Ethically Grown Tomatoes: Coming to a Market Near You

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A few months ago, I attended an amateur boxing match in Immokalee, Florida, an agricultural community in the southwestern part of the state. It didn't look like it was going to be a fair fight. In one corner was a strapping fellow in his late teens or early twenties. He stood well over six feet tall, all lean muscle. In the other corner was Emilio Galindo, 50 years old, graying, plump, and all of five-foot two.

Galindo wore a T-shirt inscribed with the logo of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a group that has been fighting for improvements in the dismal working conditions in Florida's fields (including abject slavery) for nearly two decades. His opponent wore a sign saying "Taco Bell." They tore into each other in a flurry of puffy, red gloves, cheered on by an audience of mostly Hispanic laborers. Things were looking grim for the diminutive Galindo, but then he delivered a quick uppercut. His lanky opponent fell to the mat. They returned to their respective corners, where women fanned the victorious Galindo with towels. The bell rang again, and another bout ensued. This time Galindo's tall opponent wore a McDonald's sign, and after a few minutes of back-and-forth flailing he was KO'd. Galindo was just warming up. Burger King, Subway, and Whole Foods all fell in turn before the small but determined CIW fighter.

It was a stunt, of course: theatro intended to attract an audience and deliver a simple lesson at one of the CIW's weekly meetings. The lesson was not lost on the attendees. Taking on one giant corporation after another, the CIW has been successful in getting them to sign "Fair Food" agreements that give the workers one cent more per pound (the difference between $50 on a good day and $75) and more importantly establish workplace transparency and other policies that prevent abuses.

It's a lesson that should not be lost on Florida's major tomato growers and the nation's supermarket chains, most of whom have not signed on.

Despite years of efforts, chains such as Publix, Ahold, Kroger, and Trader Joe's ignore the CIW's requests. That is soon going to get harder to do.

But last week, in a watershed event, Pacific Tomato Growers, one of the largest producers in the state, with more than 2,000 workers and 14,000 acres, came aboard. Not only will the move pressure competitors to follow suit, but it will make it harder for supermarket chains to refuse to buy Fair Food tomatoes. Tellingly, Pacific, along with another big grower, 6Ls, was one of the companies on whose fields two dozen workers toiled as slaves in a case that was successfully prosecuted in 2008.

Amy Bennett Williams, a journalist with the Fort Myers News-Press whose dogged reporting has brought to light many of the abuses in Florida's tomato fields, wrote that Jon Esformes, Pacific's operating partner, quoted the philosopher and rabbi Joshua Heschel at a press conference following the announcement. He said, "Few are guilty, but all are responsible .... The transgressions that took place are totally unacceptable today and they were totally unacceptable yesterday."

Unfortunately, that message has yet to sink in at the major supermarkets that sell most Americans their food. Despite years of efforts, chains such as Publix, Ahold, Kroger, and Trader Joe's ignore the CIW's requests. That is soon going to get harder to do. The same week as the CIW announced the Pacific deal, it announced an intensified campaign directed at supermarkets.

"Publix, Ahold, Kroger and Trader Joe's all pack a very heavy punch when it comes to their market power in the produce industry," the CIW said in a release. "And with great power comes great responsibility—both for the poverty and brutal working conditions from which they have profited for so many years, and for the work of reforming farm labor conditions in their supply chains that lies ahead.

"With the four largest fast-food companies (McDonald's, Yum Brands, Burger King, and Subway) and three largest foodservice providers (Compass Group, Aramark, and Sodexo) having signed Fair Food agreements with the CIW, the focus now falls squarely on the $550 billion supermarket industry. And with the exception of Whole Foods, the natural food leader that signed an agreement with the CIW nearly two years ago, it's time now for the major grocery chains to step up and bring their considerable purchasing power to the plate."

As Galindo demonstrated, the CIW may look small and weak, but it is clever, persistent, and packs one hell of a punch.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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