by Amber

Fair Food Tomatoes: Ethical Eating

What’s a penny worth to you? Most people don’t worry about the lowly 1 cent piece at all. They’re a nuisance to many, frequently found laying on the ground – as if bending over to retrieve them just isn’t worth the effort. Yet, one more penny per pound is enough of a pay increase to totally change the life of a Florida tomato picker, which until recently was akin to sweat factory workers, and in some cases, downright slavery. Considering the premium price tomatoes fetch, the situation is deplorable.

But change is taking place, and you can make a difference in this situation by buying only tomatoes at the store that bear the Fair Food Worker Certified label. Right now only a handful of commercial tomato growers have enrolled in the program. The initiative was started by the tomato field workers themselves, and it’s taken years to get past the roadblock the Florida Tomato Exchange erected. The tomato grower industry body threatened to impose a $100,000 fine on any Florida tomato farm that joined the program… and it wasn’t going to cost the farmer or the exchange anything at all.

Bigger Than Wages

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has spent the last 2 decades trying to change the life of market farm workers, many of which are from Mexico and South America, but not all of them. Slowly, but surely, they have been able to make a difference in the working conditions field pickers toil under. Until the Fair Food program was put into place it was common practice among tomato growers to force them to overfill picking buckets. Workers were paid by the bucket, and heaping them as high as they could meant cheating the pickers out of 10% of what they were supposed to get paid.

Minimum wage isn’t part of farm employment. The industry is historically low paying, but still being cheated on wages was routine, and the rate of pay has declined in recent years too. Imagine on top of being robbed of your pay having to deal with being beaten, belittled, sexually harassed, starved, lack of proper medical treatment, and more. Pickers work long hours totally exposed to the elements. Its a physically demanding job with almost inhuman quotas… imagine picking and carrying 2 tons of tomatoes from the rows to the truck every day. And then going home to give your dinner to your children, because there isn’t enough money to feed the whole family.

It’s hard to believe that this goes on in today’s USA, but it is. Educating the workers about their human rights has brought change, and the CIW, along with their support organizations continue to work on bringing these changes about industry-wide. Thanks to the dedication of this farm workers coalition, conditions in Florida are now considered the best in the country, but this improvement is very recent, and there is still much to be accomplished.

[alert type=white ]”Florida tomato suppliers in the Fair Food Program pass on to their buyers a penny-per-pound of tomatoes pay increase for farmworkers. They also must have zero tolerance for forced labor and sexual assault and put in place a mechanism for resolving labor disputes between growers and farmworkers. The program also requires growers to allow farmworkers to form health and safety committees on each farm.” — Associated Press[/alert]

Consider just how much of the fresh produce piled in your local grocery store is hand picked. Basically all of it. Harvested by armies of underpaid field workers, though the Fair Food program only covers tomatoes to date. Obviously, they’ve got a long way to go in correcting the injustice, though one cent per pound increase in cost might raise your food costs three cents a pound. Even a nickel would be a small thing to most shoppers… like no one will buy zucchini or plums if the price is a 3-5 cents more?

What Pennies Can Buy

Demand for organic fruits and vegetables is widespread, firmly entrenched in the food supply everywhere. Becoming a more sustainable society has many seeking out locally grown produce in growing numbers too, which is great. It’s not only good for the environment, it boosts your local economy too… A community that ceases to support itself could eventually become a ghost town. But just because it came from a farm not far from you doesn’t mean no farm workers haven’t been taken advantage of in the process from planting to it arriving at market.

Initially, the Florida Tomato Exchange thought that what the Fair Food Program, Fair Food Standards Council, and the CIW was trying to do was form a union, but they had it all wrong, and in the end what they’ve created is really extraordinary. In the words of the Washington Post, this is perhaps “one of the greatest human rights success stories of our day.” It’s not a union, but the establishment of ethics in the workplace, and health and safety measures. We – you and I – can help to spread the Fair Food Program to all tomato farm workers, perhaps all produce farm workers. After all, your purchasing dollars carry a lot of weight within the food supply system. That extra penny per pound is paid to the farm and then passed onto the workers.

It’s not a union, it’s an alliance between the farm workers, the farm, and the retailer. Fair Food certified tomatoes aren’t available everywhere. It started out small, but it’s growing pretty rapidly in 2015. A lot of what’s been accomplished in getting stores and eateries involved came about through activities of the Alliance for Fair Food, but not every establishment they’ve targeted has come around to ethical thinking… there are those that refuse to get on board.

Buy Ethical Tomatoes

Surprisingly, fast food restaurants, catering, and food service firms were some of the first wholesale buyers to support the Fair Food Program. Yum Brands – Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Wing Street was the first retailer to enroll in 2005. Subway, McDonald’s, and Burger King followed suit in 2008, as did Whole Foods after a 2 year battle with the tomato exchange. Next came 4 major food service companies over the next 2 years. Both Chipotle and Trader Joe’s joined forces with the tomato workers next, followed by WalMart in 2014.

This year they’ve really started making a mark in grocery stores with both Fresh Market and Ahold USA – Giant, Peapod, and Stop & Shop. The Ahold acquisition puts worker-certified Fair Food tomatoes to 780 new stores in 14 Eastern states. Ahold broadens the market by 50 million new shoppers a month for farms that participate in giving their workers an ethical workplace and a fair wage.

Can’t buy Fair Food certified tomatoes near you? You might want to complain to your grocer’s management, maybe write your representatives in Washington, because…

Human rights should be an important part of feeding a country, let alone feeding the world.

[highlight color=#A5BD97 ]  FAIR TRADE WHERE IT MATTERS MOST… AT HOME  [/highlight]

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The garden played a starring role from spring through fall in the house Amber was raised in. She has decades of experience growing plants from seeds and cuttings in the plot and pots.