When we eat, we don’t necessarily think of the origins of our food, and since our diets are pretty diverse there is a lot to think about. Tomatoes are an interesting case, because they’re rarely the main course.’
They don’t usually define a sandwich, but are a topping. They aren’t the base of a salad, but a factor of it. They make the sauce, but you need noodles for it to be a meal.
However, this non-staple food still constitutes a multimillion-dollar industry in our country, and thousands of people are involved in getting these vegetables from vines to our stomachs every day.
The tomato you last ate has a lot of history, but can you see who picked it? Can you see how that person lives from day to day? Does it tell you if the person who picked it got to eat enough today?
The story of our tomatoes is not always the prettiest. Florida is where 95 percent of the U.S. gets its wintertime tomatoes, and this just happens to coincide with the majority of our school year.
The people who pick these tomatoes do so for extremely low pay – about 40 cents for a 35-pound bucket. To make approximately $50, one would have to pick more than two tons of tomatoes, which isn’t humanly possible.
Since 1997, there have been seven convicted cases of slavery, involving more than 1,000 people being enslaved in the tomato industry alone.
In the largest tomato-producing hub in Florida, Immokalee, two families control all the real estate in town. This means that seven men sharing a two-room shack with no air conditioning have to each pay $50 per week in rent (that’s $1,400 a month for something that would go for $500 in Houston).
Unfortunately, this level of poverty is normal for our country’s farm workers.
Labor in Florida evolved from slavery to de facto indentured servitude in the form of sharecropping. Modern-day migrant farm workers are not far removed from the past.’
Not enough of the money we pay for our food is going to the people working in the fields every day.
There is a group of farm workers that is determined to improve conditions in Immokalee and have a positive impact on the agricultural industry. The workers represent themselves in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
These poor farm workers have made unprecedented contracts with multi-billion dollar corporations such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell. They were active in bringing all seven convicted cases of slavery to justice.
These workers, who have been treated as machinery, now stand up for themselves and demand human rights. They have made all of these gains, but there is still much more to be done. We can do a lot too.
We can look at our food service provider, Aramark, and ask why they haven’t made an agreement with the CIW yet. We can tell them that issues such as slavery and human rights abuses are important to us.
We can tell them that UH wants dignity for the workers who support us, and if Aramark wants our business, they need to respect that.
As students and consumers, we have the power to speak up and do something about this.
Brendan Laws is a sociology sophomore and can be reached at [email protected]