A pile of cherry tomatoes fresh from my own back yard
Do you know where your tomatoes come from? The red-fleshed, savory fruit can be found year round on the shelves of every major grocery store, but what happens before that? What's their origin story? Like many of our beloved heroes, the back-story of the tomato can often be less glamorous than is portrayed in media. In fact, large points of contention have grown up around one of our favorite food staples.
A large portion of the tomatoes in our local markets and big-box chain restaurants come from tomato fields with some of the most controversial working conditions in the United States today. In fact, it has been said that up to 90 percent of the nation's winter tomato supply comes from Florida, and a large percentage of those tomatoes come from a place called Immokalee, a location rich in both agricultural production and immigrant workers.
The Imokalee immigrant laborers work under conditions of extreme heat and intense pressure to collect large buckets of tomatoes for the general populous. According to the Coalition of Immokalee workers, a nonprofit agency set up to aid and protect Immokalee farm workers, this is done at a wage of roughly 50 cents per 32-pound bucket. Immokalee has a per capita income of less than $10,000 per household.
Many of us are familiar with the concept of low-cost farm labor, but one of the things that sets the Immokalee system apart from others is that it provides labor camps in which the immigrant workers can stay. While that's also not a new concept, the rates the Immokalee workers are charged to stay in these camps can be substantial. According to Mirra Fine, camera operator and co-producer for the Perennial Plate, a documentary style web-series based out of Minneapolis, workers can rent trailers for their families for up to $400 a week, while taking in less than $50 a day. That means the small trailers are often shared among several families.
In conjunction with the high rent and low pay, there have also been actual cases of slavery reported in Immokalee that ended in indictments for several farm employers. Many of these stories report workers kept chained up and in crates or buses and told that they are not allowed to leave the farms until their "debts" have been paid. These debts can at times stem from large drinking accounts established by the farmers.
These conditions have caused many to try to organize to bring attention to the working conditions that people like the Immokalee farm workers have to face. Says Perennial Plate's Daniel Klein, "America needs to wake up to the fact that cheap food has a price."
So, why talk about this now?
Today, a website called The Giving Table has setup a national event called "Food Bloggers for Slave-Free Tomatoes" in which blogs from across the country will be submitting recipes that make use of locally grown, in-season tomatoes to call attention to the working conditions that surround the tomato trade.
The Coalition for Immokalee Workers have also established what it calls the Fair Food Program, calling for increased wages for farm laborers paid for by a higher prices on tomatoes bought by food corporations. Tomorrow, the CIW is encouraging people to hold events at local Chipotle branches to encourage the chain to support the program.
You can visit The Giving Table to find a list of participating blogs where you can get tomato recipes and more information on the subject. The CIW webpage has information on the Chipotle events. You can also watch this short film by Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine of The Perennial Plate that illustrates the conditions of the Immokalee farm-working community.