A Fairer Tomato

Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 5.46.52 PM

By Tracie McMillan

Eating Well • July/August 2015

Fair-Food Tomatoes: What Are They and Are They Worth It?

The terrible working conditions in tomato fields have become the subject of hot debate. We talked with Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and executive producer of the James Beard Award-winning film Food Chains, which is about the tomato-worker revolution.

Q: Why did you decide to make a film about tomato workers?
A: The tomato fields of Florida have had some of the worst working conditions in the United States—even modern-day slavery. Picking tomatoes is hard: hot, stressful and a single worker may harvest and carry 4,000 pounds of tomatoes in one day. It’s some of the hardest work you can imagine for some of the lowest pay. Wages had declined over the last 30 years (relative to inflation), and minimum-wage violations and wage theft were routine. So was sexual harassment and farmworkers being treated like indentured servants. A farmworker group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), has been working hard to change the conditions in Florida.

Q: What is the CIW doing to change tomato-farmworker conditions?
A: They’ve been working on this issue for more than 20 years. One of their initiatives is asking retailers to pay an extra penny a pound for tomatoes. That extra penny subsidizes a wage premium, a worker hotline and an oversight and enforcement agency—the Fair Food Standards Council—that makes sure workers get treated with dignity and respect. Thanks to the CIW’s program, the working conditions in Florida tomato fields are now considered some of the nation’s best.

Q: What’s a Fair Food tomato?
A: The Fair Food label shows that workers who pick those tomatoes were treated right: there was no sexual harassment, the wage was decent, they had avenues for complaining about working conditions. [Look for Fair Food tomatoes at participating stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Walmart, and restaurants including Taco Bell and Chipotle.]

Q: What’s the difference between a Fair Food tomato and one that’s organic or local?
A: Everyone who eats fruits and vegetables should care about the farmworkers who harvest these foods. Our good health depends upon their hard labor. The organic label is wonderful, but it only describes how a food was produced. And local agriculture is important, too, but it doesn’t guarantee that workers are treated fairly. I’m a big supporter of organic agriculture—but, ultimately, I care more about protecting basic human rights. The Fair Food label lets you know that when you buy that tomato, you’re helping people, not subjecting them to misery.

3 Reasons to Buy Heirloom Tomatoes or Grow Your Own

It’s in the Genes
Heirloom tomatoes are bred for taste, texture, flavor and color. Tomatoes bred to ripen evenly (like many in the grocery store) are less sweet.

Quality Trumps Quantity
Many heirloom plants only produce a half-dozen fruits at a time, while industrial breeds can churn out 20 apiece. The problem: as you increase the number of fruits on a plant, “you’re diluting out the flavor,” says tomato biologist Harry Klee, Ph.D., at the University of Florida.

Vine Time Matters
“You need time on the vine to deepen flavor and texture,” says Travis Milton, a celebrated chef in Richmond, VA, who grows most of the tomatoes for his restaurant, Comfort. Achieving fruit that’s ripened past the mealiness that comes from early harvest takes time, and since most supermarket tomatoes are picked hard and green they don’t have as long on the vine to develop.


Follow Tracie

Follow Tracie on Facebook
Follow Tracie on X (Twitter)
Follow Tracie on Instagram
Get Tracie's Newsletter