Why the Slow Food Movement Needs to Help Stop America's Slave Labor

Faced with a fast food system that's bad for people and bad for the planet, we still need to be in solidarity with those who grow our food.

If you eat tomatoes, in America, between the months of December and May, chances are some were picked by slaves.  

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Immokalee, Florida, is where 90 percent of the nation's winter tomatoes are grown. The farm workers are mostly migrant Latinos, like Lucas Domingo, a Guatemalan in the country illegally, who slept in the back of a locked truck for two and a half years, often shackled and sometimes beaten, while his captors kept his salary.  

Florida law enforcement has hardly been lax about the problem, having freed more than 1,000 slave-laborers since 1997. But members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) say its time for state leaders to create a political fix.  

On Monday, March 9, CIW members led 120 protestors onto the steps of the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, demanding that Gov. Charlie Crist take a stand against agricultural slavery. Crist has yet to comment on the issue, though some of his designates have met with CIW. "What we are looking for," said CIW's Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, "is a governor to be a part of the solution."  

While slavery is one of the most egregious human rights violations in Immokalee, it's hardly the only one. Thousands of workers are regularly cheated and sometimes beaten by their crew bosses in the area's sprawling tomato fields.  

A typical day begins at 4 a.m., when workers assemble in a parking lot full of old school buses. Each bus is run by a different crew boss, who chooses the workers he deems likely to pick the most tomatoes. Many old or weak-looking hopefuls don't get picked.  

A good worker earns about $50 for picking literally a ton of tomatoes. Much of his or her paycheck is then siphoned off by high rents for sub-par housing and extras -- like $5 for a shower from a cold hose.  

CIW was founded in 1993, to the chagrin of the tomato barons. "The tractor doesn't tell the farmer how to run the farm," said one. Despite the inhospitable climate, CIW has been successful, via a series of restaurant boycotts, in its campaign to persuade some of the larger purchasers of Immokalee tomatoes to pay a one-cent-per-pound raise to the pickers. A penny may not sound like much, but it's the difference between $50 and $70 for that ton of tomatoes.  

To date, Yum! Brands restaurants, which include Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Arby's, Wendy's and KFC, have agreed to the raise, as has McDonald's. Burger King has so far refused.  

Steven Grover, Burger King's vice president of global food safety, quality assurance, and regulatory compliance, cites the legal complexities of implementing the raise to explain why Burger King hasn't signed on. "We just can't find a legal way to do it," he told QSR, a fast food industry trade journal.  

Despite Grover's claim, QSR says he recently instructed his buyers to find alternate tomato suppliers rather than deal with CIW. And last year Grover was caught red-handed using his daughter's online identity ("surfxaholix36") to defame the CIW with comments like, "The CIW is an attack organization lining the leaders' pockets. ... They make up issues and collect money from dupes that believe their story. ... The people protesting don't have a clue regarding the facts. A bunch of fools!"

So, dear readers, I guess it's time to boycott Burger King and eat at McDonald's instead. Right?  

I asked that question of Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, who joined a recent delegation to Immokalee at CIW's invitation. Viertel understood the paradox and laughed at the question.  

At first glance, Slow Food and CIW seem like strange bedfellows. Slow Food arose, in part, as a reaction to the industrial-style agriculture system in place in Immokalee. The mission of Slow Food is to encourage food that is "good, clean, and fair." Even if Immokalee's tomato pickers were treated like kings, most Slow Foodists would consider the demise of industrial tomato farming a good thing.

The chemical-intensive monocropping techniques used to grow those tomatoes are bad for the planet, as is the petroleum burned in their shipment.  

While it's great to see workers organizing, it's like sticking a Band-Aid over a nasty infection. Ideally, conditions in the workers' home countries wouldn't be so bad that they feel compelled to leave home and take these jobs that are so horrible that nobody here wants them. They should be growing their own tomatoes for their own communities back home, and we should be getting our tomatoes from local sources, in-season.  

And while most places in America can't grow tomatoes in winter, is this really a problem? Those Immokalee tomatoes, which are picked green and ripened in gas chambers, don't taste like tomatoes anyway.  

The home-grown tomatoes I have frozen and canned from last summer still taste like real tomatoes, while the winter salads I've been making with cabbage and frozen kale lack nothing without fresh ones. And while my burger might not be quite the same without a slice of fresh tomato, the homemade catsup I pour on top more than compensates.  

So who needs Immokalee tomatoes? But what about those jobs? Is it possible to support the workers but not the paradigm under which they work? Can "good and clean" be reconciled with "fair," when "good and clean" means a loss of tomato picking jobs?  

"I don't think they're competing agendas," Viertel says. "We're a long way from making McDonald's go away, and while they're here they should do the right thing. The sustainable food movement can't be successful without addressing the people who grow our food. Faced with a fast food system that's bad for people and bad for the planet, we still need to be in solidarity with those who grow our food. If there's an initiative to support living wage, we're behind it. We have to engage in the human element of our food system."  

In an effort to engage directly with the workers, Viertel showed up at the parking lot at 4 a.m. and spent time with the others clamoring for work. A farmer before he was president of Slow Food USA, Viertel understands that some of the most enlightening conversations are to be had in the fields, and he wanted to pick tomatoes with the regulars, and talk to them.  

"I didn't get chosen," he said. "I'm tall, white, and I guess I didn't look like I could pick a lot of tomatoes."  

But he admits he didn't try as hard as he could have. "I didn't want to take work away from someone who really needed it."

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column.