As a veteran of the U.S. Army, I’m often thanked for my service. I’ve never felt comfortable receiving this thanks. To be honest, I’m not proud of my participation in the Iraq War.

But recently, as the initial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the U.S., I was thanked for my service under very different circumstances. This time, I truly appreciated the sentiment.

I work part time at a small farm in upstate New York, harvesting greens, washing vegetables, and packing orders, among other tasks. When a customer came in last week to pick up 25 pounds of carrots, she surprised me by saying, “Our community appreciates your work. Thank you.”

When I’m thanked for my service as a veteran, I usually deflect the gesture. But on a chaotic day at the farm preparing orders for over-shopped local grocery stores, that customer’s “thank you” felt genuine, and I was grateful.

The current pandemic and economic crisis have made it clear that farmers, grocery workers, and other food producers and distributors perform an indispensable service to our nation. As the COVID-19 death toll rises and many citizens are quarantined, these essential workers leave home to ensure produce gets harvested, food gets packaged, and grocery shelves get stocked. They feed our nation.

Yet these workers are often treated as expendable labor, enduring long hours and poor conditions, while not receiving a living wage or health care benefits. That’s unacceptable.

If the mental health of farmers is a measure of how well our national food system is doing, we’re in bad shape. The high veteran and service member suicide rate is well-publicized (20 per day). Yet the rate among farm workers exceeds that of veterans. Lack of access to mental health care, partisan battles over the farm bill, tariffs, and crippling debt are all contributing factors.

Another thing to consider is that Mexican farm workers, tens of thousands of whom travel to the U.S. every year on work visas, form the backbone of our food production system. Without these workers, farm production would suffer significantly. Yet racism and discrimination towards Mexicans is rampant in the U.S., in no small part fueled by President Trump’s rhetoric. That’s hypocritical.

In these difficult times, we ought to say “thank you” to food producers and distributors for providing a life-sustaining service to our country. But more than that, we ought to thank them by ensuring they’re paid a living wage and can go to the hospital without going bankrupt.

Now more than ever, it’s clear the U.S. needs a $15 per hour minimum wage and universal health care. While we’re at it, we ought to de-fund and dismantle Trump’s ineffective and racist border wall and instead work to fix immigration policy, providing a clear path to U.S. citizenship for those who seek to live and work here.

Our national security depends on those workers who feed us. We ought to give them the support they deserve.

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Kevin Basl

Kevin Basl is a writer, musician, and antiwar activist. He is a member of Veterans For Peace and About Face: Veterans Against the War. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.