The XX Factor

Don’t Forget the Woeful Winter Tomato

There are dozens of reasons not to eat the pale red orbs that pass as tomatoes in America for most of the year. They’re tasteless, to begin with, and a slice can’t possibly add much nutrition to your Big Mac, deli sandwich or pre-packaged salad. A third of the nation’s tomatoes are grown in Florida using, writes Mark Bitman, “mind-boggling amounts of fertilizer, fungicides and pesticides.” The growing process (which also involves “de-greening” the tomatoes, which are picked before they ripen, with gas and then killing the vines with a herbicide to prepare for the next crop) is “awful,” and the picking process apparently even more so.

Bitman’s blog reviewing Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland lays out the labor practices that go into Florida’s tomato crop, and historically, they’ve been on par with the kinds of conditions that should bring out your inner Cesar Chavez: slavery, beatings, chemical exposure, hours in the fields without breaks or shade. The book highlights not just the injustices but recent improvements brought about by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (Immokalee, FL, is tomato central on the Everglades), who’ve pressed many large purchasers (like Burger King, McDonald’s and Whole Foods) into signing an agreement to pay an extra penny a pound, raising workers’ wages and providing support for benefits like shade tents and worker-to-worker rights education. Chains like Publix, Giant, Stop & Shop, Trader Joe’s and Kroger are hold-outs, and Bitman argues that as consumers, we should pressure the grocery stores where we purchase our large, tasteless red slicing “tomatoes”  into signing as well.

I agree: although I’m an avid non-consumer of these things (because I don’t like them, not because of my moral high ground), I’m not under any illusions that Florida tomatoes will stop appearing on salad bars near me just because I don’t eat them, and even if a nationwide boycott of vaguely tomato-flavored fruits were to occur tomorrow, improving labor conditions for the workers who pick those tomatoes through bargaining agreements (as opposed to laws and regulations, which can adversely impact small farmers) can only lead to better conditions for all farm laborers.

But Bitman’s entry is just so woefully mistimed. As many of his commenters prove, this time of year, the kinds of people who care enough about where their food comes from to speak to our supermarket managers aren’t thinking about the stuff at Stop & Shop, we’re focused on our gardens and our farmer’s markets. Why buy those tomatoes at all, we cry, when there are so many better options to be had? And for a few months, there are: for consumers. But chain restaurants and many smaller operations have annual contracts for their produce; many get their tomatoes from Florida year-round even when there are vines growing right outside their door, and all need to be reminded that even the most price-conscious Americans don’t favor saving a penny at these kinds of true costs. Just because in the summer you can grow your own tomatoes is no reason not to speak up about a problem that’s present all year long.