RADIO PRODUCER AND WRITER
I grew up in South Florida. If I were to travel 57 miles on I-75 and a 19 Miles on Rt 29, I would hit Immokalee, a place I’d never heard of until I read this by Mark Bittman
A third of our fresh tomatoes are grown in Florida, and much of that production is concentrated around Immokalee (rhymes with “broccoli”), a town that sits near the edge of the great “river of grass,” or the Everglades,…Unlike corn and soy, tomatoes’ harvest cannot be automated; it takes workers to pick that fruit. And not only have workers been enslaved, they have been routinely beaten, subject to sexual harassment, exposed to toxic chemicals (Estabrook mercilessly describes the tragic results of this) and forced to wait for hours to find out whether they have work on a given day. Oh, and they’re underpaid.
I recently signed an online petition, addressing the leaders of Ahold USA, Kroger, and Publix (my local supermarket in Florida) asking them to sign the Fair Food agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
The Fair Food Program, overseen by the independent Fair Food Standards Council, ensures humane working conditions by upholding a zero tolerance policy for slavery, child labor and serious sexual harassment on Florida’s tomato farms.
* The Fair Food Program requires you to pay a small premium to ensure tomatoes are harvested by farmworkers living and working by humane standards (1.5 cents more per pound).
* As importantly, the agreement commits you to buy your tomatoes from growers who comply with the standards of the Fair Food Program and not to buy from those who won’t.
I’ve never signed an online petition before, and I found the process a bit strange. I entered my name, email, and zip, and suddenly my name was at the bottom of this petition. I clicked “Send Message,” and got a thank you email from the International Justice Mission.
The form letter aspect of it is strange. What will happen to this email? Will it get filtered into a Trash folder? Do these people even look at their email?
The very ease of this petition- I found it through a food blog, urging me to take two minutes out of my day and send it- is exactly what makes it so ignorable. It is highly unlikely that a CEO who sees this form letter will take the time to read it.
But maybe that is a cynical view. Every person who sends a petition is an added number that the International Justice Mission and the Coalition for Immokalee Workers can claim when putting pressure on these companies. And they have seen results.
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. 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.
There is a small, bare bones fruit and vegetable market in my neighborhood, open twenty four hours, every day. The produce is colorful and inexpensive. Grandmothers root through the section of slightly damaged produce every morning, twenty nine cents a pound. I feel good buying there. At Whole Foods, I feel like I’m buying into a cliche. Yet now I know more about where the tomatoes at Whole Foods come from than the produce from my corner market. Should I use my grocery dollars to support my neighborhood produce shop, or Whole Foods and it’s suppliers? My neighborhood shop was not only more convenient than Whole Foods, it is also much cheaper. Now I know why.