Pandora’s Lunchbox (Catchy Title!)

This is a MUST READ, especially for anyone who controls a lunchbox – for yourself or a spouse or a kid (I find processed foods wind up there first).pandora-bc2

By the way, this is the sort of thing you’ll get notified about first if you “Like” my Facebook Page – see that little box on the right over there? Go click it!

Grist

You’ve heard of pink slime. You know trans fats are cardiovascular atrocities. You’re well aware that store-bought orange juice is essentially a scam. But, no matter how great of a processed-food sleuth you are, chances are you’ve never set food inside a processing plant to see how many of these products are actually made.

Writer Melanie Warner, whose new exposé-on-the-world-of-processed-foods book, Pandora’s Lunchbox, is out this week, spent the past year and a half doing exactly that. In her quest to explore the murky and convoluted world of soybean oil, milk protein concentrates (a key ingredient in processed cheese), and petroleum-based artificial dyes, she spoke to food scientists, uncovered disturbing regulatory loopholes in food law, and learned just how little we know about many of the food products on supermarket shelves.

After reading Pandora’s Lunchbox, I sent Melanie some burning questions via email. Here is what she…

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Case Study: Tomatoes

Along with reading Tracie McMillan’s undercover story of her time in the California fields that produce grapes, peaches, and garlic, I’ve been reading Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland. At first glance, the tagline “How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed our Most Alluring Fruit” makes one think this will be a book about how we came to buy tasteless, colorless tomatoes all throughout the year thanks to the wonders of modern technology. And it does start there, moving on to a seriously disturbing chapter about the chemicals used in tomato farming that will have you run screaming from the produce aisle. The story of deformed babies born to women who’d worked in the fields while pregnant will give any mother pause about feeding these fruits to her children.

But the book’s main purpose, I believe, is to reveal the conditions in which the field hands live and work in order to provide for the American sense of entitlement to buy tomatoes any time of year. They were first outlined by Estabrook in his article for Gourmet magazine, which led directly to this book, entitled “The Price of Tomatoes“. There, and in the book of course, you will find the details behind the broad strokes I will mention here. I can’t recommend reading either or both highly enough.

In the best cases, workers are hired to pick winter tomatoes (picked green and hard then gassed to be red for market – but that’s another issue) and are paid, on a good day, about $70 for 8-9 hours of work (their wages, paid by the bushel gathered, have gone up dramatically just in the last few years after having been stagnant for thirty years, owing to a long battle by a coalition of workers that reads like a movie script – and really, should be – that involved a social media campaign getting major fast food outlets on board to pay “a penny more per pound”. Sadly, no grocery stores signed on to the pact, which also has provisions for better treatment of laborers, except Whole Foods early on and more recently Trader Joe’s).

That’s if they work all day; much of the time, hours are spent traveling to fields, waiting for trucks or other equipment, or any number of other delays for which they are not paid. One worker was out in the fields for nine hours and came home with a little over $13. In addition, they “are denied basic legal rights that virtually all other laborers enjoy” (p. xiv). And many days there is no work for large numbers of those who are willing and able, and they return to their homes frustrated and deeper in poverty than before.

At least they came home whole. Conditions in the field are dangerous and downright illegal, much of the time. Workers are forbidden breaks of any kind, even to go to the bathroom or drink water. If they don’t comply, they may be fired or even beaten. This is happening to children – only in agriculture are youths as young as twelve allowed to work. Originally, this was so farming families could have their own kin helping out; nowadays it’s used against the most vulnerable among the migrant farmworker population.

The living conditions at “home” aren’t much better: workers live in squalor, many in trailers near the parking lots where they are picked up for work. Estabrook visited one such trailer, where ten men shared the single-wide space: sleeping on rank mattresses on the floor, together using one bathroom and one tiny stove. His description of the space is stomach-turning. And for the privilege of enduring these conditions, the men paid $2,000 a month in rent!

But the most harrowing stories are those of the workers kept in – there’s no other way to put it – slave conditions. “Sold” to work crew bosses, they are forced to work all day, drowning under souped-up “debts” they can never repay, chained or locked up at night, and beaten or even killed if they try to escape. The conditions are described in detail in Estabrook’s article linked above and I encourage you to read about it. It is, unfortunately, not a “few and far between” occurrence. Slavery cases are regularly prosecuted in this part of Florida, and that’s only the ones they catch (you can imagine how difficult it would be to get witnesses for such cases, when the witnesses first have to escape slavery, then be willing to speak out about it, risking deportation and being labeled a snitch and therefore unemployable).

Douglas Molloy, chief assistant United States attorney, calls Florida’s tomato fields “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Estabrook elaborates: “Molloy is not talking about virtual slavery, or near slavery, or slaverylike conditions, but real slavery. In the last fifteen years, Florida law enforcement officials have freed more than one thousand men and women who had been held and forced to work against their will in the fields of Florida” (p. xv). Unfortunately, the punishment for these crimes usually stops at the lower level, with crew bosses or contractors. The growers, the farmowners, the corporations they grow for, and the rest of us may never even hear about it…much less be held accountable.

Do you understand what this means? Nearly 150 years after the Civil War, people are enslaved to pick crops, and it’s a regular business practice. One landowner said, “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them” (p. 83). Another responded to worker demands for better treatment (via hunger strikes and requests for dialogue) with the flippant remark: “The tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to farm” (p. 110).

A simple way to sum up the plight of tomato workers came to Estabrook when he was serving in the soup kitchen in the tomato town of Immokalee, FL: “Workers who pick the food we eat cannot afford to feed themselves” (p. 107). When Estabrook asked Molloy if it was “safe to assume” that we had, all of us, at one time or another eaten a tomato picked by a slave, he responded, “It’s not an assumption. It’s a fact” (p. xvi).

Want to know more, or help? Check out the Coalition of Immokalee Worker’s website or Estabrook’s blog. Tomorrow I’ll continue talking about slavery, and finish the week with a few suggestions for how you can help impart justice to farm workers.

The Five Minute Pitch

Last night a woman asked me about this blog and what I write about. It gave me the opportunity to practice my “five minute pitch” – that is, the distillation of the ideas you’re considering for a book that can be given in an elevator ride. Technically I realize five minutes is too long. But once I get going I tend to keep people’s interest. 🙂

Anyway I failed at being very coherent last night (granted, there was wine involved, which I felt the need to imbibe while speaking so as to underline my points about eating well), so I thought I’d better get this figured out on here and then I will hopefully have a better spiel for next time. And Tina if you read this, hope it clarifies things for you!

Many Christians want to integrate their faith into all aspects of their lives, but often don’t think about how to do that with their choices around food. Yet the way that we shop and eat is so deeply important to our ethics and our general approach to life, and absolutely can and should be a spiritual act. To make it simple, I take as my starting point the three tenets of the Slow Food Movement: food should be good, clean, and fair.

Food being “fair” means that the processes by which it is produced respect the dignity of all creation. This starts with treating the earth well: not poisoning it, tending it with patience, etc. It means allowing animals to be the creatures they were made by God to be: so pigs, for instance, will root in a forest, not be crammed into a crate. It continues up the chain to human beings: paying the farmer a price that reflects his or her work, ensuring that slave or near-slave labor does not continue, and supporting legislation that lifts up the individual, hardworking people who labor to bring us food. Respect and Fairness also means giving all created beings, including the land,
the Sabbath rest it deserves.

Food being “clean” goes right along with this. Christians can think of it as purity, as not polluting our bodies with inventions masquerading as food or poisons that may give a moment of pleasure but contribute to a lifetime of illness. It means having a clear idea of where your food has come from, and connecting to the people (and animals, if you like) who are part of the process. It means personally knowing your farmer and even visiting the farm, showing your children the beauty of the earth and its abundance. Again, it can mean supporting certain types of legislation. And the best way to ensure you’re eating clean food is by growing it yourself: a wonderful way to connect to God’s creative work in the world.

Finally, food should be GOOD! It should taste good, it should make our tongues and our tummies happy! That means we eat real food, not foodlike substances (it means we throw rules out the window now and then, too). We take time to cook and honor the recipes of our ancestors. We use premium ingredients from around the world, that remind us just how varied and exciting God’s handiwork can be.

And it should be good for you, not just in the physical sense, but in the emotional, social, and definitely spiritual senses! Pondering your apple while you eat it will settle your mental state and put you in a place of gratitude and connection with your world. Eating with other people will bring you close together and cement community. And there is a great reason why the Eucharist is the primary sacrament of Christian discipleship: it is through daily bread that we return thanks to our Creator for sustaining our lives, and it is through wine that we return thanks for the grand enjoyment we are given in life! Blessing God for the gift of food makes us priests before him, sharing and stewarding, correcting the selfish error of Adam and Eve who took for themselves alone.

Good, clean, and fair food connects us to our families, our communities, our God, and our best selves. And that is why eating well is, inherently, a spiritual act.

(ok that is probably over five minutes….like I said, I really get going. It’s a work in progress!)