The cost of food is something that normally slips past us during our daily go-’rounds – not the specific tally at the bottom of a grocery store receipt, but the total cost. The subject came up in a conversation this week about a group of tomato pickers in Florida about which we rarely, if ever, hear in Pennsylvania.
The fruits of their labor crosses the palate of nearly all of us, nearly every day. The Florida workers are tomato pickers, thousands of them, responsible for picking those luscious (to some of us) orbs we regularly slice into mandatory embellishments of our burgers and salads.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a group of mostly Latino workers who have come to the U.S. to work in our farm fields. They earn 50 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes – about $50 to hand pick more than two tons of tomatoes in a 12-hour day.
For the past several years, CIW has been trying to improve the wages of Florida tomato pickers. The organization has won a few rounds. Companies including Burger-King, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe and Taco Bell have agreed to pay the workers an additional penny a pound for their work.
Others have declined to join the penny-a-pound campaign, including major grocery chains such as Ahold (the Dutch owner of Giant food stores), Publix (the largest grocery chain in the southeastern U.S., other than Walmart) and Walmart (still the largest grocery chain in the world). The reason? It’s that competition thing: each is afraid the others will not join, increasing the price of tomatoes and reducing sales at one store while the others increase profits.
It’s an argument that makes a lot of sense.
A few years ago I covered a story for the local newspaper about a couple busloads of inner-city kids come from Baltimore to visit one of our area’s famous potato chip makers. The kids were excited to report they had seen cows and horses in the fields as they closed in on their destination here in rural south-central Pennsylvania.
I asked some of them, one at a time so they could not copy another’s answer, where they thought milk came from. Without hesitation, each told me their mom got it from the grocery store.
Alas, they were absolutely correct – and, as any of a dwindling number of farm-raised kids can attest – absolutely wrong.
There was a time when the largest portion of our population were hunter-gatherers. We killed animals for meat, and grew our own vegetables. At one time, the “commons” was a grassy area in the middle of town where cows and vegetables were grown and sometimes sold.
But we moved, many of us, from the farm to towns and cities, and passed ordinances prohibiting farm animals from living among us. Business, ever on the lookout for ways to make a profit, began to stock its shelves with foodstuffs. Some, such as milk, was delivered door-to-door.
Milk, by the way, is homogenized to prevent cream from floating to the top of the bottle. Cream is the fat content in milk from the cow, and the separation is natural. When I was a lad, we spooned it from the milk can to make whipped cream and ice cream.
But city folks thought the separated components meant the milk had spoiled. So dairy processors began beating the fat into super-tiny particles so it would not float to the top. Problem solved, and another chip in the chain connecting us with our food supply.
Although it is easy to blame the retailers for not paying farm workers more for their labor, the accusation is, I submit, misguided. We consumers are at the root of the problem, buying into the idea that cheaper is always better. The idea leaves thousands of farm hands needing taxpayer support for food stamps and medical care because their wages will not cover the expense.
The stores are correct. If one of them increases the price of a tomato by a few cents, the others will advertise that theirs are more affordable.
And asking for legislation to allow farm workers to be paid over time, and to organize to negotiate for better pay and working conditions, will result in thousands, maybe millions, of dollars spent to convince legislators that producers cannot afford to pay their workers a living wage.
Consumers, on the other hand, can make a difference. A one-pound tomato is pretty large. For one more penny, the person who picked it can see a doubling of her wage. Stopping ordering tomato on our burgers – and letting restaurant management know why, can make life a little more livable for those who help get food to our table.
And buying tomatoes from local farm markets, while not helpful for Florida pickers, will go a long way to keeping local farmers in business, providing the fresh, safe nourishment we crave.
Photo by Bread for the World
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