Addressing the Plight of Florida’s Tomato Farmworkers

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.

Yellow tomatoes growing on a plant with green leaves.
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.

Tomatoes in shadow on a white cloth, with a black background.

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.

Halved grape tomatoes on a baking sheet.

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

Oven-dried grape tomatoes on a baking sheet.

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.

Oven-dried tomatoes next to a quote on a gray background.

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.

Top-down shot of a goat cheese and tomato tart.

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.

Composite picture of a white plate with a fork and a slice of tart on it with the rest in a white ceramic dish in the background, and a tart on a wood table with a chair and a vase of flowers on the other side.

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.

Tomato, egg, and herb tart in a white ceramic pan, on a blue cloth with scattered ingredients.

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.

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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.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and other organizations aim to end the enslavement and abuse of workers in Florida's tomato fields. Plus, our recipe for Roasted Tomato and Goat Cheese Tart, made with slave-free tomatoes. Read more.

25 thoughts on “Addressing the Plight of Florida’s Tomato Farmworkers

  1. What a perfect recipe for such a good cause, I think it’s so wonderful how the community has come together to raise awareness of this issue and hopefully bring around real change.

  2. Thanks for this, I am also completely caught unaware of this issue, I will look into it now to see if I can donate a post and help out somehow. Your tart looks delicious, will be making that very soon. 🙂

  3. Woah, I didn’t know anything about those tomatoes in Florida. I hope other supermarkets change to slavery free tomatoes because there are no Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods around here. But that tart looks delicious, especially with the goat cheese. Yum.

    • All the more reason that getting other groceries to participate is so necessary. Hopefully your local markets will carry slave-free tomatoes, too, and soon!

  4. I had no idea. I’ve always been wary of when and where I buy tomatoes. I rarely buy them out of season anymore, just not worth it, and in the summer I try to stick to farmers markets and gardens. I do buy grape tomatoes pretty regularly from Trader Joe’s, so it’s good to know that they’ve signed the Fair Food agreement. Hopefully next year I will be growing as many vegetables as I can on my own. Thanks for posting this, Shanna and Tim.

  5. I had absolutely no idea. No idea. So sad. Thank you for informing me! I signed the petition and shared the link via facebook. I appreciated the quote by Burke that you shared– so true. The murder of the unborn has been on my mind today too. Sometimes I feel so helpless to help. I’m thankful that God hears my cries for these situations and that he knows all of this.

  6. Frightening that this happens anywhere much less under our flag. I have gone to the website and sent the letter.

    Plan on making the tart but do tell, at what temp do you roast your tomatoes?

    • To be honest, I’ve done it at all different temperatures, adjusting the time accordingly. This last time, I had them at 250 for two or three hours because I was after a slow roast, but I’ve also done 400 for an hour or less (although then I would use coconut oil instead of olive, as olive has a lower smoke point). The constants are oil, salt and pepper and patience. : )

  7. Yet another reason to buy locally and seasonally when you can; I am not aware of issues beyond flavor, but asparagus from Peru and garlic from China are also on my avoid list. The garlic from my garden is moist, beautiful and it’s so easy to grow.

  8. Thank you for the enlightenment. I, too, was totally unaware. I have signed the letter to other grocery stores – primarily Publix and Kroger – since that’s where I do most of my shopping. I do some shopping at Trader Joe’s and will make sure I add tomatoes to my list in the off season. I look forward to making the Tart.

  9. I LOVE roasted tomatoes, but these tomatoes look so great I’d pair this with a raw tomato salad just to have them fresh! This looks absolutely delicious!

  10. Love 🙂 So glad to know this information. You’d never think something like this would surround the tomato trade!

  11. Wow, I hadn’t heard about this at all! Thank you for the eye-opener! I mostly shop at Trader Joe’s (or my backyard, as soon as my green tomatoes turn red!), but I’ll keep my eye open for Florida tomatoes to avoid when I’m at the big chain supermarkets.

    And that tart looks divine. And I want to eat it right. this. instant.

  12. I really enjoyed reading this post! Thanks for helping to bring awareness to this issue. I signed the petition 🙂

  13. Thank you all so much for taking the time to read this post—and more than that, thank you to everyone who’s signed the petition and asked for something to be done about slavery in tomato fields. It’s so encouraging to think of the repercussions from The Giving Table’s initiative!

  14. How inspiring to see this initiative take root so quickly. You wrote a great post and it really gets your voice out there and joins so many others. It´ll keep growing and things will eventually change.
    The tart is perfect with few ingredients and all balancing each other so well!

  15. I love a good tomato and goat cheese tart! Though sometimes I cheat and use puff pastry when I’m in a rush 🙂 Will try this one next!

    ps – I love that you are shedding light on such a serious problem. Now to find a slave-free tomato supplier here in Toronto, Canada!

    • Would be really interested to hear if this is an issue in Canada and what suppliers can be trusted … let me know if you find out!

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