The Politics of Food In Like a Lion Durham, N.C. WILMA BERRY LOVED TO bake. She taught herself to make pastries and pies, and was proud of her skill in the kitchen. So when she was offered a job as a cake decorator at her local Food Lion supermarket in Knoxville, Tenn., she was thrilled. Berry worked hard and got high marks from her supervisors. One called her “very creative” and “trustworthy.” Each day before she left work, she collected outdated food from a throw-away pile and took it to Zion’s Childrens Home. “Later, when the orphanage closed, I brought food home and fed it to my goats,” she said. One day last year, Berry took six four-day-old cookies and put them in a box to take home. As she was leaving, the store manager demanded to know what was in the box. “It’s throw-aways,” Berry said. “No it isn’t,” the manager replied. “These items were supposed to be marked down. You’re suspended.” . Two days later, Berry got a call instructing her to meet with a Food Lion “loss prevention” agent. But when she arrived at the store, she found herself subjected to something the company calls “an interrogation.” “They wouldn’t let my husband go into the room with me,” she recalled. “They locked the door. I told the man what happened, but he kept saying, ‘I don’t believe you. You’re lying. Everybody makes mistakes. All you have to do is admit it and you can go back to work.’ He threatened to have me arrested. After an hour and a half I began to cry. It was mental torture.” After another hour of questioning, Berry signed a form saying she had taken baked goods “on three separate occasions.” To her surprise, Food Lion responded by canceling her health insurance and firing her for “gross misconduct” but not before billing her $75 for the interrogation. “I felt very humiliated,” Berry said. “I had heard about loss prevention, but I didn’t know how they worked. If somebody had told me that they had done people like that, I wouldn’t have believed it.” More and more of Food Lion’s 50,000 employees are starting to believe it. Former workers of the North Carolina-based grocery giant describe almost identical interrogations at the hands of company agents. What’s more, they say, the “internal police” are part of a general climate of insensitivity and intimidation that have combined with long hours and low pay to make non-union Food Lion the fastest growing supermarket chain in the nation. That rapid growth now promises to consume Texas as well. Food Lion has opened 13 new stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, bombarding the local airwaves with ads in an effort to establish what it calls “a significant presence in Texas.” The company plans to open at least 41 stores in the state by January, and is building a massive distribution center near Fort Worth to supply the new outlets. “We believe Texas represents a tremendous opportunity for future Eric Bates is managing editor of Southern Exposure magazine ,which first published a version qf this story. Subscriptions are available for $24 from the Institute for Southern Studies, P.O. Box 531, Durham, NC 27702. RICHARD BARTHOLOMEW growth for the Company,” Food Lion President Torn Smith wrote in his annual letter to shareholders. “In fact, further plans call for additional growth in Texas and other markets in the southwest.” But if the experiences of Food Lion employees in other states are any indication, workers in Texas may not fare well in the Lion’s den. “It’s a rough place to work,” said a former grocery manager in Tennessee who asked not to be identified. “Many days I would come home and sit down and cry. It was that bad.” Share the Wealth Food Lion denies charges that it hounds employees accused of stealing. “We want to get to the cause of a problem, but we want to do it in a legal and ethical way,” said Martin Whitt, company supervisor of investigating coordination. “We’d rather let a lot of employee theft go on than accuse somebody who hasn’t done anything wrong.” Founded in North Carolina and now owned by a Belgian firm, the company prides itself on its home-grown thriftiness. Tom Smith, who worked his way up from bagboy to president of the firm, appears on TV screens across the South almost every night to demonstrate how Food Lion recycles cardboard boxes and turns off the lights to save money. “And when we save,” Smith grins at the conclusion of each commercial, “you save.” The “extra low prices” the company advertises have exploded into extra large profits, making Food Lion a darling of Wall Street. An A supermarket chain accused of abusing its workers is coming to Texas BY ERIC BATES THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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