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!

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.

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.

Raising a Foodie, Part 2

Yesterday I blogged about how I’m trying to train my kids’ palates to enjoy real, good food. But I have to admit: I live in a place of tension about this. I simply can’t be perfect in what I feed them, and it is only going to get worse.

At first, we tried very hard to only feed the children exclusively organic food. Then that kept getting messed up – sometimes accidentally, sometimes because we couldn’t afford otherwise. Plus you go to grandma’s and all your good intentions go out the window; or you eat out, and God only knows what they’ve been doing to the food (the one thing you can count on, according to Anthony Bourdain, is that your food is swimming in butter).

So I do my best: they mostly get organic produce and meat, but I’ve had to compromise on most grains. I try to only buy conventional of the safer produce, and with dairy, if I can’t get organic I at least get it without rBST and other hormones. Of course, when we were on the government WIC program, we couldn’t get any organic dairy (though we could get organic produce, and even shop at the farmer’s market).

One thing I tell groups when I speak is that the most important change you can make in your family’s diet is to switch to organic dairy. This is the consensus based on the hormones and what-have-you added to cow’s diets, not to mention the treatment of the animals. And the fact that dairy makes up a huge portion of most kids’ diets. So if you only can do one thing, switch your milk, cheese, butter, and ice cream to organic.

It’s a constant struggle, a constant compromise. I did what I could when we were poor: I found a store that took WIC and only sells cage-free eggs: voila! I even used food stamps at Whole Foods…did you know you can do that?

I used to work at – and get food from – a pantry that had a lot of organic. I’ve researched the dairies providing our stuff and found the ones whose methods I can live with. And nowadays I try to get our meat only from either a local ranch or the farmer’s market, or occasionally Whole Foods (because at least they have some standards).

Yeah, it’s a hell of a lot of work, and I wish I didn’t have to do it, but I’m not going to trust the government – or the industrial food complex – to provide the highest level of nutrition as well as protection for animals, farmworkers, and the environment. That just ain’t gonna happen: it’s a business, first and foremost. A business, I might add, whose co-opting of the words “natural” and “organic” is driving me insane!

But anyway, back to feeding our kids.

Beyond the issues of organic vs. non and all that trendy green stuff, I live with tension about nutrition. Of course I would love for the kids to only have a taste for vegetables and whole wheat bread, and only want to drink water (and eventually, wine). I would be so relieved if they didn’t have to struggle with extra weight. I would be proud if they ate for maximum nutritional value.

But you know, there’s a lot to be said for taste as well. And I don’t care how you dress it up, tofu or seitan are never going to be remotely like a steak swimming in butter and blue cheese. Whole wheat pasta is hard and chewy. There are times in life that call for ice cream and cake. Would life be worth living without french fries and potato chips? (I don’t mean the fake kind, I mean fresh and homemade)

Plus, I’m a big old hypocrite if I don’t let them eat some treats now & then. Lord knows only my Haagen-Dazs has gotten me through several dark periods. I sometimes get a craving for fast food (that I can usually quell) or a snack cake (which I try to feed with real cake instead). But I have my major weaknesses, and there’s just no way I can explain away the fact that I love that horrible hydrogenated grocery store bakery white cake, with extra frosting. I have been known to eat it for breakfast on my birthday, and every day thereafter until it is gone.

I live in Texas, where Chick-Fil-A is ubiquitous, and my kids love their nuggets (at least I always get a fruit cup, and the nuggets are actual meat). I love salt and vinegar Kettle Chips. I love cheese fries (but not queso aka Velveeta!). I love things that taste good and aren’t good for you. Sure, lots of delicious things are good for you too…but that’s not all there is.

And really, how can I give my child fruit-sweetened cake with no topping? What about the time-honored tradition of the child smearing the frosting all over himself? How would we have the appropriate first birthday photos? This isn’t just fun in my family of origin: it’s a bona fide rite of passage. It’s tradition.

The fact is, Halloween candy is part of life nowadays; so, unfortunately, is Valentine’s and Easter candy. I’m surprised there’s no Fourth of July candy, although I suppose we’re all to busy stuffing our faces with hot dogs and potato salad that day.

Anyway, I’m just not going to be one of those parents who denies their kid sugar. They’re not getting it often or in large quantities, but I agree that there’s no better way to set up bingeing than to deny. I know this from personal experience.

So it’s a balance, and it’s moderation. That’s how I see it. And I also believe strongly that I simply can’t live my life one way and not allow my kids some measure of it. Not that they get to eat exactly as I do, since I hope for better for them.

But birthday cake in our house will always be real cake (they get homemade) with lots of frosting, you can bet on that!