With wrists still swollen and scratched from the chains used to restrain him at night, Mariano punched his way through a ventilation hatch in the ceiling of a box truck to free himself and his fellow tomato workers.
Nearby, 21-year-old Antonio was promised a high-paying construction job, but instead ended up working long days picking tomatoes for no pay and cramming into a single-wide trailer with dozens of others at night—threatened with beatings and death if he tried to leave.
“I realized I had been sold like an animal without any compassion,” Antonio remembers.
These tragic events didn’t happen in some Third World country. They happened—and sadly continue to happen—in Florida. Lured from their home countries by the promise of steady work in the United States, men and women are instead taken captive and forced to work for free on the tomato farms that produce the same tomatoes that end up on restaurant menus and grocery store shelves across America.
But this summer, the Recipe for Change campaign—launched by International Justice Mission and endorsed already by several prominent food activists—is trying to end this crisis for good by urging some of the country’s largest grocery stores to commit to the Fair Food Program and agree to selling only slave-free tomatoes. (Dozens of restaurants and grocery stores—including McDonald’s and Trader Joe’s—have already joined the Fair Food Program.) Food activist Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is hopeful that Recipe for Change can help eradicate slavery from America’s tomato supply chain.
“Recipe for Change should improve understanding of where and who our tomatoes come from, locally and nationally—and advance the cause of justice in our food system, from the hand picking the tomato to our kitchen plate,” Pollan says.
Helen Chavez, widow of farm labor activist Cesar Chavez, has gotten behind the campaign and New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman submitted a tomato recipe that will be published on the campaign’s website. Popular food bloggers Ally (Gimme Some Oven) and Cassie (Bake Your Day) even started a recipe exchange to get people eating fairly harvested tomatoes this summer and bring awareness to the farm workers stories’.
In the mid-1990s, the Coalition of Imakolee Workers was formed to advocate for the plight of enslaved workers around Imakolee, Fla. In just the last 15 years, seven cases of forced labor slavery have been successfully prosecuted, resulting in over 1,000 people freed from slavery in U.S. tomato fields. In 1999, Antonio’s boss, Abel Cuello, was sent to federal prison on slavery charges. Mariano’s farm bosses, who had employed dozens of tomato pickers, received a 12-year sentence.
But campaign organizers maintain that until slavery of tomato workers is completely eradicated, there will be work left to do. They want consumers to educate themselves and their neighbors about the issue, ask supermarkets to stock their shelves with only slave-free tomatoes, and to organize petition drives to free the workers who remain enslaved.
“Recipe for Change is exciting because it brings citizen and consumer advocacy inside our own homes,” says Seth Wispelwey, who created and runs the campaign for IJM. “By taking the simple but meaningful action steps of appealing for guaranteed slave-free tomatoes, we add our voices to those of the vital workers protected by The Fair Food Program and help continue this already-successful movement for justice we can taste.”
This is the first food justice campaign for IJM, a global human rights agency that has become known for its part in rescuing over 15,000 victims of slavery and sexual exploitation worldwide over the last decade.
Join the campaign for slave-free tomatoes! Here are four things you can do right now:
Do you know where your tomatoes come from?
Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter