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In the Shadows of the Slaughterhouse
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In the Shadows of the Slaughterhouse

Many immigrants are being drawn to small Midwestern towns by jobs at meatpacking plants that have relocated from big cities. The newcomers have become integral to the country’s food chain, yet invisible to most Americans.

Harvest Public Media reporters Abbie Fentress Swanson and Peggy Lowe explored the changes in two rural communities: Noel, Mo., and Garden City, Kan. Their stories show the challenges that immigrant families face – hunger, lack of affordable housing and below-par educational services. But they also reveal hope – the children of slaughterhouse workers are imagining a bright future, and many long-time residents are lending help.

The series was widely broadcast by local radio stations and national NPR shows, including All Things Considered and Latino USA.

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Abbie’s Story Behind the Story

My “Immigration in the Heartland” project is a multimedia series called “In the Shadows of the Slaughterhouse.” I filed these stories with my Harvest Public Media colleague and co-IJJ fellow, Peggy Lowe.

The highlights of our series are three 5:30 radio features with accompanying web text that are focused on immigrant children of meatpacking workers living in Noel, Mo., and Garden City, Kan. Also included in the series are: an interactive digital map showing that the largest meatpacking plants in the US are in rural areas, a group of portraits of immigrant children sharing their dreams for life beyond the slaughterhouse, and an audio slideshow revealing how the town of Noel has changed because of a changing Tyson workforce.

At an elementary school in Noel, Mo. Photo by Abbie Swanson.

My part of the series was set in the tiny remote town of Noel, population 1,832, which is thriving because of a Tyson Foods poultry plant. Most of the 1,600 workers at the Noel complex are immigrants and refugees from the Pacific Islands, Central America and Africa. The small, rural nature of this town was both a blessing and a curse while I was reporting the story. Noel was a good place to cover because it gets little media attention.

Yet poverty looms large in this town. Between 80 and 90 percent of the school children get free and reduced school meals. But since Tyson offers decent wages for rural Missouri that start at $9.05 an hour, and the company donates tens of thousands of dollars to area schools and food banks, Noel is, in many ways, a company town. That made lining up people to speak candidly about Tyson’s role in the community difficult.

After I requested a plant tour, Tyson contacted all the principals in Noel’s schools to let them know the nature of my story and that I would be coming. Some of the administrators I spoke to agreed to talk to me only because Tyson had sanctioned my visit. I was unsure how to reach plant workers and their families since Noel is too small to have a community center or refugee resettlement office that might help connect me with people to talk to. Churches declined to help because of past immigration raids.

I ended up finding plant workers, their children, local business owners and residents to interview by spending four days on the ground in Noel — in laundromats, restaurants, markets and on soccer fields. Ultimately the challenges I came up against while reporting this story really informed our series. We learned that small, rural towns where meatpacking plants are based don’t always have the services needed for new populations of immigrants and refugees and their children.

So far, the reactions to our series have been mixed. While Tyson did not seem phased by any of our stories, one Noel school administrator was concerned that I didn’t accurately represent the huge amount of work each of the school’s teachers are doing to support immigrant students. Another principal sent an email saying, “Thank you for taking your time and for sharing the stories of our young people.”

Several long-time Noel residents wrote and called to say they didn’t understand why the Somali community felt unwelcome in town. “I even make biscuits and gravy without pork for them at Thanksgiving,” said the owner of Kathy’s Kountry Kitchen, a diner where Somalis had told me they felt unwelcome. (Inside this diner, servers wear t-shirts saying “I got caught eating at the KKK.”) Another resident said, “I have watched as Noel has changed over the years and I must say that it has been a challenge. I will tell you that Tyson Foods has not been as willing to support the area as they may let on.”

I’m curious to learn what the other reactions to our series will be. Will the in-depth look at Noel children move social service providers to do more work in this town? Will Tyson donate more money to the Noel schools that are building a safety net for children of plant workers? Will the “KKK” t-shirts inside Kathy’s Kountry Kitchen continue to be sold? Will anyone start tracking this largely invisible population of immigrant and refugee children of meatpacking workers across rural America?

Since our beat at Harvest Public Media is very focused on agriculture and food production, I’m not sure we ever would have turned to reporting on immigrant children of slaughterhouse workers had we not been accepted as IJJ fellows. I’m so glad IJJ gave us the opportunity to do this series, and that my editors Donna Vestal at Harvest Public Media and Janet Saidi at KBIA Radio whole-heartedly supported the project and provided invaluable shaping of our stories.

The IJJ conference also provided great background on the issues we touched on. I found Martha Mendoza, Dan Kowalski and Phuong Ly to be particularly good resources throughout the reporting process. The IJJ Facebook group also kept me up to date on the twists and turns of our immigration policies.

Peggy’s Story Behind the Story

Our IJJ fellowship reporting was a mix of data, discovery and checking in on the dreams of some of the newest Americans.

When Abbie Fentress Swanson, my Harvest Public Media colleague and another “Immigration in the Heartland” Fellow, began our reporting we knew we were focusing on a frontier, figuratively and literally. There’s just not much reporting on immigrants in rural America, especially where we trekked out on the deserted plains of southwest Kansas or the tiny towns of Missouri’s Ozark Mountains.

As we further focused on the children of those immigrants and refugees who work in the Midwest’s meatpacking industry, we honestly didn’t know what to expect. Who are they? Why are they here? Are the kids alright?

We both took our respective trips – I drove six hours southwest from my home in Kansas City to Garden City, Kan., where the dusty, flat prairie is home to many cattle feedlots and, of course, the food factories needed to turn the animals into beef. I figured that Garden City might be a reflection of that geography – a conservative cowtown, uncompromising in its Old West past.

I was surprised when I found a town that had embraced its new citizens when they first began arriving more than 30 years ago, so proud of their cultural crossroads their city’s logo reflected it with a multi-colored yucca plant and a motto “The World Grows Here.” My on-the-ground reporting revealed a model (rarely replicated) of how Midwestern meatpacking towns should respond to the immigrant influx.

I was glad for the first-person knowledge gleaned over four days spent in Garden City. But when I returned home and began to seek the background of statistics for our stories, we came up short. Because when we started looking for national numbers on the kids we were profiling for our series, there were none.

Abbie and I tried at least two dozen sources, hoping to find some kind of statistical tracking of the children of immigrant workers in the U.S. meatpacking plants. I contacted all my sources and Abbie made dozens of calls — to federal agencies, researchers, advocacy groups and unions — only to be told at each turn that those kids aren’t counted.

“That was really surprising to me both because of the sheer number of these children — we’re estimating that thousands of kids have parents working in meatpacking plants across the country — and because these immigrant and refugee children are living in remote, rural parts of the country where access to services is limited,” Abbie said.

So that became part of our story – we were reporting on a diverse population invisible to most Americans. And that lead to our series title: “In the Shadows of the Slaughterhouse.”

The IJJ fellowship conference helped us shape this story, too, especially the information offered by investigative reporters Martha Mendoza and Dianne Solis. We would not have known the many sources for data – or for us, the many places these kids are not tracked – had we not have been offered their expertise. I also liked learning about the trends in immigration reporting, as we tried to find unique stories not yet told.

As for other journalists doing this work, I would suggest really embedding yourself for as long as possible in the community you are profiling. Talk to advocates, school districts, city leaders. Go where people congregate – for me, that was a Vietnamese restaurant in Garden City, a meeting of school district officials at the local high school, and a “newcomers” class at the elementary school. That kind of reporting was invaluable for us.

Response from listeners and readers has been positive, with many offering similarities to “The Jungle,” as it portrayed the immigrant workers in the then-urban slaughterhouses. One reader told us: “I’m especially happy about the focus on the children as well as the differences among the workers — not all are Hispanic, there’s resentment towards newcomers, and the overall toll packinghouse toil takes on workers.”

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