As most of the country bunkered down indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, the USA Today Network sought to highlight people on the front line of America in a series called America’s Food Chain. The series offers readers an intimate look into the work and lives of food workers, such as restaurant owners and farmers.
More than 40 journalists from more than 10 newsrooms across the Network contributed to the series, led by USA Today consumer editor Michelle Maltais and Des Moines Register politics editor Rachel E. Stassen-Berger.
In April, Maltais was utilizing Instacart, a grocery delivery and pick-up service, when it occurred to her that the people on the other end was putting their health at risk for her family to support their own families. This sparked the conversation that led to the series. There is no set publication schedule, but readers should expect a steady flow of stories, Maltais said.
The first story of the series—detailing the story of a man who worked at Smithfield Foods, a meatpacking plant in South Dakota—was published in early May.
Maltais and Stassen-Berger explained that they have worked with others in the Network, including the participating reporters, to find stories. They are open to any story that showcases a worker that helps get food on the table, but they are striving to report diverse stories found in the food industry.
The series also presents the underlining theme of the American Dream. For example, one story highlights the struggles of Brenda Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant who opened her own restaurant after years of hard work.
When asked if this was intentional, Maltais said it was. “Frankly, if you’re telling the story of this country that is part of the story that you should tell—the American Dream and problems with our society.”
When E&P spoke to the lead reporters, the series had just launched, but even in those early days, the positive feedback was pouring in.
Stassen-Berger said, “Here at the Des Moines Register, when we ran the Smithfield worker story in print, we got a call from a reader who said, ‘How can I send him money? I want to help him.’ So, I think that this is impacting people and proving that this kind of intimate journalism is worth it.”
For now, the series will be ongoing, but both the team of journalists and readers have embraced it because it has connected people through stories.
“As we are isolating at home, you may feel disconnected with your fellow citizens and this really connects people. That’s one of the reasons that we liked the title, America Food Chain, because it really does show the link between people to make this whole society work, especially at a time when a pandemic is making it seem like it’s not working anymore,” Stassen-Berger said.