Kansas meatpacking workers fueled an economic boom, but many need food pantries to get by
Four decades after Garden City’s meatpacking boom began, the southwest Kansas town is still strained by growing pains. And its prosperity remains uneven.
This is the second of a two-part series looking at what meatpacking has meant for southwest Kansas. Click here to read the first part.
GARDEN CITY, Kansas — Outside an old, white two-story house in downtown Garden City, dozens of people stand in a loose row that spills out of the driveway and onto the sidewalk.
Many of them show up here at Emmaus House — the largest food pantry in southwest Kansas — every Wednesday and Friday. And they walk away with free boxes filled with everything from frozen bacon to salad kits to frosted cakes that sustain their families for another week.
Much of the food in those boxes was donated by the area’s largest employer, Tyson Foods. Its meatpacking plant has lifted Garden City to new heights of prosperity in the four decades since it opened on the outskirts of town.
But for many of the workers who hold down the tough jobs in that giant slaughterhouse, the reality isn’t always so rosy.
Nearly half of the people who stand in line at this food pantry on a given week come from families employed at Tyson’s meatpacking plant.
The scene at Emmaus House illustrates the ongoing growing pains Garden City has faced during its transformation from a small farming community to a meatpacking boom town. In the decades since Tyson’s plant opened, the number of jobs in Garden City has skyrocketed, but the per capita incomes in town have lost pace with the rest of Kansas. And the number of people living in poverty and seeking food assistance has soared.
“A lot of people think, ‘Well, you're working at Tyson, so you're making really good money,’" Robin Marsh, Emmaus House’s executive director, said. “By the time you pay your rent, by the time you pay your utilities … they don't have enough for food.”
Tyson recently raised starting pay at this plant to $20 per hour, but many workers' families still meet the poverty income guidelines that qualify them for food assistance from Emmaus House.
And that group keeps growing.
The number of meals Emmaus House served nearly quadrupled between 2000 and 2010. On a single day, roughly 160 families pick up grocery boxes from the food bank. When demand peaked earlier in the pandemic, that number jumped to 400.
And Tyson — which directly provides roughly one of every five jobs in the county — sits at the center of what’s both wildly prosperous and persistently challenging about life in modern Garden City. Without the massive beef processing operation, this small city would likely be withering like so many other Great Plains communities.
But when many workers at the area’s largest employer can’t afford their families’ basic needs, the question of whether or not Garden City has found success grows more complicated.
“It's always positive when you see growth,” Marsh said. “But if you look behind the camera, there are issues.”
When what was then the world’s largest meatpacking plant opened here in 1980, Garden City had a problem: It needed thousands of new workers.
At the time, the town had roughly 18,000 residents and virtually no unemployment. So it opened its doors to immigrants and refugees, with an assist from the company that originally ran the giant slaughterhouse, IBP.
IBP recruited many of the 2,000 south Asian refugees who migrated to Garden City around that time. It even broadcast help wanted ads on border town radio stations to reach potential workers in Mexico.
“They followed the theory from the movie ‘Field of Dreams’: ‘Build it and they will come,’” said Don Stull, a former University of Kansas professor. “And they did come.”
Stull studied the meatpacking industry’s impact on Garden City for three decades as an anthropology professor and author. He said the plant’s workforce grew faster than the town’s housing market and social service systems could handle.
“Jobs come with costs,” Stull said. “And they don't talk about the costs.”
And because the meatpacking jobs had an annual turnover rate of nearly 100%, the company had to keep recruiting new waves of workers. Over and over again.
In the plant’s first five years, Garden City pulled in 6,000 new residents. But the town didn’t have anywhere to put them.
The situation became so dire that city leaders held a press conference imploring residents to open their homes to workers who had nowhere else to sleep. A year after opening, the plant surveyed its employees and found that one-third were paying excessive rent and one out of 20 workers was living in a car or motel.
For the immigrants and refugees who come to town to join the meatpacking plant’s 3,000-plus workforce today, the outlook hasn’t gotten much sunnier.
“Once they get here, they’re like, ‘Where are we going to live? Crap, we can't afford a $900 house payment,’” Marsh of Emmaus House said. “Those are the struggles that we still deal with and always have. … And if you don't believe me, drive out to IBP trailers.”
That’s a plot with hundreds of mobile homes lined up in long rows on the east side of town. IBP pushed the city to rezone the land in the 1980s specifically to house some of the plant’s early employees.
And it’s still there today. Marsh says it's common for a home there to have a hole in the floor. Or no windows.
But residents often can’t afford to move to a better place — if they could even find one.
City manager Matt Allen said the area continues to be about 600 to 700 housing units short of demand. And that need grows by around 10% each year.
“The answer is pretty simple. … We need more houses,” Allen said. “It's the ‘How do you get those?’ That's the difficulty.”
Housing is far from the only growing pain that continues to strain Garden City in the wake of the meatpacking plant’s arrival.
Law enforcement, hospitals and schools have had to bridge language gaps between critical services and the dozens of languages residents speak.
In 2000, half the students in Garden City’s public school system received free or reduced lunch because of their families’ low incomes. Today, that number’s up to two-thirds.
The Garden City area also ranks as among the state’s lowest for quality of life and health outcomes — and the social and economic factors that drive them. For example, adults in Finney County are about twice as likely to lack a primary care doctor and 50% more likely to be in poor health compared to the state average.
And without the same resources that big cities have, the extra work to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks often falls to regular folks who choose to step in and help.
People like Dominican Sister Janice Thome.
“We don’t have to ever worry about having enough to do,” she said. “There’s always going to be plenty.”
Most every week for the past 25 years, she has pulled her compact car up to Emmaus House and filled it with boxes of groceries. Then she starts her route, delivering the food to a rotating cast of families scattered across Garden City who can’t afford it and aren’t able to come to the food bank.
Just about the only time she doesn’t do this is when she’s busy lending a hand to one of the community’s other many needs. The previous week, she drove someone to Kansas City to meet with an immigration lawyer.
“It’s worth the effort to do all of this,” she said, “because look how we can sustain people’s lives, better people's lives.”
Forty years after the town debated whether or not to welcome the meatpacking plant and its thousands of immigrant and refugee workers, Thome said it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t think pushing for the plant was the right decision.
Pretty much everyone she knows in Garden City today values how the steady stream of new arrivals keeps the town alive — not just economically, but also with a cultural vibrancy that has made the town a richer place for everyone.
For Thome, it’s all part of living in a city that boasts the slogan: “The world grows here.”
“We're living it,” she said. “And I think it's wonderful.”
But as Garden City keeps growing, the patchwork of support that takes care of so many of its vulnerable residents will continue to face strains.
Across the street from the mobile home park IBP built, for example, another food conglomerate is building a new ground beef plant that will add a couple hundred more jobs to the city’s meat workforce over the next two years.
But as rural towns across the U.S. lose residents, having to find ways to deal with the growing pains still beats depopulation and a shrinking economy.
“Whatever challenges exist, I found that in the vast majority of these smaller locations, refugees — and immigrants more broadly — were an absolute lifeline,” Pablo Bose, who teaches about the geography of race at the University of Vermont, said. “I actually heard that particular statement like, ‘These newcomers are a lifeline.’”
Bose has researched refugee resettlement in America for the past decade. His research shows that community-based systems for supporting new immigrants in small towns can be highly effective because they get more people to buy in.
But the downside is that big cities with a longer history of immigration tend to have more systems in place to support newcomers. In rural areas, makeshift community safety nets can fray if they’re missing just one key person. Someone like sister Janice.
“When that individual gets burnt out, or retires … you have to go through a whole process of getting somebody up to speed,” Bose said. “It makes it precarious.”
Tyson Foods said in a statement that its southwest Kansas employees are "critical to (the company's) success" and touted the plant's recent initiatives aimed at boosting worker satisfaction, such as increased pay and flexible scheduling.
But when so much of Garden City’s fortunes ride the whims of a multinational conglomerate headquartered in another state, it puts a lot of what the community has gained at risk.
The city has tried to bring in different industries, but city manager Matt Allen said that meatpacking remains the backbone of the local economy.
“We’re still largely dependent on Tyson not only being in operation, but being in operation near full capacity,” he said. “Everything else sort of depends on that.”
And at any point, Tyson could choose to close or relocate this plant entirely if it makes sense for its business.
That’s not some far-fetched hypothetical for Garden City — the town has actually been through that before.
There used to be a second meatpacking plant here run by another giant food company, ConAgra. That one suddenly shut down on Christmas Day in 2000 after a fire put 2,300 people out of work overnight and sent local social services agencies scrambling.
When Garden City’s leaders traveled to ConAgra headquarters the following spring to essentially beg the company to come back, its executives refused to meet with them. The plant never reopened.
“They didn't really give a damn about Garden City,” Stull, the KU professor, said, “and I think that's true of these multinational corporations in general.”
So whether it’s shoring up the city’s economic future or caring for the needs of its residents, Stull said Garden City and other meatpacking towns can’t look to the companies that run the plants to save the day.
“They’re not in the business of providing housing or health care,” he said. “They're in the business of making meat.”
The original version of this story incorrectly listed the wrong pay for workers at the Tyson plant. New workers start at $20 an hour.
David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @davidcondos.
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