The Hidden Labor Behind Food: How to 'Read' a Tomato

The creator of a new documentary outlines how closely farmworkers' lives are connected to what's on grocery-store shelves

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Doug McLean

When academic researchers quantify consumer preference for local, sustainable produce, you hear a lot about freshness, taste, and environmental factors. In restaurants that source directly from small farms, you hear about old-world methods, pampered livestock, and unpolluted pastures. And yet one standard is surprisingly absent from these conversations about food. What are the human costs of conventional agriculture? On large farms, laborers are typically paid a pittance; they tend to live in sub-par conditions, without even basic protections from wage theft, occupational hazards, and sexual harassment. Still, in most studies (see here, here, and here) academic researchers don’t even ask about labor when they’re taking stock of consumer preferences. As an issue, it’s simply off the consumer radar.

A new documentary, Food Chains, is an attempt to change that. Inspired by the research in Barry Estabrook’s book-length expose, Tomatoland, and the heroic efforts of The Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW), a pioneering worker advocacy group that’s won for landmark agreements with huge retailers—the film chronicles life on Florida’s tomato fields with unprecedented detail. It shows how the CIW’s successes have improved daily life for workers, but explores why they still can’t make a living wage.

When I spoke with Food Chains director Sanjay Rawal for this series, we both agreed it made sense to look at the conventionally grown tomato as our “text.” The fruit, after all, is a legible object—with a little training, you can see the ways supply-chain practices are written all across its (artificially-ripened) skin. In our conversation, he close-reads America’s grocery-store staple, exploring the implications of practices that dictate the tomato’s shape, size, color, taste, and price.

Food Chains—narrated by Forest Whitaker, executive produced by Eva Longoria—is in theaters now.

Sanjay Rawal: I grew up in the East Bay, in a very urban setting. And yet the tomato fields were always close by: In my hometown San Leandro, Del Monte had its main breeding and research station in the U.S. Up until the late '80s, Del Monte was the second-largest tomato-processing company in the world. They were pretty much a ubiquitous brand in vegetables, from bananas and beans to canned goods and tomatoes.

My father worked for Del Monte as a breeder, and sometimes in the summer he’d bring me and my friends to work with him. My earliest memories of agriculture involved riding my BMX bike up and down rows of tomato crops. Whenever you needed a snack, there was stuff on the vines. The Del Monte fruits tasted great—they were being bred for good taste, which was my father’s speciality. I never grew up with a bad-tasting tomato. It wasn’t until I got to college, and ate food-service tomatoes for the first time, when I understood that not everybody was so lucky.

My degree is in molecular biology. When I graduated from Berkeley, I moved to New York to study with an Indian spiritual teacher named Sri Chinmoy. But you can’t really leave your past behind. While Sri Chinmoy was encouraging me to do human-rights work around the world, and I traveled to maybe 40 countries, my dad started his own agricultural genetics company. Since that’s my degree, he needed my help—and I began working with him on the side. It was a mom and pop operation, but we were known for good taste. Many of the varieties of tomatoes that are grown by Del Cabo, the organic varieties that you see in Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, were developed by my dad.

But most of the tomatoes we eat aren’t bred for taste. They’re an industrial product, really—95 percent of the produce we eat in America comes from a massive supply chain with a lot of different nodes. It’s important to understand that, despite the power of the local food movement, large farmers’ markets only exist in major urban areas. Only 2 to 3 percent of our produce goes through those farmers’ market environments.

The rest of our produce, of course, goes through grocery stories—and grocery stores are built on their produce sections. The majority of profits come from the geographic perimeter of a stores: produce, meat and dairy, and now self-service hot-food bars. So the produce section is critically important. And market research shows that a produce section needs to be stocked with two things of high quality and constant quantity, year-round: bananas and tomatoes. If a market doesn’t have bananas and tomatoes, studies say, they’ll most likely lose the customer’s loyalty.

And this is where our study of the tomato begins. There’s a reason your average grocery store looks exactly the way it does—and those reasons have very little to do with your dinner plate, and everything to do with the supply chain. When tomatoes are picked, they must have what’s called “shipability”: strength and vigor. The main requirement for supermarket tomatoes is that they arrive intact, with a certain degree of coloring, and a certain lack of blemishing. Customers won’t buy bruised, broken tomatoes. In fact, bruised and broken tomatoes rot very quickly. A supermarket buyer will spot-inspect tomatoes, basically reaching into cases, pulling out a couple odd tomatoes. If he or she happens to pull out one with a blemish, the entire shipment is rejected.

Grocery-store tomatoes have to be a very specific size and shape, too. When you look at a supermarket shelf, things have to be uniform. You can’t have a funny-looking small tomato sitting among the red, round beefsteak tomatoes. In the last 20, 30 years, the grocery industry has increased its requirement for supply chain-related qualities (shape, endurance, uniformity) at the expense of the taste. That’s why your average beefsteak tomatoes are boxy, hard, and the same bright red. They’ve been designed to stack well, look ripe, and endure a long journey to your table—not to taste good on your plate.

Once they’re picked, tomatoes are shipped to a packing facility near the field. Those facilities must do the initial sorting and packing—because when workers are harvesting, they’re just pulling like crazy. With all the jostling and chaos in the field, some of those tomatoes might not be the right size, they might be bruised, and they’re not going to be clean. They’re washed and resorted at this first facility.

After a long journey by truck, tomatoes are usually deposited in repacking centers in the geographic region of their end-destination grocery store. There, they’re emptied out of their crates and boxes and again hand-sorted. This is true for the tiniest cherry tomato to the largest beefsteak tomato. The bad ones are pulled out, and they’re all repacked. They’re also gassed. As you've seen in our film, tomatoes are often harvested green. It’s in this final repacking facility, that they’re treated with ethylene, a gas that ends up ripening the skin.

The way people ended up conceiving this technique—it’s urban legend, but makes sense scientifically—was that green tomatoes were packed with shipments of bananas. Well, bananas emit ethylene gas—so even though the tomatoes were shipped green, they arrived with skins fully ripened. With time, people realized that ethylene is a ripening agent. The problem is that it works only for the outside of the tomato, not the inside, so most grocery-store tomatoes are only as ripe as when they were picked. That’s the main reason a homegrown tomato takes better than a supermarket tomato: it’s picked when it’s fully ripe. This ripening and color requirement has nothing to do with consumer taste preferences. It’s all done so that the product looks good on the shelf.

Of course, the other thing the consumer notices—besides red coloring and unblemished skin—is the tomato’s price.

Remember for a moment that products for the public good—electricity, gas, heating oil, fuel—have price regulations.  When the supply is low, consumers don’t get gouged, and when supply is high, prices go down accordingly. But produce, the way supermarkets earn the majority of their profits, is an entirely unregulated market.

In 2008, the average price at the retail for a red, round tomato was $2.94 per pound. That was 2008—it’s increased since then. And supermarkets buy on a “spot market”: They look at a range of providers for the lowest prices farms are willing to take. The farms have power when there’s lots of demand and very low supply, but usually it’s the other way around: grocers have a huge number of suppliers to choose from, and they choose for cheapness. Demand for tomatoes spikes when there’s been a severe weather incident in Florida or Mexico, but typically supply is abundant. This means that grocery stores have tremendous power over the farms that supply them—and it’s resulted in a drop in profit for farmers of more than 50 percent since 1991.

Since grocers tend to pay what they want for supply, they can also set fixed prices in their stores. Price fluctuates at the farm gate, based on demand, but the consumer rarely sees that variation. This means grocers occasionally take a hit when demand surges, but mostly they benefit from bountiful supply. Tomato farmers get about 90 cents per pound today. But last summer, for example, the average price a farmer received for a 25-pound box of tomatoes was $3—equal to 12 cents per pound. That’s less than break-even. It costs more, at that stage, for a farmer to harvest their tomatoes than to let them rot on the vine.

When farmers are pressured so much by the grocery system, there’s no margin for them to pay more to their laborers. They have very high costs of doing business. They’re getting their seeds from multi-billion companies like Monsanto and their fertilizer and pesticides from companies as big as Dow and Bayer. They’re getting their machines from companies like John Deere. And they’re selling to companies like Walmart that capture one one of every three grocery-store dollars in this country.

Meanwhile, grocery stores reap huge revenues. The No. 2 grocery store in this country, Kroger, makes $96 billion in gross revenue, which is more gross revenue than Microsoft and Google combined. That’s gross revenue, of course, not profitability. People argue that grocery-store margins are miniscule compared to tech, but that’s even more evidence to the argument of grocery-store power. If Kroger is only making $4 billion out of its $96 billion in gross revenue, it's spending $92 billion on its supply chain. That means Kroger has a tremendous amount of market power to dictate the terms—not just the color, the shipability, the size, but the pricing.

As companies like Kroger and Walmart try to capture as much each retail dollar as possible, the pressure is felt most greatly by farmworkers, who have seen their wages remain stagnant since the 1970s. In the tomato fields, farmers on average pay 1.6 cents per pound to workers. Thanks to efforts by the Coalition of Immokolee Workers and the Fair Food Program, that rate has increased in Florida over the last eight or nine years. But it still leaves farmworkers earning wages well below the poverty line.

There are some 2 million farmworkers all around the country, and the majority are paid by the piece picked. It’s really a legacy of slavery—the way people on plantations were paid by the bushel of cotton they picked, for example. Today, that piece rate must correlate, by federal law, with the equivalent of minimum wage. But, too often, this doesn’t happen. In her book The American Way of Eating, for example, Tracie McMillan described picking garlic for a whole day. She only picked enough garlic to earn about $25 over an 8-hour day. In order to comply with federal minimum wage standards, her employer, a labor contractor, reported to the government that she worked three hours. We’ve seen this across the U.S. With the way farmworkers are picked, and with the lack of enforcement state by state and at the federal level, it’s very easy for farmworkers to not be paid according to the hours that they’ve picked.

Things are different now in Florida. The Florida tomato industry—dare I say it—has the most progressive agricultural industry in America. It’s the only one that has blanket enforcement for labor laws and pay laws. They’ve achieved it by eliminating that middle level of labor contractors. Around the country, farmworkers are employed by middlemen labor contractors who might drive them to work every day in busses, house them, even feed them.  In return, those farmworkers are usually fielding a number of deductions from their paychecks: deductions for their contractor’s labor costs.

They are good people who treat their workers well, but when shocking things happen it’s usually at this labor-contractor level. Someone might work a couple weeks and actually end up in debt—and that’s when they might slide into the scenario that advocates call modern-day slavery. They become indentured servants. In Florida, the tomato industry was once known as ground zero of modern-day slavery—because there was a severe lack of enforcement, and a huge number of bad eggs, so to speak. By organizing and through hard work, that oppression has been transformed into a more discernibly progressive environment where workers are treated well and paid better. That transformation is at the heart of our film.

When we look at the retail price of a tomato—whether we call it $2.94 on average or $2.99—the farmer is getting on average 90 cents of that pound. In the Florida tomato industry, the farmworker is getting 1.6 cents on the pound. The Fair Food Program and the Coalition of Immokelee Workers are trying to pressure these large buyers to return one penny per pound back to the system, so that the workers who are doing the difficult work of harvesting, and on whose backs these profits are being made, can make 2.5 cents per pound. Having their wages lifted by 50 to 60 percent is the difference between poverty and a living wage.

There are two elements of the Fair Food Program: the code of conduct and the price. In order to sell to Walmart, or the 11 other corporations that have signed on, farms need to comply. That’s why 98 percent of Florida's tomato-growing industry is bound to this code of conduct: They might be sending tomatoes to Publix this week and Wal-Mart the next, so most choose to comply.

Unfortunately, the workers only get the penny-per-pound premium if those tomatoes end up on the shelves, or in the burgers or burritos, of companies that have signed on. And the vast majority of tomatoes coming out of Florida aren’t ending up with Fair Food retailers. They’re going to Kroger, Publix, Safeway, and Wendy’s. So while the workers on those farms are covered by the code of conduct—because those farms need to be able to sell to Walmart, Taco Bell, and Chipotle—the workers by and large don’t see the wage increase.

The average farmworker earns about $12,000 per year. And while the Fair Food Program has seen over $15 million over the last four years as Fair Food bonuses, the vast majority of workers aren’t seeing their wages double the way the program intends.

But grocery stores could solve this problem instantly by passing the cost on to the consumer. That’s what the farmworkers we chronicle in the film are fighting for. We filmed the workers demonstrating, taking hunger strikes, just for a chance to discuss the issue with Publix executives—but no one would even have the conversation. Which is strange, because it really wouldn’t cost that much to make a difference.

We did a calculation based on the per capita expenditure of a family of four on fresh-market tomatoes at grocery stores. Getting that penny passed entirely on to consumers would cost a family of four about 44 cents per year. That’s less than one penny per week. If we expand that calculation and look at the consumption of a family of four of every single fresh market item of produce through every channel—whether it’s food service, fresh market or grocery store use—the average family of four would have to pay an extra $68 per year to double the wages of every farmworker in this country. That’s less than $1.25 per week. It’s staggering. It means nothing to consumers. We’re not talking about the dollar-per-pound price between conventional and organic we see. We’re talking about pennies on the dollar.

If the supermarket industry refuses to absorb that penny—which they most certainly could afford—I’m sure consumers would be willing. They might not even notice, to be honest.

But markets, in a sense, are agnostic. Food markets don’t move unless consumer preferences go a certain direction. That’s why the most important thing a consumer can do these days is ask questions. Don’t just ask your retailer, chef,  restauranteur, where their food comes from. Ask: Did the person who picked this lettuce, or this tomato, or this garlic make a living wage?

And that’s where documentary films can play a crucial role: in educating the public to ask these questions. Publications like The Atlantic do incredible, investigative pieces, but very few news organizations in the U.S. have the budgets or the bandwidth to spend a year or two or three on an investigative piece. But a documentary film timeline is that long. It took us three-and-half years to finish this movie. During that time we were able to sneak onto farms all across the country. We were able to film 400 hours of interviews and footage which didn’t make it into the final, 82-minute films. We were able to do our own nationwide analysis nationwide from the farmworker level to the executives of gigantic supermarket corporations. We didn’t necessarily have the budget—we drove ourselves into deep debt. But because we had the time, we were able to uncover things that we never could have in six months.

Longform investigative reporting, whether it takes the form of a 30-page article, or 300-page nonfiction book, or 90-minute documentary, provides American citizens with an important source of information. Documentaries are great because they’re purely visual. The question documentary filmmakers are always asked when they’re pitching their stories is: Why are you making a film about this? Why not write a book? A documentary film has to be incredibly visually engaging.

In the case of Food Chains, we had an incredible opportunity to show consumers something that they never see, primarily because of our detachment from the process of growing and harvesting food. We took cameras into the fields. And because of our director of photography, Forest Woodward, we were able to capture the beauty of the harvest. Very few farmworkers complain about doing the work—most of the farmers I met love being in the field. What they don’t like is the daily stripping away of their dignity, the denial of their humanity. That’s what we wanted to show visually in the film as well. It’s not the poverty alone, or the hard work alone. It’s the fact that at the end of the day the workers go home with less of their humanity than they might have started the day. That’s not fair.

We wanted to visually link between the beautiful environments of restaurants and grocery stores, with the reality in the fields—hopefully bridging the gap between the workers who are responsible for the meals we’re eating, and consumers who benefit from the labor at the base of our supply chain.