The Cost of Year-Round Tomatoes

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Photo by clayirving/Flickr CC


Friday, Sept. 11, 4:40 p.m.: Scroll to bottom for an update.

Most anyone interested in food has a tomato story to tell this time of year. I have two: one from me, the foodie. And one from the other me, the corporate food activist with Bon Appetit Management Company, where I serve as director of strategic initiatives.

First, the personal story: "All tomatoes, all the time" is how meals in my house are described this time of year. Ruby, orange, yellow, green, Italian varieties grown locally, raw (but liberally doused with California olive oil), paired with fresh-made mozzarella and herbs, oven-dried overnight, blended with watermelon into cold soup. I can't get enough summer tomatoes--a passion my family sympathetically endures since I don't reserve the same enthusiasm for kohlrabi. I work hard in September to preserve summer flavor for winter use as tomato chutneys, sauces, and dried treats.

Like many people who try to stay true to eating a regional and seasonal diet, I eat very few tomatoes between November and May. That's my choice, of course. They are readily available in supermarket produce sections and college dining halls everywhere during cold months. Tomato slices are standard elements on deli sandwiches, in wraps, and on burgers unless you specifically request they not be included (which I do). Tomatoes are chopped every day for salsas (which I admit I do eat, along with my humble pie). Marketed as high in antioxidants and emblematic of "fresh produce," the number of tomatoes consumed year-round is growing despite locavore interest. I know of no college dining hall, however committed to seasonal food (and I've been to dozens), that goes without fresh tomatoes in some form.

I wish most people didn't want tomatoes in winter. But everything can't change overnight.

If I'm unsuccessful in my corporate activist role, though, this may change very soon. As an eater, I may personally eschew "fresh" tomatoes in winter, but working for a national restaurant company that serves 120 million meals a year, I can't ignore them. Today, as I eat my luscious local tomato for lunch, I'm also negotiating November's deliveries in Minnesota, Ohio, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New England and the Metro DC area. This is more difficult than one might imagine.

In April Bon Appétit Management Company CEO Fedele Bauccio and VP Maisie Greenawalt traveled to Immokalee, Florida with one of our chefs, Francisco Alvarez. They toured growing fields and met with members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. For almost two decades, CIW has been trying to change conditions for tomato pickers in Florida's growing fields. Besides very low pay for extremely hard work, more serious abuses have been documented. A few contractors have even been convicted of practicing human slavery. Yes, slavery: in this century, in this country.

Remarkably few people on the East Coast and Midwest realize that their winter tomatoes come from Florida and that serious problems exist. But it's understandable, perhaps, if consumers are unaware (not everyone watches 60 Minutes or reads Gourmet), but I spoke with a major produce distributor today in Cleveland who had no idea what I was talking about.

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Photo Courtesy of Helene York

Some companies have tried to wash guilt from their hands by promising to pay an additional penny per pound, but currently the growers are refusing to pass on that premium to the workers. Consistent with our core beliefs, Fedele Bauccio insisted on a different framework, one that encourages change on the ground: we'll purchase tomatoes only from growers who agree to follow a code of conduct outlined between Bon Appetit and CIW that allows for third-party monitoring to show that current workers get an extra penny per pound, every week, with their normal pay or we'll boycott tomatoes in winter. (The penny a pound premium represents about a 40 percent wage increase.) If we couldn't find a grower to agree to these conditions, we would boycott Florida tomatoes. Since we agreed not to substitute tomatoes from elsewhere if we couldn't get a Florida tomato grower to sign on, that literally meant no fresh tomatoes this winter.

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Helene York is the director of strategic initiatives for Bon-Appetit Management, an onsite restaurant company based in Palo Alto, California.

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