The Other Side of the Tomato

Mirra Fine - Blog


[Originally posted on Oct 21,2011. Updated March 23, 2012]

On our way towards Immokalee, Florida to visit with Immigrant Farm laborers, we decided to stop into a Chipotle. We pride ourselves on not eating fast food, and have only stopped at 1-2 along the way (always either Subway or Chipotle, and always vegetarian). But there is something about Chipotle that makes me feel like I’m not eating at a fast food joint. Their decor of metallic, aztec-ish mosaics on the walls; smell of cilantro rice; and clean metal tables is familiar and comforting so far from home. Their motto is “Food with Integrity” (it’s right there when you pull up the website), and they pride themselves on working with small farmers (when they can) and providing good, local, farm-supporting food. And it tastes good. So, we pulled off of interstate 41 without any guilt and stopped in for a quick bite.

I got what I usually get: veggie bowl with lots of rice, topped with a little bit of black beans, cheese, lettuce and their mild salsa chocked full of red tomatoes, onions and herbs. And I usually swing for some guac on the side. Maybe it was the oppressive heat outside that made my shirt stick to my back, or my premonition of a long day of filming ahead, or it could have been because deep down, somehow I knew that this would be my last veggie bowl at Chipotle for a long time…but I cleaned my plate.

And then we drove to Immokalee, Florida — the state’s largest farm worker community. In Immokalee the per capita income is only $9,700/year, half the people in town live below the federal poverty line, and the area has seen many cases of “modern day slavery” (meaning farmers holding people against their will, forcing them to work, beating or killing them if they tried to escape, and knowing that they can have this control over them because the workers don’t have any means to save themselves). As Barry Estabrook wrote in his book, Tomatoland: “Any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave. That is not an assumption, it is a fact (Douglas Molloy, US Attorney for Florida’s Middle District).” “Immokalee,” as Estabrook continues. “Is the town that tomatoes built.

We drove in around 3pm and went to the small, nondescript Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) office building that had been painted the strange off-yellowish color that many buildings in Florida sport. It was like a scene from a Mexican folk movie: a man sitting outside on a fold up chair listening to Mariachi music blaring through the windows while stray chickens roam the streets outside and do their best to stay out of the path of little Mexican or Guatemalan boys racking up their own point system by kicking a ball back and forth. We were there to meet up with our film subject for the day: Lupe, an immigrant from Guatemala who, like the other farm workers, lives in this town during tomato season, and then moves north to find other work in the fields. Lupe’s husband has been in Northern Florida since May (the last time she saw him). So for now, she lives with her 8 year old son and another family in a (barely 2 bedroom) labor camp trailer. The trailers are small, poorly made boxes with a tiny shared kitchen (a stove, fridge and sink). The kitchen is too small for more than 3 people to be in at one time, and yet 7 people crammed in their the evening we arrived. The little bedrooms house two mattresses and multiple people who pile in at night. One room was for a mother and her 4 daughters. Lupe, whose daughter lives in Guatemala and whom she hasn’t seen in 11 years, sleeps in a room only with her son. The labor camps are dotted throughout the little town of 15,000, and to live in them, the rent is steep: up to $400/week for a trailer. A ridiculous amount for farm workers who make (on a good day) $50.

And the good days are for only a couple months out of the year, and even then there is little consistency. Workers line up every morning at 4am in the parking lot of a local “Fiesta” grocery store waiting for buses to pull in looking for labor. Men and women will wait all day if need be. Many go home empty handed, hoping that the next day will be luckier. On rainy days, there will be no work for anyone. Crew leaders (those who round up the laborers and bring them to the farmers) have been known to hold back paychecks, sexually harass the women or limit their access to work.  When we asked Lupe why they do this, she answered “because they can.”

And that’s all before getting to the farm. Once you’re there, it doesn’t get easier. We weren’t permitted on the farms to see the actual work, but Lupe told us how laborers will spend all day in the fields picking tomatoes in the hot, hot heat. Before CIW came along, workers often had no access to water and no breaks.  In some ways, things have improved slightly, however each bucket of tomatoes a worker fills (roughly 32-35 lbs) still gets them around only $0.45. Forty Five Cents. And they are picking green tomatoes — as in, tomatoes that are not ripe. If you live in Florida and ever find yourself behind a tomato truck, you probably wouldn’t know it as the fruit is completely unrecognizable. The tomatoes are picked green so that they can be gassed with chemicals to turn red and then shipped to other areas of the country.  Ever notice how a fresh tomato tastes totally different from those bought in the winter? That’s why. Or at least that’s one reason.

But back to the workers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is doing their best to make conditions better, by “training local, state, and federal law enforcement to investigate, uncover, and prosecute existing slavery operations, in addition to working to eliminate the root causes of the problem: farm workers’ structural powerlessness and grinding poverty.” (Grist)  Beyond helping them to know their rights, CIW also created the Campaign for Fair Food asking the major tomato purchasers in this country (fast food chains, grocery stores) to pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes, and asking farmers to put that penny towards the workers. So a 32lb bucket of tomatoes harvested by a worker would result in $0.80, instead of the current $0.45. That would mean a huge increase in wage for that worker.

The Campaign doesn’t stop there, CIW also asks the major food purchasers to work with agricultural suppliers that adhere to the CIW first ever Code of Conduct, which looks out for worker rights, and creates market incentives for those suppliers willing to respect their worker’s human rights, even if those rights are not guaranteed by the law. And lastly, they ask for 100% transparency for their tomato purchases in Florida. In November 2010, the CIW and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange signed an agreement to extend the CIW’s Fair Food principles – including a strict code of conduct, a cooperative complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process – to over 90% of Florida’s tomato fields.

On February 9, 2012, Trader Joe’s finally agreed to help the plight for farm workers by signing the Fair Food Agreement. They joined (among others) such big names as Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, and Whole Foods. But guess who wont join CIW: Chipotle and Publix.

It is especially surprising that Chipotle, the one corporation whom you would assume would be at the forefront of workers rights issues, is distancing themselves. They promote the integrity of their food and practices more than anyone — so the fact that they wont partner with CIW in adopting the Fair Food Principles is especially baffling. The company’s whole image is around Food with Integrity and their focus on ensuring the products they use “are grown, made and shipped without exploiting people”. From Chipotle’s website: “We can talk about all of the procedures and protocols we follow and how important they are – but it all really comes back to the people behind every ingredient we purchase, burrito we make, and customer we serve.”

These workers are the people behind their ingredients. Instead Both Publix and Chipotle have decided to do it their “own way” in an approach that forgoes transparency and farmworker participation.  Both have statements about their uninterest in partnering with CIW. Publix issued a statement in 2010 saying: “If there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business…”  Chipotle’s CEO states their efforts in improving the nation’s food supply system are “rooted in doing the right things”…so why arent they doing the right thing in the case of farmworkers?

The thing is, farmworkers rights are a very important, but overlooked issue. Despite all the news as of late, consumers very often dont consider those people who are picking the majority of our food. By working with CIW, Chipotle would be bringing to light something that is so important. That’s what Daniel told Chris Arnold, Communications Director & Official Spokesman for Chipotle, when we met last week at the Edible Conference in Santa Barbara: “Whether or not you are compliant with the standards that CIW puts forward, the public needs a governing force. We buy fair trade coffee, not because its perfect, but because it sets a standard. By working with CIW, you would be making people aware of the farmworkers who are bring us our food.”

Major purchasers are changing their tune thanks to CIW. What’s it going to take for Chipotle and Publix? Maybe if the two chains came down to Immokalee and saw what its like to be on the other end of the tomato, they’d change their minds. It has definitely done a number on me.

Follow Mirra on Twitter

See the video we filmed while in Immokalee:

  • Foody2 and Oliver

    This is powerful, painful, and disgusting.  I’ve heard about child labor and slave-type labor in other countries, and boycotting of those products/stores, but I feel very naive to realize that this is happening here in the states. Having read this, the burden and responsibility is that now that I know, I can never not know, and will have to be making more conscious, ethical choices.  

  • Euphorbianut

    I worked as a volunteer boycott organizer for the United Farmworkers in the early 70′s.  At that time there was some publicity on the grape boycott.  In progressive circles it was popular to boycott grapes from targeted farms.  After several years the publicity faded away. 
    The public gets distracted by the current stories in the news.  It is too easy for people to forget the farmworkers and the human rights they all deserve.  After all, deep down inside we are all the same human beings.

    • http://twitter.com/kaleandcola Mirra Fine

      Too true. And just like that, Im sure this story will fade away.

  • Nick_439

    What an amazing and disturbing piece.  Thankyou so much for bringing this out to the attention of more people.  Keep up the great work ya’ll.

  • Jon

    Great posting.  Thank you.

  • David

    A new Trader Joe’s is due to open in the north end of Naples, Florida at the end of this year. That’s very close to Immokalee. That’s bound to bring good opportunities to bring clarity to this issue.

    • http://twitter.com/kaleandcola Mirra Fine

      Wow. I didnt realize that. It will be interesting to see what happens. Hopefully some change will come by then. 

  • Freedomfarm09

    For several years, here in the midwest, we grew organic green peppers for Chipoltle.  They kept dropping the price they paid to the grower while raising their prices in the store and continuing their ads about being for the people.  I wish their BS was something we could spread on the fields.  

    • http://twitter.com/kaleandcola Mirra Fine

      Wow. Its incredible how many stories like these we are hearing. Im sorry you had to go through that. 

  • Mario

    I’m more than half way through reading Tomatoland and it’s been both enlightening and horrifying. I’m not a stranger to migrant workers and tomatoes as my father was a grower for Red Gold Brand. We employed many migrants but their treatment was nothing like the camps in Florida. While the housing was not the best, it was always inspected by a state agency (and passed with approval) and my father worked hard to show the workers how to earn, spend and save their money in the US. He knew each and every one of these people could be productive citizens if given the chance, but he also knew they were not equipped to make it on their own- not just yet. So using their selves as the models, my parents cultivated more than the fields. They cultivated hope and prosperity in each and every family and worker. When my father passed in 2000, it was shortly after harvest season. In many ways, I think he was waiting to get the last load in to the factory before he died. He was the last farmer that delivered hand-picked tomatoes to the factory. They were red, ripe beautiful fruits. After reading Tomatoland, I don’t expect I’ll ever look at tomatoes quite the same again- not unless I know who’s garden they came from.

    • http://twitter.com/kaleandcola Mirra Fine

      Its heartwarming to hear this story about your father and the way he treated his employees. More people should do the same. We’re all human, and need to look out for one another. 

  • http://twitter.com/carpeseason carpe season

    Wow, great post. I’m especially surprised at Chipotle.

  • Aquibell
    • http://twitter.com/kaleandcola Mirra Fine

      Thanks for letting us know

  • http://www.linseykitchens.com Linseyis

    Argh! This makes me so sick. I do not eat tomatoes that haven’t been grown locally and during their season, but Trader Joes?? I’m writing them a letter right now. Thanks for the info!

  • Sambaparami

    ive never been to chipole, but i have been to joes. I wont be going there anymore.

  • Jessica Ann Greenberg

    Wow I didn’t realize this is happening, let alone so close to where I live. What can we do to help the CIW?

  • Foody 2 and Oliver

    You CAN’T bring this to our attention ENOUGH. It’s important that we can hear about the impact of these episodes and your and Daniel’s writings. It would be too easy look the other way, except that with your filming, the way you capture people’s lives it would feel like we are accessories to the crime. 

  • bluewater

    Very worthwhile to read and watch, as your blog suggests companies need to consider the human component and be more responsible for their actions. keep up the good work Mirra and Daniel!

  • Rob

    It’s really, really valuable that you and Daniel have not let Chipotle off the hook when it comes to the Fair Food Program.  I feel like Chipotle has tried to sneak it’s way into the Food Movement but they need to be told strongly and firmly (and apparently over and over again) that “integrity” is not something you can buy; it’s something that is proven by your actions.  Having respected movers and shakers in the Food Movement tell them that nothing short of cooperating with farmworkers themselves will suffice – that’s what will convince them to do the right thing.  Chipotle has sent people to Immokalee, but they only spoke to growers – they were forbidden to talk to anyone from the CIW!  I know because I met one of the people years later and was able to has long conversation with her about it.

  • An Kn

    Just out of curiosity – could you elaborate on which part of the statement on Chipotle’s page (to which you link: http://ir.chipotle.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=194775&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1329860&highlight=)  is dissatisfying to you?  

    “Similar agreements between other large tomato buyers, like Chipotle, and
    the CIW have been blocked by a Florida tomato industry cooperative.
    Under most of those agreements, money earmarked for farm workers is
    accumulating in escrow accounts rather than reaching the farm workers
    for whom it is intended. By working directly with East Coast Farms,
    Chipotle will be able to pass the additional wages directly to the
    workers.”Certainly sounds like Chipotle is working around a bureaucratic system?  Can you comment on their assertion that the funds agreed to through the CIW are not currently reaching the workers? 

    • Rob

      Chipotle’s statement does sound very nice, doesn’t it?  But of course it would – Chipotle wrote it.  It was true at the time of Chipotle’s Press Release that the FL Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE) was preventing the wage increase from making it to the workers.  What is highly misleading is Chipotle’s implicit or explicit contention that they were responsible for convincing East Coast Growers to break with the rest of the FTGE and start passing the wage increase along to farmworkers.  The CIW and the other companies which have agreements with the CIW (particularly Compass Group) were the one who convinced East Coast to break the FTGE “embargo.”  Despite Chipotle’s efforts to make it seem like they accomplished what the CIW was never able to, really that couldn’t be further from the truth; it was the CIW’s ability to marshal the purchasing power of some of the biggest food companies in the country which eventually overcame the resist of growers like East Coast.  Which really shows the importance and strength of the Fair Food agreements with the CIW; the collective strength of the agreements is what’s allowed major improvements in the fields to be implement.  About a year after the CIW’s agreement with East Coast, the CIW reached an agreement with the entire FTGE.

      For a detailed analysis of the problems with Chipotle’s  absurd assertions such as this one, I highly recommend this article:
      http://grist.org/food/steve-ells-will-you-accept-the-chipotle-challenge/

      For a shorter explanation from when Chipotle issued this misleading press release see:
      http://denverfairfood.blogspot.com/2009/09/celebrating-victory-while-continuing-to.html

      • http://twitter.com/kaleandcola Mirra Fine

        Thanks Rob for providing that detailed answer to An Kn’s fair question. 

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  • Emorgan707

    I was at that Edible Institute, and heard Chris Arnold’s answer to the question regarding the CIW. This past weekend, I attended a more conservative agricultural conference in Fresno. These are collegiate students and future leaders in agriculture. Not once did this subject come up, and most people gave me an uninterested blank stare when I mentioned it, even those from the University of Florida.

  • 711FLK

    I am not condoning the mistreatment of the farm workers. I do wonder why the immigration status of the worker was not discussed. Am I wrong to assume that some of the farmer workers are here illegally, either undocumented or staying past the date of their papers? How can the farm workers demand fair treatment under the law from their employers when they are breaking laws themselves? I do think that our nation’s immigration policy is broken. That being said, it is still the current law of the land.

    • Vcsnover

      Because it’s basic human dignity, that’s why. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1471034843 Teri Bedell

    How much I depend on perennial plate to give me an honest look at our food in this country.  Thank you so much for this piece it has made a dent in my heart.  I feel this mothers pain and hope for her children something I can relate to being a mother who wants more for her children.  It is still so disheartening to know that the food that so many of us put on our tables is produced in such awful conditions.  My heart and prayers go out to Lupe and her family.  I wish her well she deserves so much more.  Thanks again for all that you do Mirra.  

  • Paige

    I live in Naples, which is a thirty minute drive from Immokalee. The differences between Naples and Immokalee are ridiculous. Naples, a beachside town, attracts tourism and is filled with millionaires. I find it sad that Immokalee and Naples are in the SAME county, yet little money is appropriated to helping these individuals. A couple years ago, our school system spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TURF for a FOOTBALL FIELD. I am disgusted.

  • Lauren

    This story is so sad. I had a sense of the misery immigrants went through, but I didn’t realize how bad it really was. I am not the one to keep up or pay attention to things like this, but this literally brought tears to my eyes. I feel bad for what she has to go through. No one should go through that kind of hardship. Especially not in America.