Well Being

Your Healthy Tomatoes May Have Been Picked By Slaves; The Sad Truth About Labor In America

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tomato slavery immolakee

Look at that bright, juicy red tomato sliced on your sandwich or chopped in your salad. I bet you didn't know there's a good chance that fresh tomato was harvested by someone living in virtual slavery. That's right: modern slavery is alive and well in America, impacting agricultural practices as well as the food on your plate. But community-based organizations, like the Coalition Of Immokalee Workers want to make sure you know all about it.

Almost one-third of all of the tomatoes in the United States are grown in Florida. Tomatoes can't be harvested mechanically; they need to be picked by hand. And who provides the manpower to pick thousands of tomatos a day so burger joints all across America can slap a beautiful slice down between two buns? Poor workers, many of whom are migrant works or immigrants to the United States.

As Barry Estabrook chronicled in his book Tomatoland, conditions for these workers are abysmal at best. They're constantly exposed to dangerous chemicals and pesticides, forced to work long hours, and often abused: abuses range from workers being held against their will to economic extortion. Not to mention that most workers have to pick upwards of 100 buckets of tomatoes per day in order to make a mere $50.  In fact, former Chief Assistant US. Attorney Douglas Molloy once called the situation in the tomato fields in Florida “slavery plain and simple.”

As a food blogger, I first became aware of the unfair conditions in Florida's tomato fields through the Food Bloggers For Slave-Free Tomatoes campaign, created by fellow internet foodie Nicole Gulotta at The Giving Table. Nicole said:

This is a human rights issue, and I don't believe that workers should be exploited in order for tomatoes to arrive on my dinner table. This is also a topic that flies under the radar in the media, so I saw this as an opportunity to educate more consumers about what really goes on in the food chain.

After doing a bit of research into the issue, I was both horrified and emboldened. Like Nicole, I saw an opportunity  to educate people about the shocking practices that put food on our middle-class American tables.

I contacted the Coalition Of Immokalee Workers, an incredibly vocal community-based organization of migrant workers that has been active in bringing the injustices faced by agricultural workers to light. Nely Rodriguez, a member of the coalition and a worker in the fields, says conditions are particularly bad for women:

A female farmworker has to do the same work a man does — but we confront double the abuse. All workers wake up before dawn to begin looking for work, as that’s what the industry demands, but as women, we awake even earlier to prepare our children for the day and walk them to caretakers. In the workplace, women often face sexual harassment.

Thanks to the CIW, conditions for the workers have improved, with nine major investigations having freed over 1200 farm workers over the past 15 years. But more needs to be done, both on the corporate level and by consumers.

Eileen Campbell at the International Justice Mission (home of the Recipe For Change campaign) told me about the Fair Food program, which the CIW endorses as a means to ending modern slavery in the tomato fields. The Fair Food program consists of a few different elements, namely a wage increase for workers, worker education programs and accountability standards for the farms involved. Eileen commented:

The Fair Food Program is a terrific model for how we can clean up the supply chain in American agriculture, and in other sectors. It involves workers, consumers, and corporate buyers working together to ensure that workers are protected and the goods we buy are not being produced at the expense of someone else’s well-being or freedom.

The Fair Food program has made considerable progress so far, successfully including a penny-per-pound wage increase that will net pickers thousands more dollars per year. To date, the majority of growers in Florida are participating in this program, as are many restaurants and supermarkets, like McDonald's, Burger King, and Whole Foods.

But not all corporate partners are on board. Outliers? Oh, just companies like Giant, Publix, Kroger, and Chipotle–huge companies that sell thousands and thousands of tomatoes per day. Companies that are making money off of the abuses of the people working in the tomato fields. Companies that contribute to the fact that “farmworkers in Florida’s tomato fields aren’t treated as full human beings,” as Nely Rodriguez said.

So what can you do if you want to make sure your money isn't going towards to exploitation of tomato workers? For one, change where you shop. Eileen Campbell explained:

If you buy your tomatoes from supermarkets like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, you can feel confident that they were harvested fairly. We need to pressure the other major supermarket chains to make a similar commitment to slave-free tomatoes by joining the Fair Food Program.

Boycott stores that don't participate in the Fair Food program, and let them know you think their position is wrong. You can do so by sending emails, downloading printable supermarket manager letters and more, at the CIW's Take Action site. You can also sign the petition from the International Justice Mission.

Nely Rodriguez told me, “People who eat tomatoes care about them as products; they want them beautiful and unbruised.”

I'm hoping that many of us who care about our tomato products might also care about the conditions in which the fruits are grown and harvested. Because we, the people who eat them, can't forget the people who pick them: people who are right now working in the hot Florida sun, putting tomato after tomato into a plastic bucket, helping to feed America.

Photo: Shutterstock