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Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes

This article, from a popular food magazine, describes the terrible conditions facing tomato pickers in southern Florida. In some cases, workers were being held illegally against their will in virtual slavery by crew bosses. Labor activists, increased law enforcement, and also public outcry from this article, have helped to improve conditions and protections for tomato farmworkers in recent years.

Immokalee's population is 70 percent Latino. Per capita income is only $8,500 a year. One third of the families in this city of nearly 25,000 live below the poverty line. Over one third of the children drop out before graduating from high school.

Immokalee is the tomato capital of the United States. Between December and May, as much as 90 percent of the fresh domestic tomatoes we eat come from south Florida, and Immokalee is home to one of the area’s largest communities of farmworkers.

Mariano Lucas Domingo… a Guatemalan in his thirties, had slipped across the border to make money to send home for the care of an ailing parent. He expected to earn about $200 a week in the fields. Cesar Navarrete, then a 23-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico, agreed to provide room and board at his family's home....

Lucas's room turned out to be the back of a box truck in the junk-strewn yard, shared with two or three other workers. It lacked running water and a toilet, so occupants urinated and defecated in a corner. For that, Navarrete docked Lucas’s pay by $20 a week. According to court papers, he also charged Lucas for two meager meals a day: eggs, beans, rice, tortillas, and, occasionally, some sort of meat. Cold showers from a garden hose in the backyard were $5 each. Everything had a price. Lucas was soon $300 in debt. After a month of ten-hour workdays, he figured he should have paid that debt off....

And for what? Supermarket produce sections overflow with bins of perfect red-orange tomatoes even during the coldest months—never mind that they are all but tasteless. Large packers, which ship nearly $500 million worth of tomatoes annually to major restaurants and grocery retailers nationwide, own or lease the land upon which the workers toil. But the harvesting is often done by independent contractors called crew bosses, who bear responsibility for hiring and overseeing pickers.

Tomato harvesting involves rummaging through staked vines until you have filled a bushel basket to the brim with hard, green fruits. You hoist the basket over your shoulder, trot across the field, and heave it overhead to a worker in an open trailer the size of the bed of a gravel truck. For every 32-pound basket you pick, you receive a token typically worth about 45 cents—almost the same rate you would have gotten 30 years ago. Working at breakneck speed, you might be able to pick a ton of tomatoes on a good day, netting about $50. But a lot can go wrong. If it rains, you can’t pick. If the dew is heavy, you sit and wait until it evaporates. If trucks aren’t available to transport the harvest, you’re out of luck. You receive neither overtime nor benefits. If you are injured (a common occurrence, given the pace of the job), you have to pay for your own medical care.

Leaning against the railing of an unpainted wooden stoop in front of a putty-colored trailer, a tired Juan Dominguez told an all-too-familiar story. He had left for the fields that morning at six o’clock and returned at three. But he worked for only two of those nine hours because the seedlings he was to plant had been delivered late. His total earnings: $13.76.

I asked him for a look inside his home. He shrugged and gestured for me to come in. In one ten-foot-square space there were five mattresses, three directly on the floor, two suspended above on sheets of flimsy plywood. The room was littered with T-shirts, jeans, running shoes, cheap suitcases. The kitchen consisted of a table, four plastic chairs, an apartment-size stove, a sink with a dripping faucet, and a rusty refrigerator whose door wouldn't close. Bare lightbulbs hung from fixtures, and a couple of fans put up a noisy, futile effort against the stale heat and humidity. In a region where temperatures regularly climb into the nineties, there were no air conditioners. One tiny, dank bathroom served ten men. The rent was $2,000 a month—as much as you would pay for a clean little condo near Naples.

Most tomato workers, however, have no choice but to live like Dominguez. Lacking vehicles, they must reside within walking distance of the football-field-size parking lot in front of La Fiesta, a combination grocery store, taqueria, and check-cashing office. During the predawn hours, the lot hosts a daily hiring fair. I arrived a little before 5 a.m. The parking lot was filled with more than a dozen former school buses. Outside each bus stood a silent scrum of 40 or 50 would-be pickers. The driver, or crew boss, selected one worker at a time, choosing young, fit-looking men first. Once full, the bus pulled away.

The CIW [Coalition of Immokalee Workers] has been working to ease the migrants’ plight since 1993, when a few field hands began meeting sporadically in a church hall....The group has made progress on that front by securing better pay. Between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, the rate for a basket of tomatoes remained 40 cents—meaning that workers’ real wages dropped as inflation rose. Work stoppages, demonstrations, and a hunger strike helped raise it to 45 cents on average, but the packers complained that competition for customers prevented them from paying more. One grower refused to enter a dialogue with CIW hunger strikers because, in his words, “a tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to run the farm.The CIW decided to try an end run around the growers by going directly to the biggest customers and asking them to pay one cent more per pound directly to the workers. Small change to supermarket chains and fast-food corporations, but it would add about twenty dollars to the fifty a picker makes on a good day, the difference between barely scraping by and earning a livable wage.

The Campaign for Fair Food, as it is called, first took aim at Yum! Brands, owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver's, and A&W. After four years of pressure, Yum! agreed to the one-cent raise in 2005 and, importantly, pledged to make sure that no worker who picked its tomatoes was being exploited. McDonald's came aboard in 2007, and in 2008 Burger King, Whole Foods Market, and Subway followed, with more expected to join up this year. But the program faces a major obstacle. Claiming that the farmers are not party to the arrangement, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, an agricultural cooperative that represents some 90 percent of the state's producers, has refused to be a conduit for the raise, citing legal concerns.

Source | Barry Estabrook, "Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes," Gourmet Magazine, March 2009.
Creator | Barry Estabrook
Item Type | Newspaper/Magazine
Cite This document | Barry Estabrook, “Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes ,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed March 1, 2024,

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