What you can do

Been writing on some heavy stuff this week, so I wanted to end the series on a positive note, with some ideas on how you can help make a difference in the lives of the people who pick your food.

Even I have found myself getting increasingly depressed as I think about my own small ability to change anything. Yeah, I’ve changed my shopping habits, and yeah, I write about it on here and maybe somebody somewhere reads it (though from the number of comments this series has garnered – exactly ZERO – I doubt it). Maybe we’re all just too tired and disheartened to think about changing the world any more.

Well, for what it’s worth, here are some things you can do. And I’m stealing some from other people because frankly I’m spent after reading and writing about this stuff for a week!

Here is the “Take Action” page from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, about whom Tomatoland is written.

From Barry Estabrook’s original article, The Price of Tomatoes:

In the warm months, the best solution is to follow that old mantra: buy seasonal, local, and small-scale. But what about in winter? So far, Whole Foods is the only grocery chain that has signed on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) Campaign for Fair Food, which means that it has promised not to deal with growers who tolerate serious worker abuses and, when buying tomatoes, to a pay a price that supports a living wage. [UPDATE: Trader Joe’s has since signed on; CIW’s Take Action page linked above has sample letters you can send to your local grocery conglomerate]

When shopping elsewhere, you can take advantage of the fact that fruits and vegetables must be labeled with their country of origin. Most of the fresh tomatoes in supermarkets during winter months come from Florida, where labor conditions are dismal for field workers, or from Mexico, where they are worse, according to a CIW spokesman. One option during these months is to buy locally produced hydroponic greenhouse tomatoes, including cluster tomatoes still attached to the vine. Greenhouse tomatoes are also imported from Mexico, however, so check signage or consult the little stickers often seen on the fruits themselves to determine their source.

And I’m going to steal from myself, too – here’s the little guidelines I wrote earlier this week, in my post about Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating:

  • To start, buy as much produce as you can locally. Cutting out the cost of distribution systems and nation- or even world-wide transportation goes a long way towards keeping prices low. If the farmer’s market seems to expensive, go at closing time – you’ll get great deals on whatever’s left.
  • If possible, join a CSA, which will ensure that your money goes straight into a farmer’s pocket (then get to know the farmer, and ensure he or she is paying a fair wage to fieldworkers).
  • Avoid large farming corporations (even organic ones), as their infrastructure prohibits paying close attention to conditions in the field (most subcontract their labor anyway), and their corporate obligation to profit requires them to cut corners (sadly, it is often easiest to hurt people, rather than product).
  • Avoid huge retailers like WalMart that make plenty of money off other goods but mark up the cost of fresh food (since it spoils and therefore cannot be bought in the huge quantities that are their advantage over smaller competitors). An orange may cost 50% more at WalMart than the local grocery store simply bc it doesn’t fit their pricing scheme (see McMillan, 136-7, for her comparison shopping between WalMart and the local Mexican grocery).

To keep it simple: buy fresh, buy local, buy in season, buy from small farms, and cut out as many middlemen as possible.

And to finish, some hope: things are getting better in some respects. The CIW’s “Campaign for Fair Food”, seeking to raise wages by “a penny a pound” and ensure basic rights for tomato pickers started in 2001 and has successfully enrolled Taco Bell (2005), McDonald’s (2007), and Burger King, Subway and Whole Foods (2008). The next years were spent fighting the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which initially resisted (even though the wage increase was entirely paid for by the buyers and didn’t affect the Exchange or growers one way or another – except to ask them to treat their workers better). They finally relented in 2010 and now the extra pennies, previously sitting in escrow accounts, are finally reaching the workers for whom they were earmarked.

The CIW’s next target is grocery stores, and from their website I gathered that they have added to Whole Foods’ early participation the signature of Trader Joe’s and several food management companies (e.g. Bon Appetit, food supplier to many of the colleges with which I’ve been affiliated) to the growing roster of companies on board with the Campaign. Sadly, the rest of the major grocery chains – including WalMart, which takes in ONE of every FOUR food dollars in the United States (more than the next three grocery corporations combined) – have yet to sign on. Read more about the Campaign for Fair Food here: http://ciw-online.org/101.html#cff.

Summing up: big campaigns definitely help, but it’s also the choices you and I make every day that eventually will turn around the whole system. So don’t you be discouraged, and I will try not to be either!

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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.