Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Are YOU a Slave Driver?

Slavery is alive and well in the United States, and you may be benefitting from slave labor.

1. Do you buy tomatoes?

2. Do you buy them in a grocery store?

3. Do you buy them out of season?

If you answered "yes" to two out of three of these questions, there's a very good chance you have eaten tomatoes picked by the hands of a slave. Don't think I'm putting myself on a pedestal here; I'm certainly guilty as well. But now that I have the information, I don't ever want to buy a Florida tomato again.

Ok, if you live in California, this may not apply to you...but then again, it might. Immokalee is a small town less than an hour from Naples, and is the tomato capital of the United States--more than 90% of the fresh tomatoes grown in the United States between December and May are from this part of the state. But as I read in Gourmet magazine's March issue, "The Price of Tomatoes" is unacceptable.

The population of Immokalee is nearly 25,000; per capita income is $8,500 a year. Most of the workers here are Hispanic, many are illegal aliens seeking to make a better wage here than at home. Yes, some are here illegally. But they are still human, and they are treated as less than animals--just so we can have a BLT in February.

As a Christian, I find that indefensible, regardless of immigration law.

"Lucas's 'room' [provided by his bosses was] the back of a box truck...shared with two or three other workers. It lacked running water and a toilet, so the occupents urinated and defecated in a corner. For that, [the boss] docked his pay by $20 a week. ... Cold showers from a garden hose in the backyard were $5 each."

He had to pay more for a shower than we pay for a pound of tomatoes. How much does your shower cost?

"Taking a day off was not an option. If Lucas became ill or was too exhausted to work, he was kicked in the head, beaten, and locked in the back of the truck. Other members of [the] crew were slashed with knives, tied to posts, and shackled in chains."

For tomatoes. TOMATOES!

Why do these workers not leave, once they realize the conditions? They can't. Their pay is docked for food, lodging, showers and other made-up exaggerated fees, so that at the end of the month they end up owing more money than they've made. The bosses take advantage of their illegal status and ignorance and fear of the law to keep them trapped, working for wages that haven't changed in 30 years.

I encourage you to read the full article at, and examine your own purchasing. Gourmet is not known as a bastion of crazy liberal propaganda; the article is well-researched and factual.

The fact is, you CAN get through the winter without tomatoes. During the summer, plant your own, or visit a farmers' market. (Be aware, though; some vendors buy produce from distant suppliers and re-sell them at local markets. Ask them where their tomatoes were grown. Don't be shy; think of Lucas getting kicked in the head, and compare your own brief discomfort.)

If the plight of faceless illegal aliens doesn't make it seem worthwhile to change your buying habits, check out pictures of the harvest at If nothing else, notice that every single tomato is being picked completely green. Why are you paying $3.49 a pound for unripe, nutritionally blank tomatoes? Have a beet instead, and wait until summer to eat summer foods.

Please think about this, and spread the word.


  1. kinda makes you hate your spaghetti all of the sudden.

  2. That is really terrible. All the more reason to grow our own tomatoes and can them ourselves for use in the winter. It won't be hard to give up fresh tomatoes in the winter, I rarely buy them at the store anyway because they just have no taste.

  3. Thank you for the education - I had no idea! I can think of a lot of other veggies to put in my salad instead of fact, julienne beets sound good.

    It's just too easy to forget that such appalling living conditions do exist in this country.

    Nancy in Atlanta

  4. I can feel your passion.

    But I don't think that not buying tomatoes in the winter is the answer. The individual consumer doesn't have a lot of power in this one. Like Alix said, makes you hate your spaghetti sauce. Tomatoes are everywhere... once you start to really pay attention, it is surprising how much they are used by the food industry and restaurant industry. I remember last summer when tomatoes were yanked because of whatever health scare was going on and I was really surprised at how many menu items weren't available because of the reliance on tomatoes.

    Shutting down the farms that grow the tomatoes isn't the answer. Prosecuting the people who are breaking the law in their treatment of their slaves... that is what has to happen. Changing our policies so that people who enter our country know their rights and know how to stand up for themselves... that has to happen.

    So I'll think of these stories when I buy my tomatoes. Or eat spaghetti sauce. Or order pizza. Or eat salsa. Or the avocado ranch dressing at Chili's. Or see toamtoes on my nachos. Or... but I don't know that I can commit to a change like not buying any tomato products. Find me a petition or letter writing campaign and I'm there. Find me a group who is working to rescue people from these situations and I'll donate.

  5. Liz, go to the link at That is a workers' group fighting slavery in Immokalee--there is also a petition on that website.

    I'm betting most processed tomato products are produced in the summer times, and may be harvested differently. It is really just the fresh off-season tomatoes addressed in this article.

    Now, I'm sure that you can find the same abuses at lettuce farms, or melon farms, or any other number of industrial food producers. So the real answer is, as always: buy local.

  6. We're going to do a co-op where every month we pick up a crate of veges from a local farmer.

  7. This disturbs me, greatly. I agree with Liz that we need to get to the root of the problem and prosecute those who are responsible, but I am also afraid for the immigrants when that happens. Illegal or not, nobody deserves to be treated that way. It also makes me very grateful for the bags and bags of home grown tomato puree in my freezer that I use all winter until the harvest begins again. Winter store-bought tomatoes are, quite frankly, not worth eating.

  8. Buying local doesn't always solve the issue either.

    Ideally, and what I would REALLY love to do and maybe this will drive me to it, is join a CSA. Community Supported Agriculture. And be able to visit the farm and participate in the growing of food if we want.

    I keep thinking about this... and know that the problem goes far beyond tomatoes. Citrus comes to mind.

    And I know that this also goes beyond agriculture. I know that a lot of privately owned cleaning companies take advantage of illegal workers. Temp agencies that place workers in manufacturing and factory jobs.


Thanks for dropping by--please share your thoughts!

"Every time we get comment mail, Rosie wags her tail!" (Seriously, you should see that puffy thing go.)