Tomato, Tomahto

Tomatoes are arguably the most consumed fruit or vegetable in our country....28% of Americans eat a meal every day that contains at least one tomato. It is estimated that every American eats about 29 pounds of fresh tomatoes a year and an additional 73 pounds processed in tomato sauces, ketchup, etc.

But tomatoes only grow locally in the summer....

Immokalee, Florida is the tomato capital of the nation. It’s a desolate shanty town 10 minutes from Bonita Springs, a wealthy coastal town, and about 45 minutes from Naples, the 2nd wealthiest metropolitan area in the country. The heart of the town is a 9 block grid of dusty, potholed, empty streets, lined with trailers fit for 1 or 2 with 10 or 12 pairs of shoes by the door....Per capita income in Immokalee is $8,500. 90% of all the tomatoes eaten in the US are grown there.

I know something about Immokalee because I’ve spent some time there working with—and alongside of—migrant workers over the course of a few years…. [W]hat happens in these fields is not open to the public. But we went and I was able to get out there year after year to learn what life as a tomato picker was really about.

Pickers stand in line on the street waiting for the buses in the dark of the morning. This makes sense to me, not because tomatoes need to be picked at 5am, but because most citizens don’t want to see the faces of the men who work these fields. They pile onto the buses, hoping to get a space. Not everyone will have work every day. Once on the fields, they’re given a pair of gloves and a barrel and they’d head out to the rows of hedges…. Once full, they hoist the bucket onto their heads or shoulders and carry them to a very large, open back truck. The foreman is standing at the top of the truck.... The pickers then throw the buckets over their heads and the foreman catches it, dumps the tomatoes and throws it back to the worker who runs back to the rows.

They were paid, believe it or not, 44 cents for each 32 pound bucket. Working at breakneck speed, some of these guys are able to pick a ton of tomatoes in a day, netting as much as $50 for their 12 hours. Everything has to go very right for that to happen, including not having this sorry white girl in the fields to trip over. I was able to sustain 2 buckets an hour which gave me a total of $7.04 a for my eight hour day. I wasn’t once able to throw that 32 pound bucket to the foreman, so as I approached the truck, someone else would throw it and I’d give him my 44 cents.

The tomato fields of Immokalee are also ground zero for modern slavery. …[O]ne slavery ring was broken and the slaveholders were convicted, but that’s a rare occurrence. It happened because one slave whose name is Lucas was able to break free. He was looking for work in the fields and didn’t know anyone in Florida, so he arranged a deal with a man for a place to live. The man offered credit for weeks there wasn’t enough work along with room and board. But when Lucas showed up, he found that the room for which he was paying $20 a week was actually the back of a U-Haul truck that he shared with a dozen other men…. There was no light or water or toilet of any kind in the truck and the door was locked. For his $20 he also got 2 meals a day of eggs, rice and beans and was charged for everything including $5 per use of the cold hose for cleaning and drinking. Lucas worked the field and his paycheck went directly to the slaveholder who then gave Lucas a few dollars a week while adding up the debt.

When Lucas tried to leave, he was beaten badly. He and the other slaves were slashed with knives, tied to posts and shackled in chains…. Early one morning after several years in this hell, Lucas saw a small hole in the roof of that U-Haul and was able to break his way free.

More than a thousand people have been liberated in the past 10 years, but there are thousands more locked into slavery in Florida right now….

All this so our supermarkets can have bins overflowing with ripe tomatoes in January.