When Commodities Traders See Tomato Pickers in Action

This post is part of a series on the business of sustainable agriculture by the folks at Bon Appétit Management Company, a company that provides café and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities. To read the earlier posts, click here.

By: Vera Chang, Bon Appétit Management Company West Coast Fellow

“We’re all going to lose our jobs if you don’t pick faster!” the foreman, in a plaid shirt and red trucker hat, shouts from the side of the field. He stands atop the produce truck bumper and hovers above a dozen or so farm workers. His body creates a shadow of shade in the strong afternoon sun. The workers are bent over, picking tomatoes, some of them so close to the ground they are practically kissing it. The farm workers pick quickly, their movements rapid and repetitive. These workers are truly like machines in the fields. I am standing next to the foreman, so I know that even though the workers do not respond to the yelling, his voice cuts through the air directly to the workers’ ears. Once each farm worker picks a certain quota of tomatoes, the foreman calls him or her over, one at a time for a water break. More shouts come from people standing around the foreman: “There’s a surplus of workers waiting in the parking lot ready to work!” “We can call I.C.E. [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] anytime!” The workers are told they are disposable, like the plastic cup they share. I have been buying tomatoes my whole life, but the fields are like nothing I have imagined. I am uncomfortable with the yelling and the work conditions, but I just stand there, shaken by a dose of reality.

This scenario was actually a classroom simulation. In February, I participated in the “Student/Farm worker Alliance & Farm worker Rights” Workshop at Strengthening the Roots: Food and Justice Convergence, a gathering in Santa Cruz, California, of 300 students and their allies who joined to strengthen the roots of the movement for a just and sustainable food. The simulation was based on tomato fields of Immokalee, Florida, where modern-day slavery and sweatshop conditions persist. In the simulation, a University of California Davis student and Student/Farmworker Alliance organizer stood on top of a metal folding chair and role-played as the Farm Labor Contract foreman: the point person who recruits, transports, pays, and supervises farm workers. Half of the workshop participants were assigned to harvest tomatoes. The remaining participants, myself included, acted as consumers buying from the commodity market. We each received a piece of paper that explained that we were to buy four pounds of harvested tomatoes for $3.50 or less. We consumers were to say anything we could to push the farm workers to harvest more quickly and efficiently. We were then each handed a bag for our tomatoes (actually beans) and the game began. We waited and watched as the farm workers, on their hands and knees of the University of California Santa Cruz’s concrete stage, picked as quickly as they could.

Those role-playing as farm workers described their experiences as dehumanizing. They said their well-being was not cared for and they were disrespected. Those playing consumers felt awkward. We felt pressured to perpetuate an unjust status quo. Initially uncomfortable with the foreman’s verbal abuse, it did not take us long to got used to it and we ended up contributing comments ourselves. Our prosperity, after all, depended on this efficient and cheap labor. “Hurry up, it’s getting dark outside! I want to get home!” “Why are you taking a water break? There are more tomatoes to pick!” This simulation was, by design, unpleasant. Everyone hoped the game would finish quickly, but the only way for it to end was when the farm workers harvested enough tomatoes for each consumer to buy his or her four pounds. Hence the frustration, shouting, and harassment. As consumers, we found ourselves reinforcing exactly the kind of behavior we food activists, in real life, fight.

Mirroring real life: this simulation reminds me that injustice in agriculture is not superficial; it is stitched into the fabric of the system. Having stepped aside from this experience, I understand now that this simulation is not just a game. It is reality for people in the fields. Actually, it is reality for us all, eaters and consumers included. In real life, however, all parties are not all on the fields. Generally, there is a middleman (or several) between consumers and producers. I wonder how different our food system would be if we all saw firsthand, let alone experienced, poor working conditions and extreme power imbalances. Is it easier to swallow our food without knowing the full story behind it?

The workshop is over. We all get on our hands and knees to pick the remaining beans on stage, still uniformly lined in rows. I pick for several minutes and already my back aches and my knees hurt. I am grateful that in the simulation I was not a farm worker – let alone in real life. But it does not mean that it is okay to for me to close my eyes to reality.

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