WTF Wednesday: The Price of Tomatoes

February 10, 2010


I am honored to welcome Velva from Tomatoes on the Vine to participate in the 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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Cold Spaghetti :: Just Posts for a Just World: February 2010
March 10, 2010 at 11:09 am
The February 2010 Just Posts « collecting tokens
March 10, 2010 at 12:47 pm
More about tomatoes « Citizens for Sustainability
March 12, 2010 at 7:15 am

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Lynn February 10, 2010 at 10:36 am

Sounds like the diamond mines. I think I will keep growing my tomatoes in buckets on the back deck. Thank you for enlightening us. This is crazy. Who do we write?
.-= Jennifer Lynn´s last blog…Your not my baby, so DIE and while I am at it: free meal! =-.


Absence Alternatives February 10, 2010 at 10:40 am

I wonder about the same thing too. When I first read it, I was of course horrified, then disturbed, then embarrassed that this was the first time I heard of this.


megan February 10, 2010 at 10:37 am

I guess the the name says it all, I love tomatoes and have been trying to be more critically aware of where they and other produce comes from. Sometimes even when they are locally harvested they are no better than our imported counterparts. Thank you for focussing some attention on the workers and their conditions, shame on those bosses that would subject their ‘employees’ if they can be called that, to a life of slavery. If you don’t mind I will link this article to my blog! Cheers.


Absence Alternatives February 10, 2010 at 10:42 am

Of course I don’t mind. I suspect that the best way to make any change is to raise the awareness of this. It sounds that the law enforcement and ppl with power to affect change are well aware of this. Perhaps they could not afford to care too much since this is a platform that will not get them re-elected? Thank you for spreading the word.


Chris February 10, 2010 at 11:51 am

Well, now I feel vindicated about not eating tomatoes. About the only time I’ll have anything involving them is the few times I eat pasta and even then I don’t usually get the red sauce. Don’t eat ketchup, will NOT eat them raw either in salads or on sandwiches. We got our own dose of slave labor problems down here (New Orleans area) after Katrina when hundreds of illegals arrived to join the reconstruction labor force. They were also horribly exploited, and the sad fact is that they stayed the course, working in miserable conditions, while local people would work one or two days and say “Later for THAT shit!”
.-= Chris´s last blog…Not Feeling Too Good About Myself Today (But It’s Getting Better) =-.


Elly Lou February 10, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Uncle. There’s no winning! I try and get my organic, US grown veggies and I’m still just contributing to the problem. Clearly we need a “Fair Trade Certified” seal for products produced in the US, too.
.-= Elly Lou´s last blog…Pterodactlys, Apologies, and Weddings =-.


TheKitchenWitch February 10, 2010 at 12:51 pm

This is enlightening (and darn disturbing). Thanks Velva and Absence, for bringing this to our attention!
.-= TheKitchenWitch´s last blog…White Trash Motherlode: Crabmeat Appetizers =-.


Jane February 10, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Modern day slavery occurs in many forms – and now, oh the guilt each time I purchase a tomato! Can’t wait for spring so I can start planting (and then , of course, hiring child labor (my own) to help me with my crops!)
.-= Jane´s last blog…So Hard On Ourselves, Why Are We So Hard On Each Other? =-.


Wicked Shawn February 10, 2010 at 5:34 pm

So much for “Buy American” . So disappointing. Exploitation of humans is so commonplace now, authorities really do seem to think the public will sit back and allow them to turn a blind eye to it. Oh wait, we have been……..
.-= Wicked Shawn´s last blog…You Aren’t Prince Honey, Enough With The Pussy Control =-.


Sandi February 10, 2010 at 6:51 pm

Wow that was something else….it really makes you think doesn’t it. Thanks for sharing that with us Velva.
.-= Sandi´s last blog…Asian Noodle Salad with Chicken and Cashews =-.


Bud February 10, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Not only can you shed your guilt about buying slave produce and fruit, home grown tastes better too! I recently saw an expose about Michigan berry farms exploiting workers, including children, in much the same fashion.


Chef E February 10, 2010 at 9:10 pm

Velva, you are so right. I grew up in Texas where immigrant laborers are still taken advantage of. They will unfortunately take the low paying jobs, because it is more money than they make otherwise. I am a sustainable consumer, and many Amish stands here sell their own goods, so if I cannot get local farm produce in the area until summer, I travel outside to Trenton market and PA for my goods. Or we eat comfort grains, risotto, and pasta with minimal frozen veggies.

I must confess, I exploited my own children when they were growing up…since I thought having them meant free labor, just kidding, but we did joke about that to them when we would ask them politely to help do the chores. :)

Bravo Velva, well written piece!
.-= Chef E´s last blog…Wine-Down Wednesday- Bordeaux, Part deux =-.


Amber February 10, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Thank you for sharing this. It certainly does raise awareness. My only question is, what can I do? Not buy tomatoes? That certainly isn’t good for my health. Raise tomatoes? I live in an apartment (and it’s in the middle of winter). I am not trying to take away from the point, but could you let me know what I can do? I am disturbed by these things that I am unknowingly supporting. I want to do something.
.-= Amber´s last blog…Love Letter to Mr. B; Reader Be Warned–It Is Mushy =-.


Velva February 11, 2010 at 8:12 am

My goal in raising this issue was not to discourage people from buying tomatoes but, to raise awareness. As Americans, we are so far removed from our food source. We mindlessly toss our food into our grocery baskets with no thought to how it was produced or where it came from. If the next time you go to the store and just for a second, you give thought to what you read in this blog post, then I was succesful.
Thank you so much for taking the time to comment.
.-= Velva´s last blog…Praline French Toast Casserole =-.


February 10, 2010 at 11:41 pm

To pour salt on the wound…also consider all of the fine day-old produce (tomatoes included) that are chucked into dumpsters from the back of fine grocery stores ranging from organic to big box stores. This happens every single day across this great land we call the US of A. Perfectly fine food that could other wise be donated to a shelter, offered to the homeless, restocking the local soup kitchen, or filling a family table.

.-= Terresa Wellborn´s last blog… =-.


Susan Fields February 11, 2010 at 4:05 am

This is so disturbing – I had no idea. It’s not a happy topic, but definitely something that begs for our awareness. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Velva.


Diane February 11, 2010 at 5:56 am

And if we boycott the growers, the workers lose those jobs – which they’re taking freely, by the way, because they’re better jobs and living conditions than they have back home. It’s a horrible situation. I also live in South Florida, where there is a large Guatemalan population. These guys come here to work – not to freeload – to work, because Civil War is creating horrific conditions in their own country. They leave their wives and children behind and try to send money.

I volunteer at El Sol, a community center for immigrant day laborers. We provide them a place where they can get day labor work, legal aid, lunch, learn English, etc. And every Saturday we have a small group of protesters who claim they are “taking our jobs.” Doing yard work for $10 an hour? You think those 60-year-old guys holding signs want to do that work? It boils my blood. The workers do community service in their spare time, too. Building houses for Habitat for Humanity.


Merrilymarylee February 11, 2010 at 10:32 am

Lois Lenski wrote children’s books in the 1930′s-50′s about migrant children. The books were fiction, but put a real face to poverty and repression. (Strawberry Girl was my favorite.) I doubt that few children read them without developing a keener sense of social justice and…humanity.

Back then, most of the faces were white. It is heartbreaking to think that the changes since then have been only in the color of the faces, not in the conditions.
.-= Merrilymarylee´s last blog…DuhMENtia =-.


Sarah Galvin (All Our Fingers in the Pie) February 11, 2010 at 2:04 pm

This almost makes me cry. We have a similar situation in Canada because the labour laws do not cover migrant workers. We have workers from Mexico and Jamaica. Well written.
.-= Sarah Galvin (All Our Fingers in the Pie)´s last blog…There is More to Canadian Cooking than Maple Sugar =-.


Unknown Mami February 13, 2010 at 12:45 pm

It is amazing that these practices are still routine. I really think that most of the American public does not believe that these things still happen in this day and age. It’s worse than indentured servitude or even feudalism; it is most definitely a form of slavery.
.-= Unknown Mami´s last blog…Fragmented Fridays =-.


February 13, 2010 at 11:59 pm

Damn. This, plus Naptime’s recent link about how canned tomatoes have high levels of BPA…only a few more weeks and we can get our tomato plants started for our little garden. Guess we’ll be doing some canning this year.

Thanks, Submom and Velva, for raising our awareness.
.-= Falling´s last blog…Insert Clever Title Here =-.


February 15, 2010 at 3:54 pm

This just reminded me… when I was pregnant, I consumed MASSIVE amounts of tomatoes. I couldn’t get enough. I ate so much that the citric acid made my tongue sore.

Anyway, I’m glad I read this story… it’s so true how inhumanely some people are treated. All the more reason for me to get my garden started again!

.-= Jen @ NathanRising´s last blog… =-.


Shelli February 16, 2010 at 2:23 am

Why is it I can’t seem to go a week without someone reminding me of “The Grapes of Wrath”? Because that’s exactly what this story reminds me of.

However, it’s not an uncommon story to me. I spent the 2nd part of my childhood in a town called Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. The Mushroom Capitol of the World. Yes, world. And 90% of the workers on the mushroom farms there are illegals, who live 5 families to a small one room apartment that’s falling apart. Only here, we have winters. Freezing winters. It’s brutal on these families. But they do their work. I don’t know the pay scale, but it has to be similar to that of the tomato farmers. And it’s appalling to me that this is still happening in our country.
.-= Shelli´s last blog…Hello Again! =-.


Absence Alternatives February 16, 2010 at 9:43 pm

“The Grapes of Wrath” Yes… SIGH…


February 17, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Awesome awesome. So glad you posted this. So important. Bottom line? You can’t have cheap eats at the store without someone getting the short end of the stick somewhere.

And I hate the term “illegals” — was Moses a friggin’ illegal, for crying out loud? Folks just tryin’ to work for the man to get by as best they can. Just sayin’.


naptimewriting February 20, 2010 at 11:26 am

Oh, thank you! I was pre-miffed before I read this, thinking that you were going to discuss how upset you were that tomatoes were overpriced, while indignation about these conditions roiled through my brain and made me angry that anyone would not realize how much tomatoes *really* cost in human and environmental terms.
I am so freaking excited to read this, though that sounds horribly wrong, because it means more people will know. And the more we know, the better our choices can be.
Oh, thank you. I’m so glad intelligent, thoughtful, caring people like you exist in the blogosphere. (That goes for Velva AND the fearless host at Absence.)
.-= naptimewriting´s last blog…All I know today =-.


Absence Alternatives February 20, 2010 at 1:27 pm

You are very welcome. Velva should get all the credit for bringing this to the attention of more people.

p.s. Now that you mentioned it, I agree… I wonder how many people decided not to read this important post because of the ill-conceived title… My bad really…


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