Hold the tomato
I, like many Wash. U. students, was initially horrified when I first heard that Bon Appétit had decided to stop selling tomatoes for several months. Not only are tomatoes one of my favorite foods, but I also kept hearing echoes of my mother’s many lectures about the importance of lycopene (my mom loves to extol the health benefits of obscure nutrients with hard-to-pronounce names).
To make matters worse, I live on campus, which means that Bon Appétit has a near-monopoly on my daily nutrition. The company’s decision was thus obviously a serious infringement on my fundamental, inalienable and constitutional right to eat tomatoes. I cannot boycott Bon Appétit’s tomato boycott without escalating to a near-hunger strike.
But my outrage was quickly interrupted by friends’ explanations of the reality behind wintertime tomato consumption, and I began to question my initial reaction.
So, I did some research, and I learned that the problem with the working conditions for tomato pickers is not, as Student Life columnist Richard Jesse Markel claimed in his latest column, that “it makes them feel unhappy and lowers their productivity.” This is not just an issue of low wages and hard labor. Instead, the Florida tomato industry is reliant on a system of near-slavery akin to indentured servitude or sharecropping.
Workers often enter into agreements with tomato growers under false premises that they will be provided with decent housing and fair wages. When they arrive, they are instead placed in barely tolerable living conditions, made worse by the fact that they are forced to pay outrageous prices for such substandard accommodations. In one case reported by Gourmet Magazine, workers were forced to pay $2,000 per month for a tiny, rundown, crowded room shared by five, with a broken refrigerator and no air conditioning. To put that in perspective, that rent is more than double the monthly price we pay for a palatial Wash. U. modern double.
Growers use high rents to keep workers constantly in debt and thus chained to their employers. Although they may be occasionally paid an allowance, many workers’ “landlords” take their paychecks. Worst of all, workers are often locked in literal chains and actually prevented from escaping. That is not an example of poor working conditions; that is slavery.
These are not isolated incidents either. According to the same Gourmet article, “Since 1997, law-enforcement officials have freed more than 1,000 men and women in seven different cases.” Countless others are believed to remain in similar conditions.
If this were a typical case of low wages and poor conditions, I might be persuaded by the argument that any job is better than no job at all. But this is not a typical case.
I am not certain what effect Bon Appétit’s boycott will have. I do not know if it will change the current growing system, but I have come to believe that we each have an ethical obligation at least to stop supporting it.
After all, do we really want to be benefiting from the products of slave labor? Would we have happily purchased cotton from antebellum Southern plantations, content in blissful ignorance because we could not see people beaten or in chains when we bought clothing?
I haven’t paid much attention to the ethical food movement until now. Out of sight, out of mind, right? I don’t see the carbon footprint or the working conditions behind my food when I eat it; I just see juicy, red deliciousness.
But now I am beginning to see something else. I encourage Bon Appétit to explore purchasing hothouse tomatoes during the winter; slave-grown food may be unacceptable, but I’m still fine with tomatoes of the more artificial variety. Meanwhile, I support Bon Appétit’s decision, and I am going to rethink my off-campus tomato purchases. I may have to double up on my tomato-nutrient consumption in the summer or pay more for ethically grown tomatoes, but I think that’s the price of clear conscience.