by Ben Miller
The article describes the brutal conditions suffered by South American immigrants who are brought into Immokalee, Fla., a city that produces the vast majority of tomatoes consumed in the United States from December to May. As the article recounts, tomato pickers were forced to work 10-hour days, paid almost nothing each week and then charged an arm and a leg for a dirty box truck with no running water or plumbing.
The poor conditions of tomato pickers garnered a lot of publicity last year with a discussion of whether fast food chains would pay more for their tomatoes in order to encourage better working conditions. It’s also prompted a push by a group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to get grocery stores and eateries to only eat tomatoes that were guaranteed not to have involved slave-labor conditions.
The wrong message to take away from this story, however, is that it is doubly tragic because the tomatoes we get in the winter are pretty much inedible anyway. Would it be any more forgivable if they were harvesting delicious summer tomatoes? I would also imagine, sadly, that you could write similar stories about other summer vegetables that improvements in growing and transportation have made it possible to have all year round. To me, this again highlights the fact that it is important to eat seasonally. Eating a summer vegetable in the winter, for example, increases the likelihood that it is trucked in from somewhere else where there is less oversight over how the workforce is treated.
The fact that the tomatoes in question are U.S. raised is particularly troubling. Generally, one would have expected that we would have moved beyond conditions not that dissimilar from what John Steinbeck described in “The Grapes of Wrath” by now. Clearly we as a country need to do a better job not just overseeing the quality and handling of our food produced, but also the people who are doing the job harvesting it.
Image used under a Creative Commons license by flickr user Julep67