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Economy & Labor , Health , US

‘Grammie’s Taking Food to Other People’: A Trucker Keeps Trucking

by Sophia Jones April 17, 2020

This article was originally published in The New York Times.

Ingrid Brown loves the peace of the night, especially these days. When the sun sets, it’s just her and the road, her truck lights illuminating the highway stretching out ahead. The quiet is “like a breath of fresh air,” she says.

As America stocks up and hunkers down during the coronavirus crisis, Brown isn’t sheltering in place at home in North Carolina.

Instead, the 58-year-old outspoken truck driver and grandmother of six is on the road, crisscrossing the U.S. in an 80,000-pound truck filled with produce. Over the past two months, as highways have quieted, schools have closed, and non-essential shops have shuttered, Brown has delivered fruit, vegetables, eggs, and dairy products from coast to coast, making stops in Missouri, Florida, North Carolina, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, Arizona, California, Oregon, Arkansas, and Washington.

Brown is one of some 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S., more than 200,000 of whom are women, keeping America well fed and well stocked during the pandemic.

These days, Brown drives largely without protective equipment. She can’t easily find masks or disinfectant supplies to wipe down her truck. While some large trucking companies have provided supplies to their personnel, many truckers are left to protect themselves.

“We’re going into this naked,” Brown said by phone, as she drove through Missouri earlier this month. “We are running through a fire with a pair of gasoline pants on. That’s what’s happening. Drivers have no protection.”

As someone who is in regular contact with people across the country, she says, she could become a carrier and infect someone else.

Brown also worries that she could fall ill, thousands of miles from home. Her yearslong battle with melanoma skin cancer might mean she’s more at risk if she gets the virus. Two years ago, doctors removed a third of her throat. Just a few weeks ago, she was hauling produce with fresh stitches in her leg and lip from surgery to remove cancerous and precancerous cells.

Even so, Brown has no plans to go home anytime soon. She loves trucking, and “America moves by truck,” she says. The “’rona-19,” as she calls it, can’t keep truckers home. They’re essential workers who make up the backbone of a hugely important, yet troubled, industry. Nearly all of America’s produce, goods, and equipment are transported by truck.

“The babies will tell you, ‘Grammie’s out taking food to other people,’” said Brown, speaking fondly of her young grandchildren back in Georgia. “‘And as soon as this is over, when everybody gets well, Grammie is coming straight home in the big truck.’”

Brown has been driving trucks for four decades. When she’s not on the road, she FaceTimes with her grandchildren and advocates safe working conditions and better opportunities for truckers.

Despite the millions of truck drivers on the road, there is an overall shortage of big-rig truck drivers like Brown, even though the percentage of women in trucking increased by 68 percent from 2010 to 2018, according to data from the American Trucking Associations. It’s a grueling job that can keep truckers far from their families for long stretches of time, in difficult working conditions.

She’s one of the founding members of the nonprofit Women in Trucking, a national organization that supports women truck drivers in an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry, advocating sexual harassment education, better safety measures, like better lighting and surveillance cameras at truck stops, and safer seatbelts for women. (It takes the length of two football fields to stop an 80,000 pound truck going 65 miles an hour, Brown says, and truck seatbelts aren’t designed for most female bodies.)

This isn’t the first time Brown has worked through a crisis. In 2017, when billowing prairie fires wiped out farmland and killed livestock in Oklahoma, she donated her truck, time, and fuel to haul hay from Minnesota to help the “families who lost everything.”

But this crisis is different. It poses an invisible threat, one that can linger for days before you even know you’re sick. She’s in touch with a network of colleagues across the country to navigate the health risks and find safe places to eat, shop, use the bathroom and shower.

Coronavirus certainly makes the job harder: Shipments are no longer predictable. Orders for essential items like medical goods and food have skyrocketed in recent weeks to keep up with demand, while other shipments have been canceled as stores, hotels and restaurants shut down operations.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans are isolated at home, cooking up a storm. Brown recently unloaded a shipment of cabbage at Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx, in New York City. They were running dangerously low on cabbage before she showed up. “I didn’t realize New York City ate so much cabbage,” Brown said, laughing. “I guess they like slaw.”

On the road, meals and supplies are more difficult to come by. Many restaurants are closed. Truck stops are running out of certain goods, and truckers can’t easily pull into parking lots — like a Target, or a Walmart — to buy essentials if there isn’t a designated truck parking space. Even if they can, Brown says, coveted items — like Clorox wipes — are mostly out of stock.

The other day, Brown pulled into the Ingrid R. Brown Petro truck stop and travel center in Oklahoma City, Okla. (yes, it’s named after her in recognition of her decades of dedication to the trucking community).

Brown asked a few truck drivers at the Petro if they’d seen hand sanitizer sold inside. There wasn’t any.

The next morning, after finishing an interview with Fox & Friends (she frequently makes appearances as a trucking advocate), one of the men — a “gentleman” from Iowa, as Brown described him — walked up to her truck and offered her a one-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer. It was half full.

“I don’t have much, but I’d love to share this with you,” he said.

It “just touched my heart,” Brown said. And it’s far from the only act of kindness in recent weeks. Across the country, hotels, companies, and individuals have been stepping up to help feed and house truckers.

One luxury hotel in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, offered to house truckers for free, so they could have a comfortable place to sleep outside of the cramped quarters of their truck cabs. “How blessed this is,” Brown said. She was thrilled.

And then, a change of heart. She called back to cancel the reservation. The manager was shocked.

“I can’t come,” she told him. “I can’t do that to you.”

Brown didn’t want to sicken the manager and his family, or the hotel and cleaning staff, if she was unknowingly an asymptomatic carrier of the coronavirus.

“If I don’t protect y’all by protecting myself,” she said, “this is not going to stop.”

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