I’m an elementary school kid, spending a few summer days at my grandma’s house. And when she says she wants to make sauce for dinner, I know it means stepping from the dining room onto the back porch, down steps to the yard and its back-corner garden, where we’ll pull ripe tomatoes straight from the vine.
The first time I ever see tomatoes growing in the ground and not stacked up neat and shiny at the store is in this yard, the same yard where my brother and I fight with water guns and talk to the the neighbor’s dogs through a chain-link fence, and step on massive anthills in the holes of Grandma’s concrete driveway.
Over twenty years later, I’m an adult, and I’ve grown other plants and I’ve stepped in other yards. But still, when I think of tomatoes, I think of Grandma’s garden, the one bordering her lilac bush and the neighbor’s fence, and of the weeks of harvest it would give each year.
And lately in Nashville, when our Tuesday pickups are piled high with tomatoes – orange, red, and yellow; beefsteak and grape – I hold the box of them, inhaling their scent, which is as much the definition summer as that plot of land in Maywood. I think about what a gift this time of year is, what a blessing, filled with rich fruit. These tomatoes that are not even worth comparing with what you find at the store in January, not even close.
In the midst of this, in a quick email conversation about risotto and cooking and tomato jam, my friend Nicole says to me one Friday afternoon, “Hey, speaking of tomatoes, you might like to know about this.” She’s referring to the upcoming campaign she’ll be launching through her organization The Giving Table, to have food bloggers come together to encourage some sort of change to end slavery in Florida tomato fields. When I hear this, I’m kind of confused.
All I can say is, I didn’t know. Maybe I’m one of the rare Americans who had never read Mark Bittman’s New York Times article the previous summer; never heard of Barry Estabrook’s book when it came out; never crossed paths with someone talking about International Justice Mission’s summer program, “Recipe for Change,” a campaign to end slavery in Florida’s tomato fields.
Tim and I started reading articles and seeing statistics and saying to each other, “This is insane! We were just in Florida! It’s happening here, not three hours south of where we relaxed on the beach!”
And I’m getting that horrible sick feeling in my stomach, the one that comes from realizing you’ve been unaware, from seeing what you had not seen – that it’s not just better-tasting tomatoes that I’m getting when I grow them in the garden or pick them up from a local farmer or buy some at Whole Foods; it’s tomatoes that have been fairly harvested, without slavery, abuse, mistreatment and other tragedies that are occurring now, here:
A third of our fresh tomatoes are grown in Florida, and much of that production is concentrated around Immokalee (rhymes with “broccoli”) … The tomato fields of Immokalee are vast and surreal. An unplanted field looks like a lousy beach: the “soil,” which is white sand, contains little in the way of nutrients and won’t hold any water … Unlike corn and soy, tomatoes’ harvest cannot be automated; it takes workers to pick that fruit. And not only have workers been enslaved, they have been routinely beaten, subject to sexual harassment, exposed to toxic chemicals (Estabrook mercilessly describes the tragic results of this) and forced to wait for hours to find out whether they have work on a given day. Oh, and they’re underpaid. – from “The True Cost of Tomatoes,” Mark Bittman, The New York Times, 6/14/11
Mariano Lucas Domingo discussed being locked in a tomato box truck for 15 hours one day by his employer, Cesar Navarrete. The Immokalee farmworker had to find his way out, he said, and then help others. – from “Brothers Receive 12-Year Prison Terms in Immokalee Human Slavery Case,” Steven Beardsley, Naples News, 12/19/08
The idea behind Nicole’s campaign is that bloggers are donating their posts to raise awareness for a very real problem of oppression. Some facts:
- Over the past 15 years, there have been seven cases of forced labor slavery successfully prosecuted, resulting in the release of over 1,000 people being treated unfairly in US tomato fields.
- IJM’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers has developed, along with the tomato pickers themselves, what’s called The Fair Food program, which works against the slavery, child labor, and serious sexual abuse happening in Immokalee, Florida, by setting clear standards against them.
- Supermarkets and fast-food chains and other retailers who join The Fair Food program pay a little more ($0.015 higher per pound) for their tomatoes, but are guaranteed they’ve been fairly harvested.
- What The Giving Table, with International Justice Mission, wants to accomplish this summer is for more companies to sign this pledge, so that as purchases shift from fields improperly treating workers to those adhering to fair standards, the issue of slavery can be abolished.
Would you consider raising your voice to do something about the issue of abuse happening here in America? McDonald’s, Subway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s have already endorsed the pledge, but many major retailers have not. Here are a few ways to help:
- With your pocketbook: Buy tomatoes from local farmers – or from Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, both of which are already on board with the Fair Food program.
- With your computer: Take two minutes and send a message to execs of the major supermarket chains yet to sign the pledge, asking them to change their stance.
In recognition of Recipe for Change and the current campaign, Food Bloggers for Slave-Free Tomatoes, we’ve created this roasted tomato and goat cheese tart, made with tomatoes grown right here in Tennessee, from the local farm that supplies our CSA.
For more information on slavery happening in American tomato fields, visit the Coalition of Immokalee Workers website.
Roasted Tomato & Goat Cheese Tart
Speaking of comfort food, you haven’t lived until you’ve had a roasted tomato and goat cheese tart, full of warm, creamy, tangy goodness.
Tim and I made this one morning and ate it through the week for lunches, and every time I had another slice, I fell in love with the vibrant flavor of fresh tomatoes all over again. Be sure to get the recipe here.
About Shanna Mallon
Shanna holds an MA in writing from DePaul University. Her mantra? Restoring order and celebrating beauty through creative content, photography, and food. Shanna's work has been featured in Bon Appetit, The Kitchn, MSN.com, Everyday Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Houzz.com, Food News Journal, Food52, Zeit Magazine, Chew the World, Mom.me, Babble, Delish.com, Parade, Foodista, Entrepreneur and Ragan PR.