Tomato Justice

Field hands, faith groups, and ordinary citizens are demanding dignity from an industry that squeezes the lifeblood from its workers.  

by Tim Høiland (farmworker photos by Scott Robertson)

ScottRobertsonImmokalee19Welcome to Immokalee. You've likely never heard of this small town in southwest Florida, and by most accounts that's perfectly understandable. With a population of just under 25,000(1)—nearly half of whom live below the poverty line(2)— it doesn't have quite the allure found in other parts of the Sunshine State.

But if you've ever eaten a tomato in the winter, chances are good that it came from the fields of Immokalee.

Not that the land or the climate is particularly conducive to tomato farming; agriculture in this part of Florida is a relatively recent phenomenon. Immokalee was originally home to the Calusa and Seminole tribes who passed through the area while hunting its swamps for alligators and other wildlife. Eventually the swamps were drained, and in the 1920s a railroad was built, which led to an influx of settlers and immigrant farmworkers responding to the demand for food for the growing settlement.(3)

It has been farmland ever since, though its sandy soil leaves much to be desired. The area's humid climate is conducive to tomato-eating pests, and tomatoes thrive best in hot, dry climates. But poor soil quality and ubiquitous pests have been no match for science. Thanks to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, these natural obstacles have largely been offset, and red tomatoes are enjoyed year-round, from sea to shining sea.

End of story, right? Well…not exactly.

ScottRobertsonImmokalee27Life at the bottom of the food chain 

Picking tomatoes in Florida's blistering heat is backbreaking work, and it doesn't pay much. For this reason, growers rely heavily on migrant farmworkers willing to do the work most American citizens are unwilling or unable to do.

Like many farmworkers, 21-year-old Wilson Perez came to Immokalee to provide for his family back home in Guatemala.(4) On a typical day, he gets up at 4 a.m. and makes his way to a parking lot in town where he and hundreds of others wait for work for the day. Able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 40 are often selected, but as Perez says, even so "you have to continue to have good luck and be hired back day after day."

On good days, Perez is selected by a crew leader and taken to the field where he and his fellow day laborers will pick tomatoes. It is often 10 or 11 a.m. before work begins, and the pay doesn't kick in until the workers start picking. Moving row after row, hunched low to the ground, Perez fills his 32-pound bucket. When it's full, he hoists it onto his shoulder and carries it hurriedly to a waiting truck, which may be 100 feet or more away. Then he gets back to where he left off and continues picking. This is repeated bucket after bucket, hour after hour, day after day.

Farmworkers like Perez are typically paid 50 cents per bucket, a rate that has remained stagnant for three decades. In fact, taking inflation into account, today's pay is only half what it was then.(5) A single worker needs to pick 2.5 tons of tomatoes every day just to earn minimum wage.(6)

But low wages are just the beginning of the problem. "Women face sexual harassment," Perez says. "Sometimes you're not paid for the work you've done, and many times your basic rights are not respected by your employer. That's why we're working hard to get a better wage and to be treated more justly on the job."

Perez's experience in the tomato fields of Immokalee can arguably be seen as a poignant subset of agriculture in the United States today. According to the National Center for Farmworker Health (NCFH), more than 3 million migrant farmworkers labor in the United States today, effectively serving as "the backbone for a multi-billion dollar agricultural industry." The NCFH also says that three of five farmworker families live below the poverty line,(7) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists farmworkers as some of the lowest paid workers in the country.(8) And it's especially dangerous work: In agriculture, hunting, and fish- ing (which are grouped together in BLS statistics), almost 27 deaths occur per 100,000 workers, a rate nearly eight times higher than the average for all private sector jobs.(9)ScottRobertsonImmokalee38

Ground zero for slavery

For many in Florida, working conditions are even worse than the pay. In his recent book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, author and food writer Barry Estabrook writes, "If you've ever eaten a tomato during the winter you've eaten a fruit picked by a slave."

Indeed, over the past 15 years, seven slavery cases have successfully been prosecuted in Florida, resulting in 1,200 slaves being freed. At least two additional slavery investigations are currently underway. And by all accounts this is only the tip of the iceberg. Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant US attorney in Fort Myers, Fla., said that the tomato fields in and near Immokalee constitute "ground zero for modern-day slavery."(10)

TomatolandPPBCover"Molloy is not talking about virtual slavery, or near slavery, or slavery-like conditions, but real slavery," Estabrook writes. "Workers were 'sold' to crew bosses to pay off bogus debts, beaten if they didn't feel like working or were too sick or weak to work, held in chains, pistol-whipped, and locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by armed guards. Escapees who got caught were beaten or worse. Corpses of murdered [farm-workers] were not an uncommon sight in the rivers and canals of South Florida."(11)

When I spoke with Estabrook, he explained just how difficult it is for prosecutors to win slavery convictions in Florida, or elsewhere in the US for that matter. "The ones we see represent a fraction of a fraction of what's going on," he said. "Even if a case is brought to light before law enforcement, it's rare that it can be prosecuted—and rarer still that it comes to light in the first place."

This is certainly due in part to the fact that once free, former slaves—often migrant farmworkers—are likely to flee the country for their lives. And to successfully prosecute slaveholders, Estabrook says, "you need witnesses willing to stick around to face those who have threatened to kill them for years—very violent people in most cases." Prosecutors, meanwhile, are reluctant to bring charges against suspected perpetrators unless they have an ironclad case. If they fail to win a conviction, after all, the suspect goes free and the lives of countless people could be put in imminent danger.IMG_8921

Toxic tomato fields

Estabrook didn't have slavery in mind when he started researching the tomato industry. Rather, as a food writer, the journey that led him to Immokalee began with curiosity about the tastelessness of store-bought tomatoes. What he discovered at the root of the problem was the use—and astonishing abuse—of pesticides.

Winter tomatoes grown in Immokalee, Estabrook writes, "are bred for hardness, picked when still firm and green (the merest trace of pink is taboo), and artificially gassed with ethylene in warehouses until they acquire the rosy-red skin tones of a ripe tomato." Over the course of a growing season, growers use up to 110 different chemicals, Estabrook says, "including some of the most potent, toxic chemicals in industrialized agriculture's arsenal."(12)

The ramifications of this chemical use for those who will eventually eat the tomatoes is troubling in itself, considering that traces of 35 pesticides have been found on tomatoes in supermarket produce aisles.(13)

But there is no escaping the fact that farmworkers bear the overwhelming brunt of the harmful effects of these chemicals. Estabrook interviewed dozens of farmworkers, and the vast majority told of being sprayed with chemicals directly and repeatedly while picking tomatoes. In some particularly troubling cases, women who worked in the fields while pregnant gave birth to children with severe birth defects. "It simply demonstrates callous disregard [by the growers] to spray that sort of stuff on workers," Estabrook says, adding, "and especially on pregnant women."

Fortunately, the men and women who endure these conditions out of economic necessity do have their advocates. And, as has been true throughout US history, Christians and other people of faith have been instrumental in the movement for improved wages and working conditions for farmworkers.

¡Sí, se puede!

The most iconic figure in the history of the farmworker movement is undoubtedly César Chávez (1927-1993), a Mexican American farmworker himself who founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, which was later named the United Farm Workers (UFW). Through strikes, boycotts, and "spiritual fasts," Chávez led the UFW to previously unprecedented gains, including collective bargaining rights for all farmworkers in California.(14)IMG_9241

Chávez's longtime press secretary and personal aide was Marc Grossman, who continues to work as spokesman for the UFW as well as communications director for the César Chávez Foundation. As a student at the University of California, Irvine, in the 1960s, Grossman studied American history and participated in grape boycotts, as did many of his peers. Upon graduation Grossman concluded that "being part of history would be a lot more interesting than just reading about it," so he joined the UFW.(15)

Grossman told me that, in his opinion, three great innovations were at the heart of Chávez's success. First, for both philosophical and practical reasons, Chávez insisted on nonviolence—something that was not a hallmark of the labor movement at the time. Second, he emphasized voluntary poverty, rooted in the belief that he couldn't organize the poor if he didn't share in their plight. And third, he pioneered the boycott as a way of transferring the front lines from the fields (where farmworkers were relatively defenseless) to the cities (where students, union activists, consumers, and faith groups could participate).

Though Chávez is often described by biographers as a devout Catholic, such characterizations are a bit too simplistic, says Dr. Luís León, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, who is currently working on a book about Chávez's faith.(16)

"He was raised Catholic, baptized Catholic, and had a Catholic sensibility," León told me. "But his Catholicism was not orthodox Catholicism."

Rather, he simply identified himself as a Christian—as did the vast majority of US citizens at the time—and he worked to build bridges with a variety of groups, faith-based and otherwise. Though he had nuns, priests, rabbis, and liberal Protestant leaders on the front lines of the movement from the start, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops didn't offer their official support until 1973.

Interestingly, Chávez also garnered widespread support from Pentecostals, despite the fact that they had traditionally been apolitical.

"When Chávez moved to the Central Valley [of California]," León says, "he went from house to house, knocking on doors, looking for those who would support the movement. He quickly encountered Pentecostal house churches, and they became some of the first members [of the UFW]." Chávez drew inspiration for his work from Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and St. Francis of Assisi. It was from Gandhi, León says, that Chávez gleaned the insight that he could not understand the suffering of the poor unless he was among them. Like St. Francis, Chávez lived very simply, never owning a house or a car or having a bank account. And like King, he made the case to the American public that being Christian is directly tied to working for social justice, and that to mistreat anyone is an affront to God.

But Chávez' faith can best be understood, León argues, in terms of his commitment to nonviolence—something that stood in stark contrast with other social movements of his day. Though violent struggle was seen by many at the time as the only way to defeat colonialism, racism, and injustice, and while the men at the forefront of these movements were linking violent struggle with spiritual rejuvenation and real masculinity, Chávez saw things far differently.

"I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness," Chávez said, "is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men!"(17)

The Campaign for Fair Food

What Chávez and the UFW accomplished for those picking grapes in the fields of California has paved the way for further victories in the farmworker movement nationwide, and people of faith continue to be integrally involved. In the tomato fields of southwestern Florida, the farmworker movement has been driven by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and its allies.

CIW is a member-driven organization made up of farmworkers, which got its start in a borrowed room at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Immokalee in 1993, when workers began meeting weekly to discuss how they might best effect change in the fields. From these humble origins, the CIW has grown to 4,000 members and has already brought considerable changes to the tomato industry.(18)

For one thing, the CIW has had an active role in the investigation and prosecution of several slavery cases in Florida, including one that is currently ongoing. Two years ago, coinciding with the release of the 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the CIW for being "an independent and pressing voice as they uncover slavery rings, tap the power of the workers, and hold companies and governments accountable."(19)

Beginning in 2001, the CIW organized a boycott of Taco Bell, putting pressure on the major fast food chain to address unjust working conditions and low wages in its supply chain, particularly in the fields where its tomatoes were picked.

The "Boot the Bell" campaign garnered support at colleges and high schools across the country, and a variety of faith groups, labor organizations, and community members all helped to galvanize the campaign. In the spring of 2005, the pressure became so strong that Taco Bell agreed to meet all demands and to "work with the CIW to improve working and pay conditions for farmworkers in the Florida tomato fields."(20)

With the end of its boycott against Taco Bell, the CIW launched its Campaign for Fair Food, calling on the remaining key players in the tomato industry to agree and adhere to a Fair Food Code of Conduct. Among other requirements, the code ensures that workers are paid an additional penny per pound. While that may sound insignificant, it actually nearly doubles what workers currently earn. The code also calls for an actual clock-in system to ensure that workers earn at least minimum wage and that they get paid for all time spent on the job. The code also provides for a complaint resolution system for reporting abuse of any kind—unlawful use of chemicals, sexual harassment and abuse, or even suspected cases of slavery.

Following the landmark agreement with Taco Bell, the campaign focused its efforts on the other leading fast food chains. In 2007, McDonald's agreed to meet all demands and also committed to help develop a third party system for monitoring abuses in the fields. Burger King and Subway soon signed on as well.

Next, the campaign turned its attention to the food service industry, and in 2009 and 2010, Aramark, Bon Appétit Management Co., Compass Group, and Sodexo—the leading companies in that sector—signed the agreement as well.(21)

The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a cooperative representing 90 percent of Florida's tomato growers, originally fought the fair food agreements tooth and nail. By the end of 2010, though, it too had agreed to cooperate.(22) Following the announcement, a New York Times editorial called it a "remarkable victory," and while recognizing that the agreement wouldn't change everything overnight, it said that "part of the farm industry is pointing in the right direction."(23)

With the major players in the fast food and food service sectors on board, and with full participation from the growers association, workers have begun to experience better pay and improved working conditions, but the fight is not over yet. With two exceptions—Whole Foods Market, an early ally beginning in 2007, and Trader Joe's, which signed an agreement in 2012—the supermarket sector continues to resist pressure to cooperate.(24)

What the Campaign for Fair Food has clearly shown is that getting companies to agree to the terms of the code of conduct is far from easy, but that given enough time, and with farmworkers, student groups, church members, and ordinary consumers of tomatoes all speaking with a unified voice, companies—supermarkets included—will have no choice but to comply.

The home stretch

One of the major grocery chains in Florida and throughout the southeastern US is Publix, which has its headquarters in Lakeland, Fla. After years of failed attempts by the CIW to initiate dialogue with Publix and its CEO, Ed Crenshaw, about participation in the Campaign for Fair Food, the farmworkers decided it was time to pay him a visit themselves.

IMG_6196So a 200-mile bike ride—the "Pilgrimage to Publix"— was planned for last August and September. Organized by CIW, churches along the route from Immokalee to Lakeland provided places for the riders to stay, prepared home-cooked meals, and offered prayers of encouragement and support.IMG_0103

At the start of the trek, a small group of Christian allies convened at a Publix store in North Naples, Fla., along with Wilson Perez and another farmworker.(25) They gathered in the produce aisle to pray that Publix' management would have a change of heart.

Among those present for the "pray-in" was author, speaker, and Christian activist Brian McLaren. "It was a great event," he told me. "It brought together clergy from the area at a very local level, and allowed us to make a statement to the management of the store, to the CEO, and to the public at large.

"It was respectful, not vengeful," he added. While there is danger in praying to be seen, at times it is the faithful thing to do, said McLaren, referencing the biblical account of Daniel who defied the authorities of his day in order to pray publicly to the one true God. "By all accounts I have heard, Ed Crenshaw and his family are committed Christians and wonderful people—so we hoped that prayer is a language they would understand."(26)

At the end of the pray-in, members of the group each purchased tomatoes and filled a standard 32-pound bucket like the ones used in the fields. Demonstrating that Publix could easily spare an extra penny per pound, that full bucket—for which a typical farmworker would earn 50 cents—cost $79.63 at the checkout.

So Perez and the team of riders made their way to Publix headquarters, hoping to speak with Crenshaw himself.

"For my part, I've never been part of anything like it," Perez told me later. "I had never seen such a great outpouring of support from churches and supporters as we did on that trip. Many people told us we were doing a good job and urged us to keep moving forward in our struggle, and this gave us a lot of inspiration to continue. It was a very beautiful experience to ride 200 miles to Lakeland to struggle together for a better life for farmworkers. And it let me know that we're not alone. That motivates us to keep going with our work."

Jordan Buckley, who works closely with the CIW as part of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida and who also participated in the bike ride, agreed. "It was a touching, inspiring experience to be housed and have our meals provided by congregations," he said. "They included us in their prayers, and it was a great experience to be able to invite those we crossed paths with to pray not just for us but also for those making the decisions at companies like Publix."(27)

When the riders reached Lakeland, dozens of others joined them for the final leg across town to Publix's corporate offices. There they were met by a crowd of enthusiastic and committed supporters from the surrounding area. One pastor read an open letter, signed by 31 members of the clergy, calling on Publix to commit to fair food practices. The Rev. Kent Siladi, the Conference Minister of the United Church of Christ in Florida, prayed, "For those who have ridden the 200 miles, for their commitment, for their courage, for their discipline, and for the way in which you, God, have guided them, we do give thanks."(28)

Outside the offices' security gate, the riders were met by a public relations representative for Publix who declined to provide his name but informed them that Crenshaw would not be meeting with them and asked them to leave the property. A farmworker named Oscar Otzoy wasn't ready to give up, saying, "We want you to do the right thing. Until now, your company has ignored our poverty wages and bad conditions, including the slavery that you refuse to recognize exists here in Florida."(29) The public relations representative thanked them and again asked them to leave.

IMG_7930Before the crowd of supporters dispersed, Brian McLaren led the group in a call and response, expressing frustration with the unresponsiveness on the part of Publix and Crenshaw and making clear that those pursuing justice and dignity for the farmworkers who form the backbone of the tomato industry would not be giving up anytime soon.

"I believe that things will change," Perez told me. "In fact, things are already changing. The victories we've had already have been big reasons for hope. My colleagues are being trained so they know their rights under the new code of conduct, and their pay has increased with each new victory. So I'm full of hope, because I've seen it with my own eyes—each corporation that comes on board results in an increase to our pay, improves the chances that our work will be honored, and means that we can have a more dignified workplace."

The rules of the game

Our economy is built on the law of supply and demand, and the tomato industry is no exception. The fact of the matter is that we will keep demanding tomatoes, and supermarkets—like fast food chains and food service providers—will continue to supply them. But we can demand more. We can demand that the tomatoes we purchase contribute to the dignity and well-being of those who pick them; slavery cannot be tolerated anywhere in the supply chain. We can demand that farmworkers be paid a penny more per pound—at least minimum wage. We can demand that tomatoes are grown with reasonable precautions; for starters, workers shouldn't be sprayed with pesticides. And we can demand that workers' voices are heard and that they are respected as key players in the tomato industry. When demand for tomato justice is strong enough—and it's getting stronger by the day—supermarkets will have no choice but to supply it.

Tim Høiland is an advocacy journalist and a regular contributor to PRISM, writing about the intersections of faith, development, justice, and peace in the Americas. Read more at


  1. "Profile of General Population and Housing Characteristics: 2010 Demographic Profile Data," US Census Bureau.
  1. "Selected Economic Characteristics 2006-2010 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates," US Census Bureau.
  1. "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Immokalee, Fla.," New York Times, June 15, 2011.
  1. Telephone interview with Wilson Perez, February 6 and 9, 2011.
  1. "Excerpt from Tomatoland," Politics of the Plate.
  1. "Hungry in America, Part 3: A Harvest Out of Reach," AARP.
  1. "Facts About Farmworkers," National Center for Farmworker Health.
  1. "Occupational Employment and Wages—May 2010," Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  1. "Number of fatal work injuries, 1992-2010," Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  1. "Excerpt from Tomatoland," Politics of the Plate.
  1. "Excerpt from Tomatoland."
  1. "Excerpt from Tomatoland."
  1. "Excerpt from Tomatoland."
  1. "The story of Cesar Chavez," United Farm Workers.
  1. Telephone interview with Marc Grossman, February 13, 2011.
  1. Telephone interview with Dr. Luís León, February 17, 2011.
  1. Del Castillo, Richard Griswold and Garcia, Richard A., César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit, pp. 87-8.
  1. "About CIW."
  1. "Remarks on the Release of the 10th Annual Trafficking in Persons Report," US Department of State.
  1. "Victory at Taco Bell."
  1. "About CIW."
  1. "McDonald's farmworker raise fought by growers," Chicago Tribune, November 6, 2007.
  1. "One Penny More a Pound," New York Times editorial, December 3, 2010.
  1. "About CIW."
  1. "Pedaling for pennies: Farmworkers want Publix to pay more for tomatoes," Naples News, August 19, 2011.
  1. Telephone interview with Brian McLaren, February 17, 2011.
  1. Telephone interview with Jordan Buckley, February 6 and 9, 2011.
  1. "Cycling to Crenshaw," CIW News.
  1. Ibid.
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