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New documentary features Kansas City fast food worker fighting for better treatment and wages

A woman wearing a red T-shirt uses a blowhorn to shout at a small crowd gathered outside a Taco Bell restaurant.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Fran Marion led a walkout at Taco Bell to fight for better pay and treatment. Now she's featured in "Food, Inc. 2," talking about what fast food workers face every day.

More than 15 years after the original documentary examined the country’s food industry, “Food, Inc. 2” examines the impact corporations have on our food — including the treatment of workers. Local fast food worker and organizer Fran Marion is featured in the documentary and hopes it brings change.

A day in the life of a fast food worker includes taking orders, packing food and delivering it to impatient customers — all within minutes. It also includes sustaining facial burns from grease fires, running a lunch shift while dealing with flooding in the restaurant, enduring racial slurs, encountering people overdosing in the bathroom and facing violence from irate customers.

In Missouri, fast food workers face all of that for about $29,000 a year.

Fran Marion has been working in the fast food industry for more than two decades. She’s been organizing with Stand Up KC to secure liveable wages, health care and a union for low-wage workers like her for about half that time.

“People are out here struggling to pay their rent and their lights and their gas,” Marion said. “We go out here and help these billion-dollar industries generate this money, but when it's time to come home, we open up our refrigerator and there's nothing there.”

Marion is featured in “Food, Inc. 2,” a follow up to the Oscar-nominated 2008 documentary “Food, Inc.,” which exposed corporate consolidation and the environmental, animal welfare and workers’ rights issues embedded in U.S. food production.

Just before Labor Day in 2022, Marion led a strike at the south Kansas City Taco Bell where she used to work. She and her coworkers used the lunch rush to protest their low wages, lack of health care and sick days, and what they called disrespectful management.

The workers hit their limit a few weeks earlier when they were reprimanded for closing the store after equipment malfunctioned — causing flooding and standing water throughout the store, including in the kitchen.

A woman shouts into a microphone at a podium outdoors near a Taco Bell restaurant. She is surrounded by other people rallying with her.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Fran Marion led a lunch-rush strike at the Taco Bell she worked at after an equipment malfunction left inches of standing water in the restaurant.

Marion works at a McDonald’s now, after getting fired from Taco Bell for walking outside as a customer confronted her with a gun. She said at her new store, not much is different.

“The only thing that changes within each restaurant is the product that you sell,” Marion said. “But otherwise, as far as unsafe working conditions, having to deal with the ups and the downs, corporate and stuff, there's no change in whatever restaurant you work in.”

McDonald’s and Taco Bell did not respond to requests for comment from the “Food, Inc. 2” team.

“We put customer and team member safety first and pride ourselves on being a best-in-class employer that offers excellent benefits, growth opportunities, flexible schedules and competitive pay and bonuses,” Taco Bell said in a statement to KCUR.

Along with the issues she faced on the job, Marion also dealt with an eviction and can’t afford to regularly see a doctor because her job does not provide health care.

Directors Robert Kenner and Melissa Robledo said the first documentary made people more aware of how their food ends up on the table.

But during the food shortages that occurred during the COVID-19 lockdown, the pair decided to make another film. They said their purpose was to expose how a few powerful companies that control the food market continue to harm workers, animals and the environment.

“Before it was about how you can change the system one bite at a time,” Kenner said. “And today we're saying it's going to take a little more than your fork.”

Kenner said the current food system encompasses multiple “societal ills” that threaten democracy. For example, he said, a handful of corporations are behind most of the brands at the grocery store, and workers unknowingly pay for restaurants to lobby against raising their wages.

For the team behind “Food, Inc. 2,” America’s food system is a microcosm of larger issues everyone faces.

The initial 2008 documentary led to a boom in organic food and farmers markets — as well as a rapid rise in other documentaries about animal welfare and food production. Kenner says he thinks people cared “more about the animals than the workers.” This latest installment focuses more on working conditions for that reason.

“It's horrible what happens to the workers as well,” Kenner said. “Somehow that didn't quite resonate as much in the first film. The disparity in wages is all the more frightening in the last 15 years. The idea that a CEO at Taco Bell or McDonald's makes more in an hour than the Fran Marions make in a year — that is just sickening.”

Kenner and Robledo hope the film sparks a wide-reaching conversation about food and how we produce it and gets policymakers to enact more regulations. At a screening in Washington D.C., Kenner said, the theater was filled with senators and policymakers.

The documentary’s producers found it easier to get ahold of U.S. Senator Cory Booker than to reach Marion for interviews. Kenner said Marion’s work schedule was more unpredictable and difficult than the New Jersey Democrat’s itinerary.

Marion didn’t even get much time to celebrate the Kansas City screening of the documentary; she had to work a 5 a.m. shift the next day.

“Food, Inc. 2” will be available to rent or buy on all digital platforms Friday and will begin streaming on Hulu August 12. Marion told KCUR she hopes the documentary makes people reconsider their notions of who a fast food worker is and how hard they work.

A woman in a red shirt that says "Stand Up KC" stands in front of a movie theater box office holding a power fist in the air.
Daniel Tucker
Missouri Workers Center
Fran Marion attended a premiere of "Food, Inc. 2" and gave a Q&A at the Glenwood Arts Theater in Overland Park, Kansas. She had to work at McDonald's at 5 a.m. the next day.

More than4 million people work in fast food restaurants in the U.S. They’re not just teens looking for an after-school job — the average fast food worker is a 27-year-old woman. Marion says she hopes people realize how similar their situations are — creating a “domino effect” of workers fighting for their rights. She wants people to join her fight with Stand Up KC.

Most of all, Marion hopes the documentary will finally change the treatment of low-wage workers by raising the minimum wage — like the $20 an hour boost that workers in California recently won — and securing adequate health care and benefits. The minimum wage in Missouri is currently $12.30 per hour.

While she’s worked alongside her children and partner for years, Marion otherwise hasn’t been able to secure valuable family time.

“We are barely surviving,” Marion said. “If you ask me what it's like to live, I can only tell you what I dream of it being like because, in reality, I'm not doing that. I'm barely surviving.”

Prices for groceries and other essentials remain high even with inflation falling. Rents in Kansas City and Missouri are rising faster than much of the rest of the U.S. Marion said it’s nearly impossible to meet those costs even while working 80 hours a week.

Marion said she wants people to see fast food workers as more than just the people who make convenient meals, but also as the workforce keeping the economy going and generating wealth.

After watching “Food, Inc. 2,” Marion wants those coming through her drive-through to realize, “I'm human too.”

“What we're going through is economic injustice,” Marion said. “Why is it that we're fighting so hard to get what we deserve as humans? I bet you my CEO has health care. I bet you my CEO has paid time off. So what's the difference? Why can't I have the same?”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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