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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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.

The true cost of food

I’m reading The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan. It’s the story of her undercover investigations working at WalMart, Applebee’s, and in the farm fields of California. If you’re looking for a quick primer – that reads more like a novel than a textbook – on the crazily complex food system we’ve developed in our country, this is your book.

McMillan’s experiences in the farm fields were most eye-opening to me, as she reveals not only the sorts of things we can wrap our heads around (even if we don’t like the idea), like worker injuries going unreported, the brutal pace of picking, the punishing weather conditions, and the environmental juggling act a farmer goes through to grow food in a desert like California’s central valley. Sure, we wouldn’t want to deal with these things ourselves, but we might think well, people choose that job, they need the pay, and it’s how we get our food, so OK.

But it’s not so simple. Take, for one, the requirement that workers in California receive minimum wage. A big step forward for farmworkers, it was thought. What McMillan discovered, however, was that her pay was doled out by piece, not by hour, and then her hours were adjusted to reflect minimum wage. In other words, one day she worked eight hours picking twelve buckets of garlic – $19.20 by piece rate. So her check says she worked two hours, not eight, since minimum wage is a little over $8. She has the math skills and pays close enough attention to notice this – plus, she’s a legal and temporary worker, both of which give her security in quitting and/or writing about the problem. But this commonplace practice is so underpenalized when it rarely comes to light that it’s definitely worth the cheating company’s risk in doing it (see p. 96).

Whether or not their hours are properly reported, even at minimum wage, farmworkers (who have the hardest of the food supply’s chain of jobs) are grossly under-compensated for their labor, when one considers the profit margin of fresh produce. McMillan made the aforementioned $19.20 for picking twelve buckets of garlic, and this amount nets the farmer only about $153 (they’re not getting rich either). Through an incredibly complex series of negotiations between wholesalers, distributors, and retailers (which McMillan doesn’t even bother trying to explain in detail), that garlic reaches stores, in a sleeve that is just under a pound, and sells for $1.99 in smaller grocery stores, but up to $3.38 at WalMart (which does almost a quarter of this country’s grocery business).

So in the end, the amount of garlic for which McMillan did a full day’s backbreaking labor netted her $19.20 in pay; at the smaller grocery it will retail for about $600; at WalMart, those same twelve buckets cost the customer $1,014 (p. 82).

What is all that money paying for, exactly? Profits for WalMart, sure…but that’s just a portion of it. McMillan states, “most of the price tag at the store pays for the system that moves it from place to place…By the time an apple ends up in the supermarket, the entire cost of growing it accounts for just about 16 percent of the price, while the other 84 percent goes to the complex infrastructure that got it there, what industry experts call marketing.” (28)

Ah, yes – don’t you love thinking about 84% of your food dollar going to pay for marketing the food to you?

It’s not paying the wages of the worker who picked it, that’s for sure. But would paying a fair wage increase our cost so dramatically that we could no longer afford food? Hardly: “increasing farm wages by 40 percent would increase the average American’s family produce bill by about sixteen dollars a year” (29, emphasis mine). I think I can eat that cost, if it means a liveable wage for someone who’s working their butt off to pick my peaches.

She goes on to say, “if I were really stuck here working in the fields…I’d want to know why, if the cost of food is such a great concern, we don’t focus on figuring out how to make marketing cheaper. And I’d want to know why, if my wages don’t change retail price much, I couldn’t just get paid a better wage.”

Why, indeed?

Hopefully you are wondering about now how to combat this system – or at least, I hope, how to stop contributing to it?

  • 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.