"Will Paula Deen be the next Kathie Lee Gifford?"
That's what the Washington Post's Reliable Source asked yesterday when the Food Network's Southern belle came to the Smithsonian to promote her new book, It Ain't All About the Cooking.
It's a great question to ask of Deen, famous for her buttery southern cooking, who has now partnered with Smithfield Foods in a marriage of mutual promotion.
And it was on the mind of Lenora Bailey when she attended Deen's sold-out D.C. shindig -- particularly as she was escorted out by men in badges for trying to deliver a letter from her co-workers back home alerting the celeb chef to the ills of the company.
Deen asserts she puts her "family values ahead of her cooking values" and in a statement yesterday said she decided to endorse Smithfield as it "shared my family values and traditions."
Lenora, a mother of two like Deen, says that's pure hogwash. She worked at Smithfield's pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina - the world's largest - for two years. It is a horrible place to work, even for the meatpacking industry: 5,500 employees work in an environment characterized by fear, threats, abuse, and bullying from management. Injuries have gone up by 200% since 2003. The National Labor Relations Board and a U.S. Court found that Smithfield engaged in intimidating, firing, unlawfully arresting, and even violently assaulting employees who wanted a voice on the job.
Lenora did not just observe this, she endured it:
"While working for Smithfield I was lifting boxes and loins as heavy as 175 pounds. When I became very ill with gallstones and serious stomach problems prohibiting me from doing the heavy lifting, I asked to transfer to another department. Smithfield said no. Instead they took me off health insurance forcing me to choose between my health and the income I needed to provide for my family. As a mother, it was heartbreaking for me not to know how to put food on the table for my two kids and the several nieces and nephews I was helping to raise. I had to quit work."
All evening long and throughout her book, Deen credits her family and her values for her success. However by supporting a company whose practices are destroying thousands of workers' livelihoods, Paula Deen is endorsing a company whose values are in opposition with her own.
Luckily, a minister from an area church who came to support Lenora was able to get the Smithfield workers' letter to Deen's beloved husband, Michael.
Lenora and her co-workers now have hope that Deen, alerted to the company's abusive practices, will agree to meet with the workers and become an advocate like Gifford, who used her influence to wage a public campaign against sweatshops after it became known that children toiled in terrible conditions to manufacture her clothing line.
Paula Deen prides herself on making "Recipes for a Happy Family." Now she has a fried-golden opportunity to do the right thing to help bring the real ingredients of dignity and respect for thousands of workers who just want to put food on the table for their families.