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Food processing, manufacturing no longer major way of life in Chicago

Chicago's skyline looking north is visible from a window of the Sears Skydeck.  Tim Boyle/ Getty Images

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A job isn’t always just a job – sometimes it is a way of life. This story is part of a series exploring what it means when jobs define several generations and are part of the very fabric of a community.

Over the years, Anthony Jackson has baked just about every Nabisco snack familiar to American pantries: Saltine Crackers, Ritz Crackers, Honey Maid Graham Crackers and of course, Oreo cookies. 

“Actually I worked every department except sanitation. I worked in the packing department. I worked as an icer mixer. I’ve worked on the bake floor,” said Jackson, who earned $26 an hour working at the Chicago Nabisco plant until he was pink-slipped in 2016. 

He was part of an ingrained tradition of Chicago food workers who held good jobs, were able to buy a house and perhaps send their children to college.

But in recent years, both Chicago and the state of Illinois have lost multiple food manufacturers, and the jobs they provided, including a General Mills and a Tyson Foods plant.

In 2000, the state had more than 47,000 food manufacturing jobs. That number has since dipped by the thousands.

“We were always thought of as a working-class city, a city with broad shoulders,” Jackson said.

Nabisco stopped making Oreos at the Chicago plant last year and moved hundreds of jobs to Mexico because parent company Mondolez wanted to invest in an upgraded facility there. 

Oreo isn’t the only food to leave the city. On the West Side, the smell of Fannie May and Brach’s candies used to tickle noses. Those factories closed in 2004.  And it isn’t just snacks, either. As Hog Butcher to the World, Chicago once upon a time fed the country its meat. The stockyards gave birth to modern food processing, but that sector is now a shell of its former self. 

“I remember as a kid we had this little rhyme: Roses are red, violets are blue, the stockyard stinks and so do you,” said local historian Dominic Pacyga, who grew up in the South Side Back of the Yards neighborhood that housed the stockyards.

During World War I, 50,000 stockyard jobs filled one square mile. Originally generations of white immigrant families toiled in those slaughterhouses. Pacyga said nearby South Side neighborhoods felt the economic decline when the Chicago Union Stockyard closed in 1971.

“It undercut Englewood, primarily an African-American community but a lot of African-American packinghouse workers in Englewood and Bronzeville and all of that just disappeared very quickly.”

Over on the Near West Side of Chicago, the meatpacking district is shrinking, giving way to glitterati restaurants and tech companies. Google’s Chicago headquarters is on a cobblestone street on which horses once helped transport meat.

The meatpacking company Nealey Foods is in Google’s shadow.  Jorge Sanchez works there in sales and in two decades, he’s seen dozens of meat businesses leave.

“It’s becoming a yuppie neighborhood, uptrend restaurants,” Sanchez said.

The hot real estate market is pushing the food industry out. Roaring trucks and wholesale chicken distributors don’t fit in with the new motif. Sanchez said Nealey is moving to another part of the city.

But food isn’t totally leaving the neighborhood. 

McDonald’s Corporation is in the process of moving its headquarters from a Chicago suburbs to this trendy area.

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