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Food Justice

May 2, 2009

By Lee West

Farmworkers TomatoesIn honor of May Day, a word about workers. Specifically, farm laborers. This past Tuesday, one of the nation’s largest food service companies announced that it will boycott Florida tomatoes if growers fail to increase pay and improve conditions for workers. Bon Appetit, the food service company, wants workers to be paid one penny more per pound of tomatoes harvested.

This isn’t the first time Florida tomato growers have suffered from accusations of unfair labor practices. From 2001-2005, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker’s rights group in Florida, organized a boycott of Taco Bell as a way to put pressure on growers to improve conditions; that boycott ended when Taco Bell agreed to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes. More chillingly, repeated accusations of slavery – yes, slavery, for which there have been at least five convictions in Florida since the mid-90’s – have blighted the industry’s image.

The largely Hispanic immigrant workers in Florida’s tomato fields are merely the latest victims in an American agricultural history fraught with racial discrimination and labor abuses. American farming has had a race and labor problem since the earliest days of the slaveholding South; sharecropping developed after the civil war to help keep a black population in servitude; and, as the New York Times editorialized last month, basic labor rights taken for granted in other American industries are still not recognized among farm workers, an inequality the editorial calls “a perverse holdover from the Jim Crow era.” Despite the achievements of César Chávez’s United Farm Workers in the 60’s and 70’s, the case of the Immokalee Workers shows that farm labor still has a long way to go. I mean, a penny per pound? Slavery? Come on.

Thankfully, the sustainable food movement is starting to see the importance of labor. Josh Viertel, former co-director of the YSFP and now President of Slow Food USA, visited the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in March. He acknowledged that the sustainable food movement “has completely missed the boat on work,” and resolved to change that, saying that “farmworkers need to be a part of this movement.” And Whole Foods has already signed an agreement like the one Bon Appetit is agitating for, paying the extra penny per pound. Walter Robb, co-president of Whole Foods, explained the decision this way: “In the long term, how can something be sustainable if it doesn’t include the welfare of those who produce it?”

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