The Profound Impact of a Penny

By Barry Estabrook, published Monday, June 06, 2011 in Zester Daily

Raising the price of tomatoes by 1 cent a pound would change farmworkers’ lives. Trader Joe’s said no.  Would you pay one penny more per pound to buy a tomato if you knew it would go a long way toward alleviating labor abuse in the fields?  When asked that question, not a single supermarket chain in the country, with the notable exception of Whole Foods Market, said yes. No grocery giant has a legitimate excuse to pinch that extra penny, but of all the holdouts, the most perplexing is Trader Joe’s, which promotes itself as a cheerful bastion of all things ethical.

A penny-a-pound wage increase might seem insignificant, but if you harvest Florida tomatoes, it’s the difference between making $50 a day and $80 a day — the difference between a wage that doesn’t allow you to properly feed and shelter your family and a livable, albeit paltry, income. “It’s the difference between a 19th-century workhouse and a modern factory,” said one member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a human rights group based in southwestern Florida that has long struggled on behalf of farmworkers.

Even with the wage increase, the job still falls well below what most Americans would accept — no overtime, no benefits, no sick leave. But the added penny-a-pound, along with some basic improvements in working conditions, would amount to nothing short of a revolution for the 30,000 workers in Florida who pick nearly one-third of the tomatoes Americans eat.

Last fall, it looked as if that revolution was going to sweep the Florida tomato industry. After nearly two decades of demonstrations, petitions and hunger strikes, the CIW convinced the dozen or so huge companies that grow virtually all Florida tomatoes to sign its Fair Food agreement. The growers agreed to the penny-a-pound increase on one condition: that their customers — supermarkets, fast-food chains, and food-service corporations — absorb the difference.

By signing the Fair Food agreement, the participating growers also agreed to abide by a Fair Food Code of Conduct that included the following:

  • A job-training program outlining workers’ basic rights
  • A mechanism to ensure harvesters actually get credited for every tomato they pick
  • A grievance system for uncovering and eliminating workplace abuses
  • Health and safety committees to address such common job-site occurrences as pesticide poisoning and sexual harassment

All the large fast-food chains, including McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway, have agreed to pay the penny and deal only with growers in compliance with the Fair Food Code of Conduct. The major food service companies that supply colleges, museums and national parks also came aboard.

But the “old” system still applies to about half the Florida tomatoes sold. It is a national disgrace. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Labor described farmworkers as “a labor force in significant economic distress.” With annual incomes of between $10,000 and $12,500, their poverty rate is twice as high as other working people in this country.

On trips to Immokalee to research my book, “Tomatoland: How Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit,” I toured a decrepit trailer with neither heat nor air-conditioning. It had one miserable shower stall and toilet to serve the 10 men who called the place home and paid a rural slumlord $2,000 a month for the privilege. I spoke with a “crew boss” who quit her job after seeing her workers sprayed on an almost daily basis with some of the most toxic pesticides in factory farming’s chemical arsenal.

And I did something I never imagined doing in the 21st century: I interviewed a man who had toiled as a slave. He received no pay, was locked in the back of a produce truck at night and was beaten if he refused to work or tried to escape. He was one of more than 1,000 people freed in seven Florida slavery cases successfully prosecuted since 1997. A U.S. deputy attorney told me that southwest Florida was “ground zero for modern day slavery.”

As part of the CIW’s campaign for Fair Food, a contingent of workers approached a Trader Joe’s store in Manhattan this spring to deliver a letter to its manager. They were not met by the usual chipper Hawaiian-shirted greeters but by security guards who turned them away. Following protests at 23 Trader Joe’s stores across the country in April, the company, which is owned by the trust of the founder of Aldi, a discount chain based in Germany, posted a headline on its website.  “A Note to Our Customers About Florida Tomatoes and the CIW” claimed that the agreement for Fair Food was “overreaching, ambiguous, and improper.”  It accused the CIW of “spreading misleading and not factual information.”  Their charge rings hollow.

The CIW has received awards from Anti-Slavery International of London, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, and the U.S. Department of State, to name a few. FBI Director Robert Mueller sent a letter of commendation to the CIW. The lawyers of such behemoths as McDonald’s would never have allowed their executives to sign the Fair Food agreement if it was “improper.”

At the very least, Trader Joe’s management should follow the lead of a past adversary of the CIW and issue a statement like theirs: “The CIW has been at the forefront of efforts to improve farm labor conditions, exposing abuses and driving socially responsible purchasing and work practices in the Florida tomato fields. We apologize for any negative statements about the CIW … and now realize that those statements were wrong.”  The speaker was Burger King CEO John Chidsey during the 2008 ceremony in which he signed the Fair Food agreement.

A two-time James Beard Award winner, Barry Estabrook was a contributing editor at Gourmet. His work has also appeared in The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine, Men’s Health, Saveur, Gastronomica, and many other national magazines. He has been anthologized in “The Best American Food Writing” 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2010. His award-winning website is, and his book “Tomatoland,” is an investigative look into industrial-scale tomato agriculture, will be published by Andrews McMeel this month.


Summertime is clearly time for action in North Carolina.


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