09/04/2011 06:55 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2011

Honoring the Hands That Prepare Our Food

In many cultures, it's common before a holiday meal to give a prayer of thanks for the food and the people that prepared it. At these times, we may think of our family members in the kitchen, or possibly the hard-working farmers we met at the farmers' market.

But this doesn't even begin to capture the 20 million people working to bring us food 365 days a year. This Labor Day, let's remember the people that have provided for our gastronomic benefit.

First, let's thank the farmers and farmworkers who work in one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. Heavy machinery creates a lot of that danger, but less obvious hazards do as well. An estimated 300,000 farmworkers annually suffer from pesticide poisonings, and several studies indicate that farmworkers have an increased risk of other diseases including nervous system cancers. Workers in confined animal feedlots face additional dangers such as air emissions from manure lagoons or the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as the notorious MRSA.

The mental stress of farming and farm work also takes a toll. Mental health documentation is lacking, but farmworkers often have to navigate a different language, difficult physical labor and resulting injuries, long hours and wide variances in income, and poverty. Farmer owners have the stress of operating a business with many variables outside of their control, and we often see an increase in farmer suicides when commodity prices drop.

Second, let's thank the families and neighbors that face challenges due to industrial food production. An increasing amount of evidence links children's exposure to pesticides with elevated pediatric cancers. Neighbors of large animal feeding operations are sometimes exposed to air emissions from manure lagoons such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. These exposures have been associated with a number of issues such as asthma, headaches and shortness of breath. The constant exposure to bad odors can have psychological effects as well, as a study found more tension, depression, anger and fatigue in residents living near these animal operations.

And third, let's thank and recognize the health challenges of the millions of people that get the food from a farm to our plate. Workers in a poultry processing plant, for example, have been found to experience elevated schizophrenic disorders, thyroid diseases and some types of leukemia. The chemicals and flavoring agents that are used in processed food production can also create unknown hazards, such as "popcorn lung" for workers using butter-flavoring ingredients. And an additional shout out to all of the restaurant and food service workers that endure cuts, burns, sprains and repetitive stress injuries for the sake of our food.

And who are these people that we are thanking? More often than in the general population they are people of color and new immigrants. Over two-thirds of New York City restaurant workers have immigrated to the U.S., while rural poultry processing plants are often predominantly Latino immigrants. You can be sure that those positions aren't where most of your food dollar is going.

For an issue as important to national food security as labor in the food system, it seems that we often ignore the elephant in the room. Farmworkers are excluded from many federal labor laws. The Farm Bill, a huge piece of legislation that covers just about all things food and agriculture, doesn't mention labor issues. Few of us have any intimate knowledge of the production systems that produce the majority of our food.

Too many food chain workers are subjected to a lifetime of health ailments, often without health care, and the subsequent financial burdens. It's a painful irony that food chain workers often lack access to healthy foods or the resources to buy them. Top that off with their dangerous occupations and we have the recipe for physical and financial ruin.

So eat well this Labor Day. Thank our food chain colleagues for their sacrifices. But with that thanks, let's also make a shared commitment for a food system based on justice and health and not one that can verge on exploitation.