The Price of Tomatoes: Keeping Slavery Alive in Florida

by Christine Sine


Brian McLaren at tomato pray in

Brian McLaren at tomato pray in

I love tomatoes and as those of you who follow this blog regularly know Tom & I are still waiting hopefully for some of our crop to ripen this year and we are not hopeful as the weather in the Pacific NW continues to be cool. So can imagine I am anticipating we will be buying a lot of tomatoes from Florida this year. Or at least I thought we would until I heard an NPR interview yesterday with Barry Estabrook the author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. The book was based on a James Beard Award-winning article that originally appeared in Gourmet magazine, where Estabrook was a contributing editor before publication ceased in 2009.

Tomatoes are big business, but it looks as though little about the growing of tomatoes in Florida should make them appetizing to us. And its not just the lack of taste or the huge amount of chemicals (more than 8 times what is used in California that is the concern – it is the slavery that goes into their production

“Of the legal jobs available, picking tomatoes is at the very bottom of the economic ladder. I came into this book chronicling a case of slavery in southwestern Florida that came to light in 2007 and 2008. And it was shocking. I’m not talking about near-slavery or slavery-like conditions. I’m talking about abject slavery. These were people who were bought and sold. These were people who were shackled in chains at night or locked in the back of produce trucks with no sanitary facilities all night.  read the entire article and listen to the interview

It seems to me that a lot of the agricultural industry still depends on the use of near slave labour and the exploitation of illegal immigrants but this seems to go even beyond that. We cry out about the slavery in other parts of the world but tend to ignore our own complicity by the very decisions we make about what food we eat. And in both cases you may be right.

So maybe I will learn to enjoy green tomatoes this year or to do without. The thing that concerns me is that it does nothing to alleviate the plight of those who pick tomatoes in Florida. Some of you may be saying that it also seems to have nothing to do with the series I am doing on tools for praying which I started this morning. But I think that there is a connection. Estabrook refers in his article to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers  a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida that works to increase wages and improve conditions.

When I went to their website I read this article Fair Food Pray-in at Publix!

Yesterday, in Naples, Florida, several local clergy joined with farmworkers from Immokalee for the first-ever Fair Food “pray-in,” held in the produce aisle of a Publix supermarket, in protest of Publix’s ongoing refusal to support fairer wages and more humane working conditions for the workers who pick their tomatoes. Here’s an account of the action, from the Ft. Myers News-Press (“Immokalee coalition to pedal to Lakeland,” 8/20/11):

I noticed that in one of the photos was someone that looked surprisingly like our good friend Brian McLaren and guess what it was.  (see photo above). This is not the first time Brian has stepped out in this way showing that prayer and action are closely linked. Active involvement in issues like this is an important part of our prayer toolkit. You can read the prayer they read here or watch on youtube and maybe as Brian suggests it will stir you to prayerful action too.


You may also like


LK Richardson September 8, 2011 - 2:57 pm

I have often thought that two years of universal compulsory service (military or other) would change Americans’ thoughts on the value of minimum (and below) wage work. Having an ever-rotating number of hands could allow farmers to pay the full-time workers a living wage, while educating the children of the leaders of this country as to what it’s really like on the lower rungs of society. It would also bond them to one another in a way no video game can.

Christine Sine September 8, 2011 - 6:50 pm

Your idea has a lot of merit to it. I think that too many young people , at least until the recent economic downturn, have had life too easy and have no idea of what life is like for those at the bottom of the ladder

Leave a Comment