The Cost of Year-Round Tomatoes

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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.

Step 1: Get a grower to agree--check.

Step 2: Figure out how to get them to more than 100 kitchens across 18 states--still working on that one.

Winter tomatoes don't drop themselves into college dining halls. They are picked green in the fields, delivered by truck to central warehouses where they are repacked into pallet-loads. Contracted truckers then deliver them to ripening facilities throughout the eastern half of the U.S. where they are again repacked into smaller boxes for delivery to restaurants and other institutional customers. Multiple "repacking" into smaller containers makes traceability about who grew them, and under what conditions the laborers picked them, difficult to determine if traceability procedures aren't put into place from the beginning. So we agreed to pay more to workers who were paid and treated fairly. And we've signed up one grower (while working on two others) but can we be sure if the "right" tomatoes get to our distributors who can deliver them to us? That's the focus of our work right now.

On a personal level, I wish most people didn't want tomatoes in winter. It's the year-round demand for "all tomatoes, all the time" that exacerbates a really bad situation. But everything can't change overnight. My immediate task is clear: source tomatoes grown by companies whose executives have made a verifiable commitment to treat workers fairly. If we figure out the supply chain puzzle, and give business to growers who don't condone slavery, we can at least reduce the human cost for some in the near term. Wish me luck.

UPDATE:

East Coast Growers and Packers, one of Florida's largest tomato growers and a supplier to many fast food giants, made a stunning announcement this week that they have agreed to work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to implement the CIW'S "Fair Food" agreements, including the penny-per-pound raise to harvesters, as well as making their supply chain more transparent, and following a stringent code of conduct.

The agreements had been stalled for almost two years by the resistance of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, the powerful industry trade group of industrial-scale growers that threatened to levy a hefty fine any grower who paid the penny-per-pound to workers.

Now, at the beginning of the tomato season in Florida (plants are about a month old as I write, and a month away from harvesting), one large grower has stepped away from the herd. East Coast Growers and Packers is defying the FTGE and is promising to pass the raise onto the workers directly, more than doubling their wages.

Bon Appétit Management Company wasn't involved in the talks with East Coast but we have been in talks with several growers--members of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and non-members, including Alderman Farms, whose president signed our code of conduct. Along with the commitments of some retailers, restaurants, and others, the announcement from a major grower will add more pressure--and hopefully increased leverage--to bring others on board. Expect to see more developments in the coming weeks.

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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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