September 2009 Issue

Labor Day: Beyond the Barbecue
By Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, LD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 11 No. 9 P. 60

There’s a quote above my desk attributed to Vietnamese wisdom that says, “When eating fruit, think of the person who planted the tree.”

Compared with generations before us, we’ve largely become disconnected from the source of our sustenance and preoccupied with counting calories rather than considering the hands that harvest, slaughter, and package our food. Yet, these vital hands belong to millions of often invisible workers hidden behind factory walls or toiling on isolated farms in rural communities.

On Labor Day, Americans fire up the grill and gather with friends to enjoy the remaining days of summer. But how many of us stop to think about the significance of the holiday and the 1.5 million food manufacturing workers and 859,000 agricultural laborers who provide the ingredients for our daily meals, holiday picnics, and potlucks?1,2

The Labor Day holiday pays tribute to American workers who contribute to the “strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”3 Yet, our nation’s food and agricultural laborers typically earn poverty wages and often work in harsh, dangerous environments.2,4

Risky Business
Conventional farm workers routinely face exposure to pesticides and other hazardous chemicals, which may put them at greater risk for certain cancers, diabetes, and birth defects. They may also have limited access to water and sanitation facilities.2 Veterinarian Amy Peterson, DVM, says factory farms or concentrated animal feeding operations place workers at greater risk for respiratory illness and exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Those who work in animal slaughtering and meat processing plants face additional dangers, including falls, repetitive injuries, or worse.

Last year, for example, it was discovered that workers at Quality Pork Processors in Austin, Minn., developed a painful and debilitating “progressive inflammatory neuropathy” after being exposed to airborne hog brain particles.5

Immigration Man
The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP) reports that while some migrant and seasonal farm workers may be classified as illegal, close to one half are U.S. citizens or have valid work authorization. Regardless, all farm workers contribute to our nation’s bounty through their labor and the income tax they pay on their wages.

Most importantly, all are human. That’s why the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union recommends immigration policy reform to end the cycle of exploitation.

Unfortunately, there has been a dramatic increase in deaths related to the militarization of the United States-Mexico border. Laura Ilardo and Shanti Sellz work with the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths, which provides food, water, and medical attention to those attempting to cross the desert to find work or connect with family members. They believe a more humane approach would be to allow people to travel legally and safely across borders so they can reunite with their families and provide the labor that U.S. employers need.

Not Child’s Play
David Strauss, the AFOP’s executive director, reports that between 400,000 and 500,000 children under the age of 18 perform farm work in the United States, mostly hand harvesting the crops we put on our tables every day. Globally, the numbers are even higher: 200 million child laborers, with 70% working in agriculture.

Strauss says most Americans would be shocked to learn that federal law permits children as young as 12—and in some cases, even younger—to work in U.S. agriculture. Because of poverty wages, the children of migrant farm workers often work in the fields in extreme heat and with sharp tools to help their parents make ends meet.

Hold the Tomato: Modern-Day Slavery on U.S. Soil
Sean Sellers, a Food and Society Policy Fellow who works with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), witnesses farm labor abuse firsthand. About 90% of our country’s winter tomatoes are harvested by the hands of migrant workers in Immokalee, Fla. They have received the same wage since 1978: 45 cents per 32-lb bucket of rock-hard, green tomatoes. The workers live in crowded, ramshackle trailers and dilapidated shacks without heat or air conditioning. Ironically, these third-world conditions exist just inland from the swanky condos and golf courses of Naples.

Sellers explains that on large-scale commercial farms, “Farm laborers are viewed as disposable inputs into a larger business equation. Growers, who face ever-rising costs amidst falling prices for their produce at the hands of highly consolidated buyers, aim to maintain profit margins by controlling labor costs.” This “translates into a host of dire problems for farm workers,” including subpoverty wages, substandard working and living conditions, no right to collective bargaining or overtime pay, and, in extreme cases, forced labor.

In fact, the CIW helped assist in the federal prosecution of six cases of modern-day slavery over the past 10 years involving more than 1,000 workers.
To make a difference, Sellers recommends getting involved with the Campaign for Fair Food. Since its launch in 2001, the campaign has generated a nationwide alliance of farm workers and consumers, resulting in unprecedented agreements with chain restaurants and, more recently, foodservice providers and grocery stores.

A “Berry” Successful Labor Day Hero
Founded in 1983, Swanton Berry Farm is located just north of Santa Cruz, Calif. It’s the first commercial organic strawberry farm in the state. Better still, general manager Jim Cochran made the “dignity of farm labor” a founding principle. Cochran figured, “What would be the point of farming organically if the workers were underpaid, overworked, or treated without respect?” Simply carrying the California Certified Organic label didn’t address the labor issues.

Cochran invited and signed a contract with the United Farm Workers of America AFL-CIO, which provides employees with the best pay scale in the industry, medical and retirement plans, and vacation and holiday pay.

Thinking Beyond Our Plates: Dietitians Take the Lead
As the nation’s most qualified nutrition educators, dietitians can help consumers expand their concept of “eating well” beyond personal nutrition. Raise consciousness by asking these three basic questions:

1. Where does my food come from?

2. Who produced it?

3. Under what conditions was it produced?

How our food is produced matters for present and future generations. Do we want to eat food that carries the burden of exploitation? Doesn’t it make sense to invest in production methods that protect workers, the environment, and consumers?

Let’s make every day “Labor Day” and empower our clients to vote with their food dollars and forks for a truly fair food system.

— Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, LD, is a freelance writer, a speaker, and the “Food Sleuth” columnist based in Columbia, Mo. A Food and Society Policy Fellow, she specializes in media literacy and connecting the dots between food, health, and agriculture. She visited the Immokalee workers as part of a Food Justice Delegation in March, and she can’t wait to get back to the sweetest berries on earth at Swanton Berry Farm.


1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Food manufacturing. Last modified December 18, 2007. Available at:

2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupation Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition. Last modified December 18, 2007. Available at:

3. U.S. Department of Labor. The history of Labor Day. Available at:

4. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Service, farm workers have highest poverty rates. The Editor’s Desk. September 7, 1999. Available at:

5. Stubenrauch JM. Nurses’ vigilance leads to discovery of new syndrome. Am J Nursing. 2008;108(10):25-26.


Agricultural Justice Project:

Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs 2008 documentary Children in the Fields:

Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Campaign for Fair Food:

International Labor Rights Forum:

Sustainable Table:

Swanton Berry Farm: