The local tomato season is soon to be here. Patio pots and backyard gardens as well as farms will be producing so many tomatoes that we have to have them at every meal, preserve what we can and give a lot away. Tomatoes are certainly not as ubiquitous as bread, but like bread, we take tomatoes for granted. We eat tomatoes in sandwiches, salads, sauces, baked dishes. We drink tomatoes in juices and bloody marys. They are ingredients in gazpacho, soups, appetizers and yes, desserts.
One of my early memories of my father was standing in the tomato patch in my grandmother’s garden. He had a salt shaker in one hand and a tomato, warm from the sun, in the other, just enjoying the moment as he ate his first of the season. Got tomato memories?
Summer tomatoes in our part of the country are comfort food. The rest of the year, we buy them or products made with them, with little or no thought of where they come from.
Florida farmworkers are hidden in the central part of the state. No beaches, museums, resorts. They rise at 4:30, and walk to a parking lot to begin looking for work. With luck, a contractor will choose them, drive them 10 to 100 miles to a field. They can begin picking when the dew evaporates from the tomatoes, but are not paid while they wait. They pick from 9 am to 5 or 6 pm, before boarding the busses back to Immokelee. At the work site, pickers bring their buckets of tomatoes to a waiting truck, and are given a token worth on average 50 cents for each bucket. Workers must pick nearly 2.5 tons of tomatoes in order to earn minimum wage. This may or may not be possible, depending on the time of year and quantity of tomatoes on the plants.
The pay amounts to a penny a pound. Stunning, isn’t it. The work of The Coalition of Immokolee Workers (CIW) is to increase that wage, improve working conditions and ensure a more dignified life for the farmworkers and a more humane, transparent food chain. Even two cents a pound would help.
Two companies near the top of the food chain are Publix with grocery stores across Florida and Wendy’s. While many other national chains have signed on to the Fair Food program, these two major food players resist the call to justice for the tomato farm workers, who are largely located in central Florida. If you’re in a Wendy’s, tell the manager you are encouraging Wendy’s to join the Fair Food program. When you’re in Florida, don’t buy tomatoes at Publix, which prefers to buy tomatoes grown in Mexico rather than support local workers. Tell the manager why. You’ll need to know more, so for a closer look, go to www.ciw-online.org/ and www.fairfoodprogram.org/ . You’ll see why getting on board offers farm workers a leg up.
Enjoy your local tomatoes!
~ Sister Joan Sobala