Buying Ethical Tomatoes Just Got a Whole Lot Easier
The pay and working conditions for farm laborers in Florida’s tomato fields have undergone an astonishing turnaround in a few short years. It was just six years ago that journalist Barry Estabrook published his Gourmet story “The Price of Tomatoes,” which revealed the slavery conditions faced by many immigrant workers around Immokalee, a farming area a couple hours northwest of Miami.
Today, labor groups are claiming victory for turning around the state’s ag industry, which produces nearly 90 percent of the winter domestic tomato harvest, and for the most part both treats and pays its workers fairly. Because buyers like Walmart and Trader Joe’s have agreed to pay one more cent per pound of tomatoes, farmworkers’ lives have changed.
On Wednesday, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers announced that a new retail chain had signed on to its Fair Food Program. Ahold USA—which owns Stop & Shop, Gian Foods, Martin’s, and Peapod—will only sell tomatoes harvested under the program’s rigorous standards at its 780 stores, which are in 14 states and serve 50 million shoppers every month.
The penny-per-pound more the chain will pay for tomatoes under the Fair Food Program translates to higher wages, improved working conditions, and new avenues for workers to file complaints against employers for abuses, including sexual harassment and assault. Tomatoes purchased through the programs have led to a collective raise of $15 million for Florida’s tomato pickers.
“Ahold USA is the first of the country’s major grocers to join the program,” CIW’s Gerardo Reyes said in a press release, “and, as such, not only will its partnership help propel to new heights our efforts to protect farmworkers’ rights, but we believe its market leadership will send an invaluable message to the rest of the grocery industry that social responsibility is greatly strengthened when workers, suppliers and retailers work together toward a more modern, more humane agricultural industry.”
The Fair Food Program covers nearly 90 percent of domestic fresh tomato production during the winter months, when Florida farms supply nearly the entire harvest. (Processing tomatoes, which are harvested mechanically, are grown in California, and a third of all tomatoes are imported, the majority from Mexico.) With the addition of Ahold to the list of grocery retailers that have signed up for the program—Walmart, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Fresh Market—one-third of the supermarket industry is now selling tomatoes harvested under ethical conditions.
CIW’s successes have seemed to come more easily in recent years after having to wage extended campaigns to get the likes of Taco Bell to sign on in 2005. The grocery sector has always been difficult, and gaining ground beyond retailers like Whole Foods, which has made ethics part of the shopping experience, has been a struggle. But considering that tomatoes are the fourth-most-popular vegetable (yes, it’s a fruit, botanically speaking, but then again, a watermelon is technically a berry), 40 percent of the 31 pounds per capita Americans eat annually are fresh tomatoes, and 70 percent of tomato consumption occurs at home, winning over more retailers is vital to making the entire industry a safer, better-paying one.