her at 

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Deborah Feingold

"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.

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.

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:

Courtesy Food Chain Workers AllianceSource: "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.

Courtesy of Crown Publishing Group

Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats

By Kristen Iversen


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.

This review originally appeared in our July/August issue of Mother Jones. 

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