Monday, June 20, 2011

"Tomatoland" & slavery

Here's an excerpt of Barry Estabrook's book Tomatoland:
Today's industrial tomatoes are as bereft of nutrition as they are of flavor. According to analyses conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, fresh tomatoes today have 30 percent less vitamin C, 30 percent less thiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than they did in the 1960s.

The best way to experience true tomato taste is to grow your own. Little wonder that tomatoes are by far the most popular vegetable for home gardeners, found in nearly nine out of 10 backyard plots. ...Not everyone can grow a garden or head out to a neighborhood farmers' market in search of the ideal tomato. But we all have an alternative to the sad offerings of commercial agriculture.

...Florida's tomato fields provide a stark example of what a food system looks like when all elements of sustainability are violated. ...If it were left up to the laws of botany and nature, Florida would be one of the last places in the world where tomatoes grow.

...Florida tomato workers, mostly Hispanic migrants, toil without union protection and get neither overtime, benefits, nor medical insurance. They are denied basic legal rights that virtually all other laborers enjoy. ...And conditions are even worse for some in Florida's tomato industry. In the chilling words of Douglas Molloy, chief assistant United States attorney in Fort Myers, South Florida's tomato fields are "ground zero for modern-day slavery." ...Workers were "sold" to crew bosses to pay off bogus debts, beaten if they didn't work, held in chains, pistol whipped, locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by armed guards. Escapees who got caught were beaten or worse. Even though police have successfully prosecuted seven major slavery cases in the state in the last 15 years, those brought to justice were low-ranking contract field managers, themselves only one or two shaky rungs up the economic ladder from those they enslaved. The wealthy owners of the vast farms walked away scot-free. They expressed no public regrets, let alone outrage, that such conditions existed on operations they controlled. But we all share the blame. When I asked Molloy if it was safe to assume that a consumer who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store, fast food restaurant, or food-service company in the winter has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave, he corrected my choice of words. "It's not an assumption. It is a fact."
But RTWT. Here's another excerpt, a review or two, and an interview. The book is an expansion of Eastabrook's March 2009 "Gourmet" article The Price of Tomatoes, which describes the case of one worker who was forced into debt slavery. There Eastabrook offers this advice on buying slave-free fruits:
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. 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. You can also visit the CIW’s information-packed website ( if you are interested in becoming part of the coalition’s efforts.
Here's CIW's anti-slavery campaign. CIW is probably most famous here in Louisville for the pressure on Yum! and Taco Bell a few years ago. I vaguely recall the "Gourmet" story, too; I guess this is something that has been dancing around my consciousness for a while, but Eastabrooks dials it up. Perhaps it's because the tomato issue is usually framed in terms of wage negotiations, but Eastabrook discusses it in terms of human slavery. A review: "(Says Estabrook: 'If you have ever eaten a tomato during the winter months, you have eaten a fruit picked by a slave.')"

The 2003 New Yorker story Nobodies covering the investigation and trial of several slavers. This is an old story, writes David von Drehle:
On the day after Thanksgiving, 1960, legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow took millions of Americans into the tomato fields of Florida via the landmark CBS documentary “Harvest of Shame.” He began by quoting a farmer who said, “We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them.” And he ended with the idea that an outraged public might press for meaningful laws to protect the migrant workers “who harvest your fruits and vegetables.”

More than half a century later, journalist Barry Estabrook has returned to those fields and reports that things are no better...

When I was a young reporter at The Miami Herald in the 1980s, we wrote exposes from Immokalee and Clewiston and other hubs of South Florida agriculture. The generation before us had written those same pieces, and the generation before them, too. Anyone who believes that journalists have great power to should try reading everything that has been written on this sad subject, going back to Ernie Pyle’s 1940 visit, when he observed “pigpens filled with humans” in the “Florida version of ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ ”

But Estabrook bears witness again, and tells the story well. ...he taught me a lot—not just about farmer’s markets and heirloom tomatoes. I learned that even in the most soulless supermarket you can find better-tasting tomatoes grown in appropriate climates. You just have to look in the canned vegetables aisle.

Yes, canned tomatoes are superior to the smooth, red orbs in the produce section. They’re grown in the suitably dry air of California and allowed to ripen before they are picked and processed.
Mark Bittman concurs on The True Cost of Tomatoes:
The tomato fields of Immokalee are vast and surreal. An unplanted field looks like a lousy beach: the “soil,” which is white sand, contains little in the way of nutrients and won’t hold any water. To grow tomatoes there requires mind-boggling amounts of fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides (on roughly the same acreage of tomatoes, Florida uses about eight times as many chemicals as California). The tomatoes are, in effect, grown hydroponically, and the sand seems useful mostly as a medium for holding stakes in place.

...The breakthrough for the CIW came in 2005, when after enormous consumer pressure Yum! Brands, which controls Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, signed the agreement. (And you know what? Good for them.) Since then, Subway, McDonald’s, Burger King, the country’s largest food service operators (Sodexo, Aramark and Compass Group) and Whole Foods have signed as well.

Progress, clearly. What’s missing are traditional supermarket chains, and the CIW has targeted — largely for geographical reasons — Ahold (the parent company of Stop & Shop and Giant); Publix (the dominant chain in Florida); Kroger (next to Wal-Mart the biggest food retailer in the country); and Trader Joe’s...).

Most of us eat or buy industrially produced tomatoes, and it doesn’t seem too much to ask that the people who pick them for us be treated a little more fairly. Speak to your supermarket manager or write to the head of the chain you patronize (the easiest way to do this is to visit this page on the CIW site). Supermarkets, I expect, are as susceptible to public pressure as fast-food chains.
Our back yard is really shady, and so gardening didn't work out last year; I had been thinking of waiting until next year to put in new garden beds in a sunnier spot. It's really late in the season, but I went ahead and planted three tomato plants yesterday.

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