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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.

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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.

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