Florida may be known for its production of oranges, but it is also the reason you can enjoy slices of tomatoes on your burgers in the winter. The Sunshine State is the source for about one-third of the tomatoes produced in the U.S. and almost the majority of tomatoes that are eaten in the off-season. But this luxury comes with a cost. A cost on environment, on consumers and workers in the field. In Barry Eastbrook’s book, Tomatoland: How Modern Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, “The tomato is the poster child for so much that is wrong with industrial agriculture…If you take everything people care about when it comes to local food and seasonality and fair trade and you strip all that away, you end up with a tomato grown in Florida.”
Several years ago a labor abuse case broke out in one of Florida’s framing towns. It was reported that some Florida tomato growers were using illegal immigrants to pick tomatoes and in return, were given little pay and kept in confinement. Eastbrook writes in his book, ” People were chained up at night and bought and sold like cattle… It was like something out of the 1850’s, but it was happening now.”
Evidently, Florida is also a horrible place to grow tomatoes. The soil is full of chemical fertilizer due to its lack of nutrients. You would think the warm weather would be the answer – but in fact the lack of frost supports plant diseases, which means pesticides. But Eastbrook points out, that farmers are not looking to produce the best tasting tomato- but “a tomato that is virtually indestructible.”
I love tomatoes. In fact, when people ask me that cliché question, “what is one food you cannot live with out?” my answer is tomatoes. So, I am sure you can assume my reaction towards this. Initially, I couldn’t imagine not having the availability of a tomato year round but.. who wants to purchase a tomato when you know it is poor quality? Or even worse, you know buying that tomato is contributing to the demand which in turn, tomato workers continue to be mistreated. But in lite of recent news, I discovered buying your tomatoes at certain grocery stores doesn’t initiate that domino effect.
Last week, Trader Joe’s, came on board with the Fair Food Agreement: a campaign to improve working conditions for tomato pickers in Florida. Trader Joe’s is only the second grocery chain, after Whole Foods, to sign the agreement. To my surprise, major fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway have signed it as well. The job of tomato picking does not come with any health benefits, overtime or sick days. However, the Fair Food Agreement gives workers a raise from $50.00 to $80.00 and basic rights like time cards, grievance process, safety education and protection from violence and sexual harassment.
Okay. So choosing to buy tomatoes at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s helps… but what about the quality of my tomato?