Friday, October 31, 2008

Fair prices for tomato pickers

In May, we linked to the Miami Herald's coverage of the struggle between Florida tomato pickers, Burger King, and a dirty tricks company hired by the fast food giant. Earlier this month, the Green Fork's Leslie Hatfield provided an update on recent developments in an article and accompanying video for the Huffington Post.
For Burger King, the Goldman Sachs-owned chain that signed with CIW [the Coalition of Immokalee Workers] last May at the US capitol building (but only after months of protests, a blog scandal and allegedly spying on CIW's partner group, the Student/Farmworker Alliance) the penny-a-pound increase amounts to an estimated $250,000 dollars per year. To put that in perspective, Eric Schlosser's November 07 op-ed "Penny Foolish" pointed out that "[i]n 2006, the bonuses of the top 12 Goldman Sachs executives exceeded $200 million - more than twice as much money as all of the roughly 10,000 tomato pickers in southern Florida earned that year."

More recently, organic grocery chain Whole Foods came to an agreement with CIW. That Whole Foods was beat to the table by such cheap, decidedly un-organic eateries as Taco Bell, McDonalds and Burger King may seem ironic to those who snidely call the chain "Whole Paycheck" and may expect that those relatively high prices might translate not only to the food being organic, but also fair. This is, in part, why we're seeing from food advocates a shift away from "organic," a label that has not only been co-opted by huge corporations, but also speaks only to a food's impact on personal health (and to a much lesser extent, ecological health, but only in its initial production and not, say, its shipping) toward the more inclusive term, "sustainable," which is also being co-opted by industry but at least, in theory, speaks to other aspects of food production, including labor.

Now, CIW is after Chipotle, the growing chain that has built a reputation for social responsibility in the organic and local food arenas, and whose "Food with Integrity" campaign stands to take a major hit in the credibility department if they don't sit down with the Coalition. But that could prove difficult for Chipotle, which released a statement last month (before things got really crazy, even) warning share holders that the weak economy, coupled with rising food costs, would likely amount to lower profits than last year's.

No one knows what the future holds, but as our economic system hovers over the proverbial "rock bottom," it seems like a good time to revisit our policies, both national and personal, when it comes to the money we spend. What is the value of a tomato, and why? What (from fertilizers and pesticides to labor to transport) went into it, and does its price reflect those inputs? Or has a market driven by speculation and subsidies installed a false cap on that price, creating a decidedly unsustainable system that benefits CEOs over citizens, puts the squeeze on smaller businesses and leaves the laborers to pick up the slack?

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