Aside from a few tomatoes I used in guacamole for a Super Bowl party, I haven’t bought a tomato in a while. They’re so hard and pink and flavorless this time of year, and they’re definitely not local.
Then the March issue of Gourmet arrived, giving me an even better reason to pass them over (assuming, of course, the accuracy of the reporting).
In Barry Estabrook’s “The Price of Tomatoes,” he exposes what he calls “involuntary servitude” in the fields of Immokalee, a tiny Florida town known as the tomato capital of the country. As he reports, more than 1,000 Florida men and women have been freed over the past 12 years in more than a handful of cases. The chief assistant US attorney, Douglas Molloy, is even quoted as calling Immokalee “ground zero for modern slavery.”
After reacting with sadness and disbelief, I thought back to Michael Pollan’s “Unhappy Meals” (New York Times Magazine, 1-28-07), especially to a point in his conclusion where he admonishes us for expecting to pay so little for our food. As Pollan writes, “The American food system has for a century devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing price, not to improving quality. There’s no escaping the fact that better food — measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond) — costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care.”
Later, he argues that “those of us who can afford to eat well should. Paying more for food well grown in good soils — whether certified organic or not — will contribute not only to your health (by reducing exposure to pesticides) but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food: the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown.”
In Estabrook’s article, he talks of hard-fought success in lobbying companies like Yum! Brands (owner Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and others) to pay a penny more per pound to tomato pickers. Success, yes, but it seems the reality of distributing that raise is in jeopardy due to a disagreement with Florida farmers.
Supply and demand are fierce taskmasters, but somewhere along the way, we’ve clearly crossed a line. Hats off to both journalists for bringing this to our attention.