NY Times’ columnist Mark Bittman challenges his considerable readership

NY Times’ columnist Mark Bittman challenges his considerable readership to demand supermarkets support Campaign for Fair Food!

“Bit by bit, things have improved… We can actually help them get better“…

Following his visit to Immokalee in May, widely-read New York Times food writer and opinion columnist Mark Bittman penned a quick reflection for his blog, and promised to return to the topic of Fair Food with a longer column before too long. Well, he has kept his promise, and in spades!In a detailed, intelligent, and strongly-worded column published yesterday, Bittman takes a realistic look at the Florida tomato industry — with a tip of the hat to Barry Estabrook and his great new book “Tomatoland” — and describes the changes beginning to take place in the fortunes of Florida’s long-suffering farmworkers thanks to the Campaign for Fair Food.

He then sets his sites squarely on the supermarket industry — naming, “Ahold (the parent company of Stop & Shop and Giant); Publix (the dominant chain in Florida); Kroger (next to Wal-Mart the biggest food retailer in the country); and Trader Joe’s…” — and launches a call to his readers to support the growing Campaign for Fair Food and to demand that their local supermarket chains do the same. Here’s an extended excerpt from the hard-hitting piece, entitled “The True Cost of Tomatoes” (7/14/11):

“One of the bright spots, discussed in Estabrook’s book is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), founded in 1993.

The CIW has two major goals: the first is to put the last nail in the coffin of slavery, a condition that sadly still exists not only among farmworkers but others. “And this,” Laura Germino, who has worked on the campaign since its inception, said to me when I visited last month, “is not ‘slavery-like,’ or ‘exploitation’ — it’s actual slavery, as defined by federal law.” (There are super links around this issue on the anti-slavery campaign’s Web site, and reading them is eye-popping.)

You’ve probably heard of the other goal, which is the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food; it’s garnered as much attention as any labor struggle in the country in recent years, and more on the farmworker front than anything since the early work of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.These outrages have been the CIW’s focus, and the agreement they signed last November with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange begins to address them: through the core “penny-a-pound” increase in the price wholesale purchasers pay, workers’ incomes could go up thousands of dollars per year.

The agreement also provides for a time-clock system in the fields, which has led to a shorter workday and less (unpaid) waiting time; portable shade tents for breaks (unbelievable that this didn’t exist previously — I spent a half-hour in the open fields and began to melt); reduced exposure to pesticides; worker-to-worker education on rights; a new code of conduct for growers with real market consequences if workers’ rights are violated; and more.

The breakthrough for the CIW came in 2005, when after enormous consumer pressure Yum! Brands, which controls Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, signed the agreement. (And you know what? Good for them.) Since then, Subway, McDonald’s, Burger King, the country’s largest food service operators (Sodexo, Aramark and Compass Group) and Whole Foods have signed as well.Progress, clearly. What’s missing are traditional supermarket chains, and the CIW has targeted — largely for geographical reasons — Ahold (the parent company of Stop & Shop and Giant); Publix (the dominant chain in Florida); Kroger (next to Wal-Mart the biggest food retailer in the country); and Trader Joe’s, which, in an attempt at “transparency” (odd for a chain known for its secrecy), published a letter explaining why it was refusing to sign the agreement. Really, guys? If McDonald’s and Burger King can sign a labor agreement, it can’t be that onerous; you should do it just for karma’s sake. (The CIW’s response is here.)

Most of us eat or buy industrially produced tomatoes, and it doesn’t seem too much to ask that the people who pick them for us be treated a little more fairly. Speak to your supermarket manager or write to the head of the chain you patronize (the easiest way to do this is to visit this page on the CIW site). Supermarkets, I expect, are as susceptible to public pressure as fast-food chains.

There are few places in the country where migrant and immigrant farmworkers are treated well; in Immokalee, at least, they’re being treated better. Bit by bit.” read more

Check out the column in its entirety here!