Think you care about modern day slavery? How’s that tomato tasting?

“Any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.”

Tomatoland, p. 75

Yesterday I wrote about tomatoes as a case study for farm worker rights – or rather, the lack thereof. This issue came to my attention when I heard an interview with investigative journalist Barry Estabrook on one of my favorite food shows, KCRW’s Good Food.

Estabrook was talking about the winter tomato industry in Southern Florida, and he began describing conditions there that sounded like fiction or ancient history. People chained up to sleep, forced labor without escape, beatings by “field bosses”, transportation in vans crowded with 25 or more men lying on the floor and not released for days, urinating into jugs and sharing maybe one bag of chips for sustenance.

But this is not history. It is now. It is happening. Right. Now.

Why? So that we can go to the grocery store and buy tomatoes in winter. So that we can go to a fast food restaurant and imagine we are having a “healthy” lunch of a salad. So that we can add a “vegetable” to our sandwich or burger, no matter the time of year.

But it’s fair to say that most of us had no idea this was happening. I didn’t, and I follow food news pretty closely. Fair enough.

But now you know.

If you’re like me, you probably think of modern-day slavery as human trafficking for sex, or maybe child soldiers. Both are abhorrent. Both have become big ISSUES that churches take on. Christians are all up in arms about modern slavery, but despite the fact that the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 was instigated over an agricultural slavery case, none of us seem to realize that this hits a lot closer to home than we’d care to admit.

I’ve been thinking about why this is; why are we so gung-ho about stopping slavery in the sex trade, and ignoring it in the produce aisle? I don’t think it’s just ignorance. Does any of this feel like it might be true?

  • For the average American and certainly average Christian, the sex trade is fairly easy to look down upon. We are confident that we would never participate in such an unsavory activity, so it makes us feel superior to work against it.
  • Sex slavery also is, well…sexy. It’s salacious. It’s forbidden. It’s a lot more titillating than tomatoes.
  • It seems worse to us, as Christians, because we have a long and complicated history with the body and with sex generally. We’re quicker to jump on sexual sin than almost any other kind. It just “feels” more wrong. (maybe because it “feels” so right?)
  • Most of those trafficked in the sex trade are women and children. They seem more like victims than do teenage to middle aged men, most of whom are in this country without documentation. (never mind that many of them came seeking legitimate work and were forced or tricked into the situation that led to them being literally sold to a crew)

Maybe I’m terribly cynical, but I fear something: what if Christians aren’t forming organizations around and donating in huge numbers to the small groups fighting food slavery because this would touch our lives directly.

We participate in this slavery because it gets us what we want: a winter tomato, good prices at the market, a false sense of adding something nutritious to our fast food meal. We are sacrificing lives for convenience and economy.

Perhaps you might say that this is how the business runs, and we can’t control what they do, it’s not our fault. Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what people said about plantation owners, too. And who says we can’t control them? Activists have been stamping out slavery – and changing entire political and economic systems – since William Wilberforce and others organized boycotts of sugar in the 18th century, a hundred years before our country nearly split over the issue. 

If you truly care about human trafficking then you need to educate yourself about agricultural slavery and add it to your fight.

And – unless you know exactly where they come from – stop eating tomatoes in winter.

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3 thoughts on “Think you care about modern day slavery? How’s that tomato tasting?

  1. I really appreciate your post shining a light on a little known problem in our country today. Just like you, i had no idea that this was happening. And if a “Foodie” like you wasn’t aware I’m not sure that people in general and Christians in particular are ignoring the problem. Maybe they, like you, like me, just don’t know.

    “Does any of this feel like it may be true?” you ask and then go to the bullet points. I’d have to say for me, no, it doesn’t feel true. As a believer myself, I know would rather give up a tomato than a person. ( I was just reading about that in Romans 14 today.) ANY form of slavery is an abomination to God and as a believer I would be ashamed to think I would consider my own desires over another person’s freedom. It’s unthinkable.

    (For me,I really think that the bullet points kind of weaken the very crucial information you’re sharing and distracts from the main point you’re making. IMHO.)

    Otherwise, I agree 100% with everything else you write here.

    Shall we agree to hold each other accountable for NO winter tomatoes? Of course you have it a lot better there in Texas that we do up north, here.

    BTW, about Wilberforce–“In 1785, he underwent a conversion experience and became an evangelical Christian, resulting in major changes to his lifestyle and a lifelong concern for reform.” It seems he became a reformer BECAUSE he was a Christian.

    You are totally correct, Christians should continue refroming, standing up for those who need help and should be taking a leading role in fighting this despicable evil. I’ll be sharing this article with pastor’s I know in FL.

    Thanks for sounding the call!

    • The purpose of this post is to bring up reasons why Christians might have a problem getting behind this effort. The previous post, Case Study: Tomatoes, is meant to share the information. The bullet points are the entire reason I wrote this post. It’s not to share the info, it’s to cause people to stop and think about why this might feel different to them than a sex slavery case.

      It’s easy to say slavery is an abomination to God now, but it’s not stated as such in the Bible (you might make a case that it is condoned), and for hundreds of years faithful Christians kept slaves and thought they were doing what was perfectly acceptable before God. This kind of gets at my point: that it’s easy for us to separate ourselves and say, “Well *I* would certainly never…” but in fact, we are all contributing. We are all part of the system that is fallible and broken.

  2. Reblogged this on LiturgiGal and commented:

    Slavery is alive and well in the United States, and it hits much closer to home than you may like to think. No, I’m not talking about the sex trade…I’m talking about what’s on your plate. And I’m thinking today about why this isn’t causing the kind of outrage it deserves…

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