Food Justice Discussion at Georgetown University exposes the horrors of the tomato industry in America, and what’s being done to fix it

By Jenna Banning

At a recent event hosted by Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland, joined Greg Asbed and Gerardo Reyes of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in discussing the economics, politics, and human rights campaign surrounding the tomato industry in America.

A tomato picker in southern Florida. (Photo credit: Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

Most people have no idea who picks the produce we eat every day or even where it comes from. It was this realization that led Estabrook to investigate where the tomatoes found in supermarkets in the middle of winter were grown. Estabrook, a food writer, was aware of the inferior quality of supermarket tomatoes and recognized that the year-round supply of these typically summer fruits is not natural. He describes his introduction to the industry, driving behind a truck carrying tomatoes in southern Florida: “I realized that these were perfectly green, perfectly round, tomatoes…I watched as the tomatoes smacked the interstate, bounced, bounced again, and rolled perfectly intact onto the sidewalk. What they’d developed was something that could withstand a 60 mile per hour impact.”

As he continued to investigate tomato production and harvesting, Estabrook reacted with “equal parts horror, and shame” to what he found. He discovered what has been called by Douglas Molloy, the assistant US attorney for the Department of Justice in Fort Myers, “the ground zero for modern slavery.” Ninety percent of American tomatoes available during the winter come from southern Florida, most near the town of Immokalee. And the conditions under which the people who pick these tomatoes live in are horrifying.

Greg Asbed and Gerardo Reyes are part of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a 4,000-member organization which has been fighting this system of worker exploitation in the tomato industry for the past 20 years. In its early stages, CIW confronted the employers of the tomato farms demanding “dignity, dialogue, and a fair wage,” and while they achieved some victories in negotiations with the farmers in Immokalee, they saw limited success. They realized that the true power “resides at the top, in these giant consolidated retail corporations.” Fast food giants, petroleum and fertilizer companies, machinery providers, and food providers all place tremendous pressure on the farmers, who in turn demand more from the workers while supplying less in terms of pay, benefits, and basic living conditions.

Since 2001, CIW has shifted its energy to addressing the systematic causes of brutal worker exploitation. According to Asbed, the food industry has the resources necessary to improve workers’ conditions, but requires two things in order to make the shift: the motivation to provide these resources, and a system to properly direct them. The CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food, which focuses on the first priority, began by concentrating on Yum! Brands, which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver’s, and A&W. “Many people were thinking we lost our minds,” say Reyes. Corporations such as Taco Bell spend millions on protecting their brand name and image, which the Campaign uses for leverage in influencing change. “A brand is a remarkably powerful thing,” says Asbed, “but an incredibly fragile thing.”

After four years of pressure from the Campaign for Fair Food, including a year-long boycott of Taco Bell, Yum! Brands signed an agreement with the CIW, agreeing to a one-cent rise in pay to workers, and guaranteeing that the workers who picked their tomatoes would be treated fairly. Agreements were soon signed with other food retailers, including McDonald’s, Burger King, and Whole Foods. “Unprecedented transformation has taken place in the tomato fields in the past season,” says Asbed.

Each of the farms that have signed agreements holding them to CIW’s standards must use the CIW’s video and booklets to educate the workers on their rights. According to Asbed, CIW employs six full-time staffers for education outreach, and will be printing 50 thousand workers’ rights booklets in just this season. To illustrate the power of these actions, Reyes described the story of one worker, who, after learning about her rights, reported on an employer who was threatening to violate them, resulting in immediate action by the company. An agreement signed in November 2010 with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which oversees 90 percent of the farms, will expand the CIW’s Fair Food system across the state, which Reyes predicts will impact between 70-90 thousand workers.

Unfortunately, grocery chains have refused to sign any agreement guaranteeing protection of workers’ rights and fair pay, which presents a huge obstacle to CIW’s work. These stores represent a large share of the market for tomatoes, and if they refuse to hold their providers accountable, Reyes states that the farmers have no incentive to treat their workers fairly. CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food is now working to take on these stores, using methods designed to “be fun” and engage the attention of the public and the media, while also directing attention towards the stores’ hypocrisies and unfair practices. (For example, check out the video of their Lady Gaga flash mob protest in Trader Joe’s. CIW’s website includes tools to encourage grassroots action, and the organization aims at raising awareness in the general public. “The power of consciousness travels through time,” states Reyes. “It knows no borders. It stays with every person that shares it.”

The struggle to improve the working and living conditions of the tomato workers has been extremely challenging, and Asbed describes the “mountain of resources that are necessary.” But they are encouraged by their recent successes and the swell of interest and support among the public, spurred on in part by Estabrook’s James Beard award-winning article and book on the topic. As Reyes states, “This is not how food is going to be produced. We are challenging the system…This is a movement.”

Asbed acknowledged “For us, tomatoes are everything. For [others], tomatoes are only a small part.” Do you know of workers’ rights violations in other food industries and organizations that are working to address them? Let us know about this important work.

Jenna Banning is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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