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Covid-19 can afflict the powerful. Yet food workers remain the most vulnerable.

Amid this reality, Tyson Foods recently announced a plan to open medical clinics at several of its U.S. plants. Coupled with the addition of 200 nurses and administrative positions in the company’s health services team, executives claim these plans will help “promote a culture of health” among workers. With the new initiative, Tyson joins a growing list of companies with on-the-job medical providers.

But our nation’s history suggests that worksite clinics may do more harm than good, further harming worker health. The U.S. meat and poultry industry has a long history of obstructing worker access to medical care and workers’ compensation benefits and has failed to provide adequate worksite medical treatment.

At the dawn of the 20th century, as the U.S. economy industrialized, workplace injuries in manufacturing were commonplace. Injured workers did not have a right to the free medical treatment, wage replacement for lost work time or permanent disability benefits that would later be protected by the workers’ compensation system. Instead, courts decided whether employers bore any responsibility for work-related injuries and deaths. Employers easily and swiftly contested their liability, leaving tremendous burdens on workers’ families and communities.

During this period, to avoid costly liability lawsuits, several companies hired doctors to treat manufacturing worker injuries in-house. These “industrial physicians,” as they became known, also redesigned plant layouts and operations. Their efforts prevented workplace injuries, but they also enabled more stringent personnel management and surveillance and prioritized production efficiency. By allowing direct control over diagnoses and duration of treatment, corporations’ provision of medical care became a mechanism for surveilling and controlling workers and reducing labor costs.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s famed “The Jungle” shocked readers with its description of dangerous working conditions and industrial accidents in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. Incidents like the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 150 workers perished after being locked inside, further raised consciousness about the plights faced by workers and the need to address occupational health and safety hazards. Captivated and alarmed, a moral discourse on workplace injury and illness began to take shape among the American public. “As the work is done for the employer, and therefore ultimately for the public,” remarked President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 “it is a bitter injustice that it should be the wageworker himself and his wife and children who bear the whole penalty. ”

A compromise among business and labor interests led to the passage of state-based workers’ compensation legislation beginning in 1911. The “grand bargain,” as it became known, protected employers from liability lawsuits and, in exchange, promised workers access to independent medical care and limited compensation for their temporary and permanent disabilities. Within a decade nearly every state had a system of workers’ compensation, though they were vastly uneven and inadequate and would remain so for decades to come.

A commission convened by President Nixon discovered as much a half-century later, finding that in 1970, 34 states did not meet even half of the workers’ compensation standards prescribed by the newly created Occupational Safety and

This Shorewood naturopathic doctor is offering cooking workshops because food is a ‘powerful medicine’

DSarah Axtell has long believed in teaching her patients to skip processed foods and cook at home. She wants everyone to get cooking. 

a woman sitting at a table with a plate of food: Sarah Axtell works in her recently created cooking space at Lakeside Natural Medicine in Shorewood. The cooking space was added when they moved to a new location in March.

© Courtesy of Sarah Axtell
Sarah Axtell works in her recently created cooking space at Lakeside Natural Medicine in Shorewood. The cooking space was added when they moved to a new location in March.

She started blogging about food and recipes while in medical school, and kept sharing recipes when she moved to Wisconsin. In 2011, she opened Lakeside Natural Medicine, 3510 N. Oakland Ave., Shorewood.

In March, the clinic moved to a larger space and Axtell fulfilled another dream: her own kitchen to teach healthy cooking and offer workshops. Now, the naturopathic doctor is offering demonstrations and workshops in the space, beginning with a virtual “Food Is Medicine Workshop” on Oct. 17. Cost is $39, and includes a cooking demonstration and recipes. Registration is required, call (414) 939-8748. 

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Question: What is your background? 

Answer: I’m originally from Cincinnati and went to UW-Madison for undergrad, where I studied nutrition. Upon graduation, I could either go to medical school or become a dietitian. Both fields felt like they were lacking. I did my research and found naturopathic medical school. I attended the oldest naturopathic university, in Portland, Oregon, National University of Natural Medicine. My husband is actually from Milwaukee, so that’s my connection …

I opened a clinic in 2011, Lakeside Natural Medicine. It is a family business. My husband, Chris, is the business manager. … We now have two other naturopathic doctors with us. We just moved and doubled our size in a new building. I have a kitchen now. That was always my dream. 

Q: What exactly do you mean by food as medicine?

A: My goal working with patients is to teach them which foods work for them and which foods don’t work for them. Food can be the source of what is ailing us, but it can also be the most powerful medicine to heal. 

Q: What is the biggest challenge teaching about food from your perspective? 

A: The food industry is a big challenge. I’m going against that. Cooking doesn’t have to be a chore, or expensive, or difficult. We’re told that with ads that cooking is hard. There are all these prepared, hyper-processed foods that that can really work against us. I work with patients to get to the basics of eating just real, whole food. 

Q: How much time to do you spend cooking every week? 

A: I probably spend three hours on a Sunday prepping for the week. It is self-care time for myself, but also for my family. I am setting us up for the success of the week. I don’t have time during the weekdays to cook elaborate meals. I chop the vegetables. I make soups that easily freeze. I make collard green wraps that my girls love. I blanch collard greens and fill them. That is an ultimate