Today marks the first official day of autumn. For those of us preoccupied with food, autumn stirs up thoughts of winter squash, warm soups, pumpkin pies, and crisp cool days curled up with a steaming cup of cider. At home I’m trying to do a better job eating what’s in season. Shopping at the farmers’ market and getting a CSA weekly makes this easy. For many people who don’t have access to an abundance of local produce and have to rely on big box stores for their fruits and vegetables, it’s not as simple to be so discerning. The problem is that everything’s always in season. Large chain grocers have made it very easy for us to have watermelon in winter, squash in spring, and snow peas in summer. Getting lots of attention these days is our desire to have fresh tomatoes in winter.
The vast majority, some 90 percent of the United States’ fresh winter tomatoes come from the sandy soils of Immokalee (pronounced like broccoli), Florida. So what’s the problem with growing tomatoes in Florida? The answer is manifold. In his book, Tomatoland: How modern agriculture destroyed our most alluring fruit, Barry Estabrook exposes injustices that read like a crime novel. From literal modern-day slavery, to workers being sprayed with chemical pesticides, to corporate control over the variety of tomatoes sold, to growing tasteless tomatoes that are built for withstand traveling thousands of miles rather than their taste, the problems are many.
For starters Estabrook writes, “To get a successful crop, they pump the soil full of chemical fertilizers and can blast the plants with more than 100 different herbicides and pesticides, including some of the most toxic in agribusiness’s arsenal.” The workers charged with applying these chemicals suffer, as do their families. Workers toiling in the toxic fields have birthed babies with severe defects. One baby was born without any arms or legs. Another was born with Pierre Robin Sequence, a deformed lower jaw that allows the tongue to fall back into the throat causing obstruction. And still another was born with a missing ear, no anus, a cleft palate, and no visible sexual organs. All of these deformities are linked to pesticide exposure of the pregnant mother.
Workers desperate to earn money for their families are paid low wages for backbreaking physical work in the fields for hours on end. Paid no benefits, their efforts to earn slightly higher wages by asking end-of-supply chain purchasers for a mere penny more per pound have been met with success only after campaigns shaming the multi-billion dollar companies.
In some of the most harrowing circumstances, illegal migrant workers employed under the promise of regular work and boarding were enslaved. Estabrook writes, “In the last fifteen years, Florida law enforcement officials have freed more than one thousand men and women who had been held and forced to work against their will in the fields of Florida, and that represents only the tip of the iceberg.” Workers who tried to escape were beaten, chained, and in some cases killed.
Perhaps these instances represent some of the most extreme end of the spectrum. Still, it’s up to us to ensure that we’re not eating at the expense of others. I recommend reading Tomatoland. It will undoubtedly give you some real food for thought the next time you go to the grocery store.