Fighting for Pennies: Tomato Protesters Battle Supermarkets

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The Food Network


My protest marching skills are a bit rusty, having last been put to use in 1968 on behalf of Eugene McCarthy and his thwarted bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. But on a bitter afternoon in Boston recently, I sloshed through a few inches of slushy snow with more than 900 supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a grassroots farmworkers' organization based in Florida. We tramped from Boston's Copley Square to a Stop & Shop supermarket a couple of miles away. With a brass band, clever signage, and rousing warm-up speeches by Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, and Lucas Benetiz, of the CIW, it was a friendly, festive event whose purpose could not have been more serious.

Without the additional penny, laborers earn the same amount for a 32-pound bucket today as they did 30 years ago. They receive no benefits of any kind, have no sick leave, and are not paid extra for overtime.

Sixty members of the CIW had traveled by bus from Florida, sleeping on church floors and bathing at homeless shelters along the way, to make a simple request. They want Stop & Shop, a northeastern chain of supermarkets owned by the international conglomerate Ahold, to pay them one penny more per pound for the tomatoes they pick. Less than chump change to the $40-billion-a-year Ahold, a penny per pound is the difference between making $50 and $80 during a 10-hour workday for a typical tomato picker—$5 an hour versus a barely minimum wage of $8 an hour. Without the additional penny, laborers earn the same amount for a 32-pound bucket today as they did 30 years ago. They receive no benefits of any kind, have no sick leave, and are not paid extra for overtime. Most earn less than $12,000 a year. On the day we marched to that Stop & Shop, fresh slicing tomatoes were on sale for $1.99 a pound. Paying one penny more per pound for an out-of-season luxury that no one really needs seems a modest sacrifice.

After nearly two decades, the effort to improve working conditions in the tomato fields of Florida has reached a crucial milestone. Last November, the CIW reached a watershed agreement with the huge farms that grow and pack most of the field-raised fresh tomatoes Americans eat at this time of year. Called the Fair Food principles, the terms of the agreement include a strict code of conduct, a complaint resolution system, a health and safety program, and an educational process.

Importantly, the growers agreed to pass a penny-per-pound increase along to workers if—and this was a crucial "if"—their customers would accept it. Large restaurant franchises such as McDonald's, Burger King, and Yum! Brands (which owns Taco Bell) came aboard, as did Bon Appetit Management Company, Compass, Aramark, and other industrial food-service companies. But with the notable exception of Whole Foods Market, not a single supermarket chain has offered to participate. As one member of the coalition told me, "We have built a conduit for a fair wage, but the supermarkets have to fill it."

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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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