November 12, 2013

Slaughterhouses across the country: A collaborative map

In rural Noel, Mo., the elementary school has become the safety net for the children whose parents work at the Tyson chicken plant. More than 90 percent of them qualify for free or reduced lunch. Three-quarters of their parents are immigrants from places like Mexico, Myanmar, the Pacific Islands and parts of Africa.

In another Tyson town, Garden City, Kan., a surge of immigrants over the past few decades forced city leaders to ask themselves the question: “The vision was: we have these people here. Are we going to accept them as a blessing or are we going to consider them a curse?” according to Levita Rohlman, director of the Catholic Agency for Migration and Refugee Services there. As Garden City doubled, it decided to welcome its immigrants — and became a model for other towns.

These are among the powerful stories told by Harvest Public Media, in its October series In the Shadows of the Slaughterhouses — with a minor assist from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

I met Harvest’s supervising editor, Donna Vestal, this summer at an agribusiness workshop at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We quickly recognized the overlap in our missions and audiences, and started talking about collaborating. (Harvest has an agricultural focus — food, fuel and field — and covers the entire Midwest, with a network of reporters at public radio stations in six states.) A few months later, Vestal called me for some map consultation on her slaughterhouse project. The meat industry, Vestal said, had once been concentrated in cities like Chicago and Kansas City. But it had left for small towns in rural areas, which were now struggling to provide the necessary social services to the immigrants who followed. How could we begin to show those demographic changes? And what could we do about the fact that there was no readily available list of the biggest slaughterhouses?

Here’s the result, using the list Vestal ended up laboriously assembling herself. The zoomed-out version shows you how the biggest slaughterhouses are spread mostly throughout the Midwest (including two in Wisconsin) and the South. Zooming in, using the tools on the map’s top left, you can see how the slaughterhouses tend to be in tiny population clusters, surrounded by more rural areas. You can also search by company — which also provides a sense of how dominated the industry is by a handful of gigantic companies.

What the map doesn’t show you, of course, is who lives in those population clusters and how those communities are functioning. You’ll have to check out the Harvest series for that.