Statement-of-the-obvious: Farmworkers are a severely underrepresented, under-appreciated and undervalued population in our food system. They are responsible for the growing, harvesting and processing of the vast majority of food that ends up in a store near you. Tomatoes are no exception. (If you want to read a equally enlightening and horrifying tale about the beloved fruit, read Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland. It makes The Jungle look tame.)
I'm, of course, an advocate for reforming and improving workers' rights for farmworkers. Yet, even with Wal-Mart putting pressure on Florida tomato suppliers to reform working conditions, it's not enough. Yes, Wal-Mart has incredible clout in the marketplace and the food system. (Statement-of-the-obvious #2 - you're welcome!) Signing onto the initiative is an incredible way to educate consumers on the often unpleasant backstory of food production. Hopefully, Wal-Mart's action will encourage other retailers to make the same social considerations into their sourcing standards and business ethic. And, yes, Wal-Mart's participation should be considered a victory for the Coalition for Immokalee Workers and its Fair Food Program as well.
But, to use a farm-ism, it's like putting lipstick on a pig. It further magnifies the backwardness that is our food culture at present: We don't emphasize prevention or a holistic approach to food production. We need to reevaluate the environmental, ecological and human toll of producing crops or food products of any kind on a mass scale. Spoiler alert: Estabrook explains many times throughout his work that Florida is a horrendously unsuitable place to grow the popular nightshade. Further, beyond the growing conditions of the plants themselves, workers are often and frequently exposed to biocides while picking fresh tomatoes in the field, which has been linked to birth defects, cancer, neurological disorders...just to name a few.
If there's one resounding, paradoxically frustrating and hopeful point that can be garnered from my studies in sustainable food systems it's this: There's no one starting point for reform of and to our food system. In the case of tomatoes, it'd be naive to think that large monoculture farms will disappear and be replaced by small to mid-sized diversified operations. Or that mega-retailers will suddenly switch to supporting all local or regional produce and food suppliers. Or that the responsibility to feed a nation will become a shared duty for all Americans, rather than one placed on the backs of migrant, often illegal, labor.
In the case of Wal-Mart's participation in the Fair Food Program, we can treat it as a shift toward a better food system. Now, there's a need among consumers and advocates to put continued pressure on retailers to force them to look more critically at the food system and the ramifications of signing onto such good/just food agreements.
That's my rant. What are your thoughts on the mega-store's participation in the Fair Food Program? Will this boost awareness among consumers? Could the "Wal-Mart effect" lead to other changes in the food system? Leave your comments below!