Hold the tomato

| Forum Editor

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.

  • Nadeem Sad.

    Yea Bon Appetit! We, I mean, they make a good environmental example for others as well as a mean slice of pizza

  • Russell

    Good article. If there’s some way that Bon Appetit could buy tomatoes elsewhere in the meantime, I agree that it’d be great if they did. But given the time of year and Bon Appetit’s stance on imported food, I’m not really surprised that they decided it would be a bad trade-off to import tomatoes from Mexico.

  • I would like to see some discussion of the points made by the sole respondent to “A Response to Toma-No.”

  • 7&7

    …and the only solution to alleviate the conditions for these people is to cut off our tomato supply? Bon Apetit could have continued to buy from “evil” growers in the meantime, instead of going behind our backs and refusing to buy basic produce forthe sake of better PR.

  • Richard Jesse Markel

    I have to question whether you even read my article in its entirety, let alone the first two paragraphs. The text from my article that you so strategically quote-mined was taken completely out of context. Before you accuse me of being crassly insensitive and completely out of touch with reality, I should ask you to actually try to understand what it is you’re commenting on.

    The quote you took was in the context of me saying that tomato workers should have better working conditions because they’d be more productive. Given my personal stance that workers should be treated better, I then went on to discuss exactly why it is that boycotting will actually hurt the workers far more than the company that employs them.

    Miss Samborn, if you want to slam me for my views, then by all means do so. However I implore you to actually try to understand my argument before twisting it out of context and mangling my words for your own deceptive purposes. Your readers deserve better than that.

    ~Richard Jesse Markel

  • Kerry Bailey

    Just wanted to thank you for your well-written and much-needed poke at our collective conscience. Now that my backyard tomatoes’ season has come to an end, I’ll be looking for ethically grown ones to get us through the winter.

  • What’s the date on the Gourmet article? I know that there were boycotts of Taco Bell and (I think) McDonald’s in the early 2000s, because they used tomatoes sold by those slave outfits in Immokalee, Fla. But the boycott was lifted when those two fast-food places entered an agreement to monitor their suppliers. See this 2005 article
    Is there more recent information about tomato picking?
    The situation with Immokalee workers shows that boycotts work, so if Bon Appetit is part of a boycott of different suppliers, more power to them — and to the WUSTL community.