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My Month in an Organic Frozen Food Factory

The Perception of Benefits. The Monotony of Rules.

This is not a piece of journalism. I got a job at Amy’s Kitchen because I needed to pay rent, and to buy wine. Well, I don’t need to buy wine, but usually while I’m working at a job that I need to pay rent, I need wine. This job was no exception.

I think what I mean to say by this is that there are thoughts in here that have more to do with the feeling of being trapped than would be traditional to a piece of journalism, wherein the journalist knows they are simply a tourist and observing.

The fact that I went in just like everyone else, deaf dumb, humbled enough to do mindless repetitive tasks all day… I didn’t go into the job with the idea it’d become a piece of writing. I read an article years ago that was about how terrible it was to work in an Amazon warehouse, I assumed that the writer of that piece chose Amazon specifically, and I always assumed that any of us who read that piece already knew the work was going to be terrible. We read the story to have our assumptions confirmed. I can’t say that I ever really put much thought into the process of frozen food manufacturing. You assume it wouldn’t be a great job, but food is different than Amazon. Food is necessary. Though, of course, most of the ways we consume it aren’t.

I’ve spent most of my adult life supporting myself in the restaurant industry. Some jobs have been better than others. They’ve had better fringe benefits. The after shift beers flowed more freely, or the waitresses were more cute. In one restaurant I actually learned a lot, and the head chef was a gentle contemplative man who ran a good and curious kitchen. Though his English was not perfect, and he was embarrassed by this, so he didn’t say that much. This often made for a strangely charged atmosphere in the afternoons, where people hardly spoke, and the air had an electric ripple of expectation for nothing.

Nothing crazy has ever happened to me in a kitchen, though it seems like it should have. People basically did their jobs without too much hassle (honestly, given the virtual slavery of the business, this continues to surprise me). It may also have something to do with me since I’ve never been a good trash talker. Never had my Down and Out in Paris and London spat with a cook colleague where we curse at each other for the whole shift.

I might even say that this is the worst part of working in a corporatized food plant; there’s no way you’d get in an argument. No way to exchange feeling. You are, ultimately, infantilized. There are lots of rules, which to the adult rational mind, seem often arbitrary. Perhaps good guidelines, but the nice thing about guidelines is they leave sway for common sense. Play, a little levity with the rules that guide us. Our society the rich and the poor. Whom is cooking for whom.

Driving into the plant’s parking lot is the first indicator that we, the employees, are the in-glorious class. Beat up coupes, sedans from the ‘90s sit in untidy rows. More claustrophobic than your average grocery store parking lot, it is distinct in the uniformity of cracked windshields and old pickups. Though here and there you’ll see a Mercedes, older 2008 maybe, or you’ll see a Mustang. A brand new pickup. But this isn’t that much different from the cars parked in the average trailer park; U.S. citizens still have money tucked away somewhere.

To clock in for work they have an electric scanner with a camera which shoots a quick photo. These are placed at the relative height of what must be the average stature of Amy’s workers (35–45% hispanic women? don’t quote me on that). Often the photos would end up being of my chest or shoulder. Sometimes I notice people specifically trying to get their face in the camera’s window. If someone had made it clear to me that this was an absolute requirement of my job, to get a face shot eight times a day as I clocked in and out for breaks and lunch, I think I’d begin sending anonymous postcards to big brother watchgroups.

So here we are, already we’re at the first function of corporate policy which makes me scratch my head. Is the point of the photo taking to protect them, if, say: some family member took a workers card, and went into work for them? Does that seem excessively paranoid to you? Or no, I’m the weirdo for thinking there’s a metaphysical cost to the human soul for the presentation of faux efficiency. Well, maybe, but I’m going down that rabbit hole anyway baby.

I mean, yeah, probably most of their operating procedure is making the system idiot proof because of the amount of inevitable turnover, due to the monotonous and sometimes heavy work.

But I say, if you made the work a little more interesting you’d have less turnover, which means you could slack some rules making the work slightly more bearable (or just less infantilizing).

I’m an idealist. Though for a vegetarian pioneer, in the realm of ready-to-eat meals, you’d think they’d carry some of that too.

Most of their employees don’t eat Amy’s food. I’ve heard it called gross. Though primarily it’s the fact that the food’s not made for them. The work is taxing, no one is counting calories on their lunch break. It’s somewhat analogous to Chinese workers making iPhones. They are not the market for their own labor.

Personally, I had a few of Amy’s meals before I worked there, and thought they were basically good. Decent ingredients, better than your average Hungry Man or whatever. Though after working there, I’m not sure I’d buy their food again. And it’s not because the food is bad… it’s that they aren’t any different. Working there, it’s probably the same as working at any factory job. If you think you have made a righteous moral choice, here, I want to roughly quote the comedian Chelsea Peretti, her joke is about vegans and how they decide not to participate in animal labor; it’s childish logic to care about the moral quality of your food, because at the end of it, poor people are picking your vegetables and plating your dinner. That 20 minutes you saved not cooking for yourself is the totality of some other person’s life.

I’m a stupid radical.

Once, after being fired from a particularly bad restaurant where the head chef was a pompous dick, I had been living in a tent, and Down and Out was really speaking to me. I conceived of an idea for how the modern restaurant critic might begin to operate.

Yes you can talk about the quality of the food and its significance for the diners, yet ultimately, this means nothing, it’s a fine evening that you will forget. But for the people that have to work in the restaurants, this is their life.

I thought it would be interesting if the critic took a tour through the back, asked each employee personally what they thought of the management. What did they think about their head chef? Could the employees afford to eat the food they made? The dishwasher would automatically get a voucher to a bookstore, and the restaurant would get a rating based on the culture it cultivated.

Does this sound like the ramblings of a deranged idealist? I’m not so sure. Not much has changed since Orwell’s days. The hours have gotten less severe, but I’m not sure this isn’t corporate efficiency. Bookkeeping. If you keep your worker healthier, they can make you more money, ultimately.

Our culture is obsessed with the minutiae of food, it might be time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

The next thing after clocking in is to put on a hairnet, a beardnet (for us babyfaced insecure bearded men), and a smock. This creates a uniformity of appearance such that for the first couple days, it is difficult to recognize people when they are in their street clothes. But soon, like sheep after the spring sheer have to re-learn who everyone is, you catch on.

When walking into the kitchen the correct procedure as taught in training is to wet your hands, apply soap, scrub for 20 seconds, rinse, sanitize said hands, put on rubber gloves, dip gloves in sanitizer.

Boy we’ve sure come a long way from 19th century doctors getting offended by the suggestion that their hands might not be clean.

If you are still one of those people for whom this ritual of cleanliness sounds like a good idea, you’re part of the problem. A friend once told me she was grossed out watching kitchen staff at a restaurant she was eating at, touch the food with their hands. This prompted me to wonder how she cooked at home, a Wallace and Gromit esque system of pulleys and levers perhaps?

It is to the industry worker, a very confusing obsession with gloves. Once while working at a restaurant in NYC, where the A restaurant health rating is live or die (literally the difference between keeping clientele and not), when the health inspector came in, we all had to put on gloves, even though we never wore them. Then we stood in a corner and waited. In case any of us might be tempted to do something unsanitary, we ceased all normal kitchen function.

At Amy’s I was chastised on my second day for carrying a couple clean items, without gloves, from one section to another.

What’s preposterous about this is, I could very easily go about my day, touching the floor, rubbing dead flies between my thumbs with gloves on. I could get away with it. It’s the perception that matters, not the reality.

Perhaps, too, the overabundance of middle manager types who need to justify their presence with nitpicking type babysitting. They could get in, help us finish the job, and then we could all move on with our lives, but no. That’s not how places like this work.

When rules become the guiding force of the job… it works into people’s minds that the rules form the tenuous balance holding everything together. Whatever small benefits the person receives are derived from the benevolent guidance of the rules, and any problems can be solved by stricter adherence to such rules. But it’s also a class thing, divisions of authority, etc.

Most of the work I do in the kitchen is taking some large batch of one thing and breaking it down into smaller but still large measurements of product. Most things end up in those standard 55 gallon trash cans (called buckets). Whether tofu or baked breadcrumbs, opened and emptied tin cans of tomatoes or beans (this is perhaps the worst job in the kitchen, opening cans and dumping them over a magnet trap into a trash can. It’s not too far removed from Solzhenitsyn’s labor camp story of moving a rock from one side of the road to the other. They have an automatic can opener, but this seems to break down often, or sometimes our batches are too small to justify starting the machine, I guess). Whatever is done is measured in the thousands of pounds. One gets a small sense of relief after finishing a task, soon replaced by an anxious boredom. Making 11 dollars an hour it all works out the same to me, whether I’m taking a long walk through production hallways to go to the dish pit, or shoving 40 pound blocks of cheese in an industrial shredder.

There is a red path off to the side in the hallways which we the pedestrians are supposed to contain ourselves to. The middle of the hallway usually has one or two insistently beeping and honking forklifts. This is for safety, but must be admitted as an aesthetic irritant. Everything is so big and dangerous and you’re supposed to care.

Signs around the plant remind of personal responsibility. In one walkway there is a mirror that says “Meet the person responsible for your safety.” Is this also the person responsible for the rest of my well-being? Say, ignoring the little devil on the shoulder who says ending it all would be preferable to coming to work here every day.

The dish pit is where we get our buckets and lids and big scoops and pitchforks. The dishwasher is next door in its own room. It’s a big steamy conveyor jobby, and one thing about this plant is being in sanitation looks like probably the best job around (compared to a normal kitchen, where the dishwasher is bitch). When we’re done with a task, food splash on the walls and floors, they hook these hoses up to the wall and pressure wash everything. It seems like there might be something very satisfying about it, and apparently they make more money than us.

Anyway, on the way to the dish is a sign. Everytime I walk past I take a moment and glance at it. It is called The Seven Wastes. It sort of makes me think of Dante, if he did another divine comedy but this time set in corporate America. I’ve tried to memorize them, the wastes, but they’re so common, so … irritatingly puerile, and they don’t even come close to the center of the problem which is the biggest waste; no one wants to be there.

Individuals are not individuals on a production line, they are potential irritants. Potential wasters of time, product, motion.

It legitimately bothers me to know, truly, that a memo could not go across their desk which said: Now, this might not increase our efficiency, however, it might make one of our jobs in the plant more enjoyable. Such a thing would be impossible. So much would have to change in the cultural mindset about productivity, and ‘consumer is puppet king’ thinking.

Whenever I get into a drawn-out conversation about the efficacy of capitalism, said believers or plain acceptors of the system demand of me: tell me something better. Oh yeah, you don’t like it, name me another way (they say with resigned smugness, knowing I have no real control about how anything is done anywhere). But fine, I see the point. Bring an idea into the mix.

Here’s one. The elimination of the concept of hourly wage.

I consider my time to be of value to me. When someone tells me to find something to do or they imply I should just kinda slack off and hang around to get my hours, I get upset like the big brother watching the schoolyard bully pick on the little brother. Hey! Only I get to do that! I’m the one that wastes my time, not you (it’s also why I found office work to be such a mental chore, it’s often not about accomplishing anything).

I assume that the hourly wage has stuck around for such a long time because of unskilled labor jobs, and admittedly the even more abusive labor systems of the past. It’s a signifier for how much one’s time is worth in what sector. But it’s also nonsense. It has a completely alien mindset from the true value of labor, which is accomplishing tasks. Often, in many jobs there is the completion of a large amount of small tasks, which are done consistently. So I’m not saying it would be easy to define, say, how many hamburgers were flipped and how much that was worth. Each sector would have to describe these terms in their own way, perhaps by means of long term goals which incorporate the employees. But specifically for a place like Amy’s Kitchen, you could be compensated per batch, have your day be over when the work was done for the same amount of money you would make milking the clock when needed. Whatever you bring into play to make the work more efficient personally helps you because your time still has value. Anyway, it’s an idea. I think Universal Basic Income is a better one, but you can read about that elsewhere.

Now, I should be fair. Pocatello, Idaho, is no booming metropolis. It is a town which blends seamlessly into the landscape of America, which is one of the things I like about it. There’s a local restaurant chain, that has as its marquee, Now Serving Pepsi! It still has an operating video store, which I frequent.

People keep their jobs at Amy’s because they are relatively good jobs. One of my co-workers told me, if you don’t have any experience it’s one of the better paying gigs. And I understand that, for people who have had relatively tumultuous personal lives, a stable steady paying job is comforting.

I am not one of those people. I’m admitting my bias. But I often think people are closer to agreeing with me than they realize, they’ve just shut off the part of their brain which feels this strong indignation. I’ve met rich people, color me unimpressed. Orwell’s been right for a hundred years.

But people are still attracted to the idea of being rich, and I suppose one can’t really do anything about that. You simply register the weird perceptions of benefits.

At Amy’s I roasted shitake mushrooms. They made a point of telling us that they were 13 dollars a pound. We would throw three pounds on a tray, 52 trays on a rack and bake them. After they come out it’s a strange feeling to be smelling the Maillard reaction on what is a month’s wages worth of mushrooms.

Expensive ingredients, for health, and taste … after doing 12 racks of them if you keep count, that’s a year of your waged life in mushrooms, which you baked in 3 hours, you made 33 dollars for doing that. Do shitake mushrooms grow only in ground up currency? Reducing people to numbers can get very existentially strange. One almost gets the impulse to turn over all the racks to the floor. Push them in front of one of the entryways which have nozzles at the lower sides that sporadically hiss and spray foamed soap, to make it look like a crime scene.

After the last task of the day, I peel off my gloves and think about getting my head straight again. It is very difficult to do work like this and have interesting thoughts. The work is just demanding enough that your conscious brain has to focus and shut off.

I walk through the kitchen where we push around large quantities of food. There’s a strange thing about Amy’s, in that the space seems very underutilized. There are big areas of storage that seem like they should be populated by machines. They only bought this plant three years ago, before that it was Heinz. So I guess they’re still figuring it out. But it’s the way of the world right now, organic masa mixed in an industrial mixer, scooped by hand with large metal bowls into trays and steamed. Cooled then cut by hand with speed, to get the damn job done. This is better than baked beans. In a way, I agree, until I have to do it myself. I’ll eat beans happily. They are, after all as Steinbeck once said, “the roof over your stomach.”

Above in the hallway a tinkling of cans are pushed through a metal bar walk, leading to god knows where. Running all around the factory for some efficient purpose. In the bland open breakroom, I snag a cup of hot chocolate to go (basically the only fringe benefit of being there). Take a last brief glance at the ‘art’ on the walls. A picture of an old Mexican man holding some kind of shovel sized stirrer in a big pot of soup. There are also pictures of the CEOs smiling gaily on the walls at reception. I’m still not really sure who that’s for, although, clearly, not us.

A day at Amy’s finishes gratefully, but I come home feeling like I’ve done nothing all day. Whatever we do could be done by a more sophisticated machine, supervised by a few people. Hopefully a few who like machines and find interest in their jobs.

We all have to keep our machines running in one way or another. But working in a factory I don’t find my function to be particularly interesting, and I don’t think you would either.

Podcast: Western Thought. Writes literary fiction. His audiobook The Town of Books; first chapter.

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