Rotten Tomatoes: Trader Joe's and the Jewish Ethic for Farmworker Justice

Tomato harvesters suffer from some of the worst human rights abuses in America, and it is now public knowledge that Trader Joe's has refused to sign the Fair Food agreement.
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My 17-month-old daughter is obsessed with strawberries. At the end of each meal, she hopefully calls out "toot!" using the Hebrew word for strawberry. But when winter came, the price of strawberries at our local grocery jumped to $8.99 per package. That, plus the fear of the local foodie police catching me buying out-of-season produce, effectively banished tootim from our table.

But no one wants to take strawberries from the hands of babes. So I was excited a few weeks ago to discover Trader Joe's freeze-dried strawberries.

My excitement was short-lived. Not long afterwards, I learned that Trader Joe's has refused to sign the Coalition for Immokalee Workers' Fair Food pledge. This pledge would guarantee that the tomatoes that wind up on Trader Joe's shelves and in store-brand products are picked by workers who earn reasonable wages and who have basic safety protections.

Tomato harvesters suffer from some of the worst human rights abuses in America. Because most labor laws do not cover farmworkers, employers are not required to pay tomato pickers the minimum wage. These workers labor under dangerous conditions. According to a 2008 report by the Department of Agriculture, the hazards of this work include "pesticide exposure, sun exposure, inadequate sanitary facilities, and crowded and/or substandard housing."

A few years ago, I heard a group of Immokalee workers speak. They described how red their hands would be at the end of the work day. Innocently, I thought they were talking about tomato juice stains. But as it turned out, they meant that their hands would be burned red by the pesticides on the fruit they were handling.

Even more shocking are the instances of modern-day slavery in the tomato fields. Since 1997, the federal government has successfully prosecuted seven cases, involving a total of 1,000 workers, in which tomato workers were held against their will and forced to work for little or no pay. We don't like to believe that slavery can still exist in America, but the poverty of tomato workers sometimes leads them toward entrapment into extreme exploitation.

I feel sick when I hear these reports of workers underpaid, subjected to life-threatening conditions and even held against their will. And so my initial reaction is to stop shopping at Trader Joe's, to send them a letter about my decision, and to ask all of my friends (especially those who have their own strawberry monsters at home) to do the same.

And then I wonder: What about the rest of my tomatoes? To date, a number of major food purchasers have signed the Fair Food statement. These include Taco Bell, McDonald's, Subway and Aramark. But the only grocery store that's signed on is Whole Foods -- and they're a known union buster (as well as a known wallet buster). What's a tomato lover to do?

Given the horrendous state of labor conditions on major farms, I have a few choices: I can buy only produce from small local family farms, or stop buying tomatoes altogether. But, if the demand for mass-produced tomatoes goes down, harvesters paid by the pound will be worse off than before. If I want to buy only from companies that have signed the pledge, I can throw away my paycheck and pro-union sentiments and do my shopping at Whole Foods.

Or, I can throw up my hands and say, "Everyone's equally terrible; I might as well go back to Trader Joe's."

A look at the Jewish concept of chanufa (flattery) offers guidance toward a resolution. In Jewish law, this term is generally understood to refer not to ordinary or even excessive compliments, but to actions that prop up evil-doers by protecting their reputation and thereby encourage them to continue in their ways.

In a 13th-century text, Rabbi Yonah Gerondi lays out nine categories of chanufa, each of which involves offering public honor to an evil-doer or justification of his or her actions.

For example, Gerondi prohibits telling such a person that s/he has done nothing wrong; publicly praising a person who does evil, even for the good things that s/he does; elevating a wicked person to a communal honor; or failing to protest when one has the means to do so.

Throughout this discussion, Gerondi assumes that the evil action is already public. That is, there is no expectation that a person will investigate each of his or her friends to ensure that this person is innocent of bad behavior. But once a person becomes known for his or her bad behavior, then the prohibition against offering any support to this person kicks in. In a similar vein, a person who has the means to object to the offense must do so; but a person who does not have the means to object will not be held responsible for staying silent.

In the case of the Immokalee workers, it is probable that most food providers buy from suppliers that pay their workers unfairly and have unsafe working conditions. But until these improper actions become public, we do not know for sure. For the average consumer, there is no expectation that we will investigate the supply chains of every product in our pantries. However, when it becomes public knowledge that a certain company is not behaving appropriately -- and when there are organized means of pushing the company to act differently -- the rules change.

It is now public knowledge that Trader Joe's has refused to sign the Fair Food agreement. And the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has organized an easy-to-join campaign to persuade the company to do the right thing. Any one of us can send a letter to our local store using the sample text here, or write to national headquarters by filling out this form. With these two conditions in place, we risk falling into the reviled category of "flatterers" if we support the company in any way, or even if we miss out on our chance to protest.

So for now, I'm not throwing out all of the tomato paste in the kitchen. But our house will have to be toot-free until the fresh ones come back this spring.

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