Put Down That Winter Tomato! It Was Picked By a Slave

This story from the March issue of Gourmet has been making the blog rounds recently, but for those of you who haven't read it, it's well worth a look. Writer Barry Estabrook gives a detailed description of Immokalee, Florida, the tomato capital of the U.S., where immigrant tomato pickers live in shocking poverty and are sometimes enslaved. Per capita income in Immokalee is $8,500 a year. It brings up a lot of questions about eating locally and seasonally—and if that even matters.

We, of course, encourage you to eat locally and seasonally as much as possible, and we hold ourselves to the same standard. That's hard in the Northeast, where tomatoes are in season for a fleeting month or two in the summer and the farmers' markets are filled with apples and potatoes half the year.

The situation in Immokalee raises a lot of issues. One of them is illegal immigration (the brutal supervisors who are enslaving some of the workers are illegal themselves), which we're not going to delve into. Another is the question of locality. Telling people to eat locally is not necessarily going to solve this problem. What if you live in Florida? These are local tomatoes for you. And for some of us on the East Coast, Florida is still a better compromise in the winter than, say, Peru or Mexico.

If we say no to big farms and try to stick to small growers, will these workers have work? If we as a nation decide that we do not, in fact, want to eat tasteless tomatoes when they are out of season (a good thing), will these families that pick them be able to make a living when demand decreases?

Plus, why would we think that summer tomatoes are harvested under any better conditions, and doesn't this sort of thing imply that conditions for migrant workers are just as terrible in other places? What is the human cost of cheap produce, and how do our buying choices affect the people who grow it? We don't want to support systems and corporations that routinely oppress their workers, and yet if we stop buying these things, will conditions grow even worse? Will workers be even worse off than they were before?

Our initial thought is: We imagine a bulk of these tomatoes go to chain restaurants and grocery stores. It's mentioned in the article that some companies, including Whole Foods, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Subway, have agreed to pay a higher price for the Immokalee tomatoes, guaranteeing the workers a living wage. Not that we're big champions of Pizza Hut, but it's a step in the right direction, given the volume of tomatoes they use.

As for grocery stores, Whole Foods is the only chain that has signed on to the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW) Campaign for Fair Food. So as shoppers, we can not only support local farmers but also pressure our grocery stores to pay fair wages for our produce. We're sure tomatoes are not the only problem out there.

These are not questions that can be answered easily or quickly; in a global economy, things are far more complex than we would sometimes wish.

Read the article: Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes, at Gourmet.com

Read it and let us know what you think.

Related: October: National Fair Trade Month

(Image: Scott Robinson for Gourmet)