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I am honored to welcome Velva from Tomatoes on the Vine to participate in the WTF Wednesday feature in which rants and foaming are conducted and strong opinions are shared on things that bother us, that just won’t go away until we get on our soap box and let it rip.

Velva celebrates the deep, communal meaning in food, through her wonderful blog: Tomatoes on the Vine – sustaining our bonds with one another through the simple grace of sharing a meal. What makes me respect her even more is that, in the midst of the gorgeous pictures she takes and the delicious plates she shares with her friends and families,  she did not forget where the food came from, and how it got to our table. The Politics of Food Production and Distribution. We don’t want to think about it. But it is there.

Now let’s give a round of applause and welcome Velva to WTF Wednesday! (And you can be NEXT!)

The Price of Tomatoes

by Velva Knapp @ Tomatoes on the Vine

I was born and raised in South Florida where the landscape and food are as diverse as its people. I don’t want to take you to the part of South Florida where you pass million dollar houses and shopping malls that include Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany’s. I want to take you on a journey to the other side of the tracks to Immokalee, Florida, located 120 miles Northwest of Miami. When you arrive, the highway suddenly shrinks from six to two.

Welcome to the Tomato Capitol of the United States.

During the months of December through May most of the tomatoes consumed in the United States come from this impoverished, gritty, dusty town filled with potholed streets and trailers that are almost uninhabitable, or at a minimum in permanent disrepair. Not only is this the Tomato Capitol of the United States but according to Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant U.S. attorney, “Immokalee Florida has another claim to fame: It is “ground zero for modern slavery”.

How does slavery occur in the United States in 2010?

The condition in which these migrant workers live and work is appalling and sub-human. Since 1997, over 1,000 men and women have been freed by law enforcement in Immokalee, and these were only the cases that led to conviction. A well-known fact is when you are undocumented, mistrustful and speak little or no English; you are not likely to report the crime. This allows the crew bosses who exploit these workers to go uncharged and the big growers who hire them, simply turn a blind eye and go unnoticed.

As I write this post, I am not referring to a few incidents of unscrupulous crew bosses, what I am writing about takes place everyday, and not just to a few but to many migrant workers who do jobs that most Americans cannot even fathom.

I am not trying to stir-up a debate about U.S. immigration policy but, to look on the human side of the people who work our fields to ensure that our grocery bins and fast-food chains are filled to the brim with tomatoes and most other produce. The fact remains that big companies under the guise of labor contractors and crew bosses, recruit, lure and hire migrant workers. Promise them basic necessities such as food, shelter and medical care, if they should become injured on the job. Instead, many migrant workers are provided appalling housing conditions, virtually no medical care and there is a cost for everything.

The migrant worker working in Immokalee’s tomato fields, rummages through staked vines looking for hard green tomatoes-when the 32-pound basket is filled, It is then hoisted upon their shoulder and then trotted up to large dumpster the size of a gravel bed of a truck. The basket of tomatoes is then dumped, and the process starts all over again. This is usually done at break neck speed. On a good day, for each basket that is picked, a worker can earn a token worth about 45 cents. A young fit worker could pick a ton of tomatoes a day, netting about $50 per day-that is if the worker actually receives what they have earned. A known practice is that when piece workers are paid their work is routinely falsified.

Oftentimes, their pay is also docked for everything from drinking water from a hose, a meager meal of tortillas and beans, or using the bathroom. An average trailer that literally leans in the wind and houses on average ten migrant workers usually costs about $800 per month. Want to take a cold shower $5 to use a garden hose and $20 a week for urinating and defecating outside because there is no indoor plumbing. In a relatively short period of time, the workers are in debt to the crew bosses and in a situation in which they cannot pay off their debts, and are forced to live in involuntary servitude.

Next time, you head to the grocery store and are placing your tomatoes or other produce in your cart you can reasonably assume that your produce was picked by the hand of a slave – as it is not an assumption. It is a fact.

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