The Cost of a Winter Tomato


I’ve mentioned before on this blog how a “fresh” tomato in the winter-time can seem like a good idea until you actually buy one and try to eat it.

Maybe it’s that our bodies have gotten used to non-seasonal foods over the past few generations to the point where we crave a fresh tomato in winter so much that we’re tempted to buy one of the cardboard look-alikes in the produce section of our local supermarket.

Too–try going to any restaurant or deli for a pre-made sandwich that doesn’t include a “slice of red,” which is all that grainy, ethylene gas-ripened thing is–a splash of color with no discernible flavor attached.

But this article by Barry Estabrook published in Gourmet magazine drives home the price of that “slice of red” in the off-season: human slavery.

Immokalee is the tomato capital of the United States. Between December and May, as much as 90 percent of the fresh domestic tomatoes we eat come from south Florida, and Immokalee is home to one of the area’s largest communities of farmworkers. According to Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant U.S. attorney based in Fort Myers, Immokalee has another claim to fame: It is “ground zero for modern slavery.”

The article goes on to examine the plight of some of the men, most of whom have come from Mexico or South America and are working to send money back home to their families, who have been locked up, beaten, starved, and forced to work at breakneck speeds for money that never materializes.

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 Navarrete’s dozen-man crew were slashed with knives, tied to posts, and shackled in chains. On November 18, 2007, Lucas was again locked inside the truck. As dawn broke, he noticed a faint light shining through a hole in the roof. Jumping up, he secured a hand hold and punched himself through. He was free.

What happened at Navarrete’s home would have been horrific enough if it were an isolated case. Unfortunately, involuntary servitude—slavery—is alive and well in Florida. Since 1997, law-enforcement officials have freed more than 1,000 men and women in seven different cases. And those are only the instances that resulted in convictions. Frightened, undocumented, mistrustful of the police, and speaking little or no English, most slaves refuse to testify, which means their captors cannot be tried. “Unlike victims of other crimes, slaves don’t report themselves,” said Molloy, who was one of the prosecutors on the Navarrete case. “They hide from us in plain sight.”

And for what? Supermarket produce sections overflow with bins of perfect red-orange tomatoes even during the coldest months—never mind that they are all but tasteless.

Obviously, this story makes clear yet another reason to eat locally and seasonally. Local food isn’t just for yuppies and do-gooders, and the price of not eating locally and in season is huge–not only in terms of food miles and freshness and the environment, which in an era of hidden costs can seem to some more warm and fuzzy than practical when filling the grocery cart.

…when asked if it is reasonable to assume that an American who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store or food-service company during the winter has eaten fruit picked by the hand of a slave, Molloy said, “It is not an assumption. It is a fact.”

The cost of non-seasonal eating is not just an environmental cost or a quality cost, it is a human cost. Do we really need that slice of winter tomato on our sandwich or in our salad?  Pickled sweet peppers or sprouts (especially those you grow at home) have great flavor and actual nutritive value.

This article has certainly dampened any desire on my part for a slice of red, and I’d encourage readers to take a copy (or send an electronic copy) to their local produce managers and encourage them to look more closely at where their fruits are coming from.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Wow. That is really appalling.

    Thank you for sharing this, though it makes me feel a bit queasy about the tomato I ate last night.

  2. Posted by flyingtomato on March 4, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    I agree. And then I had lunch downtown today and didn’t even realize there’d be that “slice of red” on my chicken schwarma. But there it was, sitting on top, and all I could think was that a slave picked that tomato.

  3. […] Rebecca at Flying Tomato Farms with The cost of a winter tomato […]

  4. That is appalling, and makes me regret the little box of grape tomatoes that I bought the other day. I should know better…

  5. […] Rebecca at Flying Tomato Farms with The cost of a winter tomato […]

  6. I work with immigrant laborers and this issue is such a big one for me… thank you thank you thank you for pointing all of this out, for making the links above, and for writing about this important issue that we all should confront with sincerity and honesty.

  7. […] The cost of a winter tomato by Rebecca at Flying Tomato Farms […]

  8. […] The cost of a winter tomato by Rebecca at Flying Tomato Farms […]

  9. […] there getting spitting mad about sexism other people don’t even see and fretting about the hidden human cost behind our food, and (selfishly) almost better to know that there are people out there trying to help us get heard. […]

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