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The Secret Life of Fruit: Five Startling Things Your Grocer Won't Tell You

The 21st-century customer knows more than ever about which farmers are good to the environment and good for the health of shoppers. But there's one thing that promo ads won't tell you: whether farmers are good to their employees.
11/14/2014 11:10am ET | Updated January 14, 2015
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Not too long ago, the main concern customers had about a fruit or vegetable was whether or not it was ripe. But over time, their questions about produce have grown increasingly sophisticated: Is this tomato local? Are these peaches organic? And grocers have been gleefully riding the wave, touting products that are free of pesticides and genetic modification.

The 21st-century customer knows more than ever about which farmers are good to the environment and good for the health of shoppers. But there's one thing that promo ads won't tell you: whether farmers are good to their employees.

With only a few exceptions, you will never see U.S. produce promoted for the ethical treatment -- or the health and safety -- of the farmworkers who harvest the food we eat every day. Why? Because farm labor conditions are deplorable almost everywhere fruits and vegetables are grown, and most supermarket chains aren't doing a thing to help make them better (with Whole Foods, Walmart, and Trader Joe's being the exceptions when it comes to Florida tomatoes -- more on that below).

How do we know so much about these grocery stores? Because we're taking them on. One of us is a co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), which has campaigned for the fair treatment of farmworkers in Florida for over twenty years. This op-ed's other author is executive producer of the upcoming documentary "Food Chains," in which Forest Whitaker narrates CIW's successful fight to provide America's tomato pickers with the pay and dignity they have earned .

Justice has been won for Florida tomato pickers, and now, through the Clinton Global Initiative, CIW is launching a new project to expand our fight to other states and other crops.Based on our work and our CGI commitment, we've listed five things you should know about produce before making your next purchase. We thought we'd be the ones to tell you the backstory behind what you put in your basket, since your grocer probably won't.

  1. Most U.S. produce is harvested by workers whose fundamental human rights are violated on a daily basis. From forced labor to sexual exploitation and even poverty wages, working conditions on all too many U.S. farms are unconscionable. Here are just a few examples from recent headlines:

Slave-Like Conditions: Just last month, farmworkers filed suit against a vegetable grower in Clewiston, Florida, saying they were "forced to work in the fields and threatened with guns... if they complained." According to the Naples (FL) Daily News, one farm boss "boasted that killing one of the workers would be just like killing a dog."

Sexual Exploitation: In June, 2013, the PBS documentary series Frontline ran a story, entitled "Rape in the Fields," chronicling their year-long investigation into the rampant sexual exploitation of farmworkers in the U.S. agricultural industry. One unforgettable note from their findings -- workers in a particularly notorious California field called their workplace "the green motel" because the daily sexual humiliation of women was so intense.

Unfair Wages: In a 2001 report to Congress, the US Department of Labor described farmworkers as "a labor force in significant economic distress," citing "low wages [and] sub-poverty annual earnings."

  • Your favorite supermarket chain bears a large part of the responsibility for the exploitation of the farmworkers who pick the fruits you eat. The emergence of the global, consolidated food industry giants has exacerbated farm labor poverty and abuse. Huge companies leverage their buying power to demand ever-lower prices from their suppliers. This demand for lower prices translates directly into tighter margins for farmers (many of whom have lost their land and livelihoods since food industry consolidation started in earnest a generation ago), lower wages for workers, and harsher working conditions in the fields.
  • The Florida tomato industry is the exception to Things 1 and Thing 2.
  • This is thanks to an innovative new partnership between workers, growers and retailers called the Fair Food Program.The Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Fair Food Program is a unique model for social responsibility based on a groundbreaking partnership among farmers, farmworkers and retail food companies like Subway, Whole Foods and Walmart. The Fair Food Program ensures humane wages and working conditions for the workers who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms. It harnesses the power of consumers to secure binding agreements with retail food giants that require those companies to: 1) pay a small premium that is passed on to the workers in the form of a line item bonus on their regular paychecks, and 2) only buy from growers who comply with a rigorous, human rights-based code of conduct, giving farmworkers a voice in the decisions that affect their lives and eliminating the longstanding abuses that have plagued agriculture for generations. The Program has proven so successful that sexual assaults in the field, endemic in agriculture throughout the country, have now been eliminated on Fair Food farms.

  • You can find Fair Food tomatoes in most fast-food and foodservice restaurants, but most supermarkets still refuse to support this award-winning program. Fast-food giants Subway, McDonald's, Burger King, Chipotle, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut all support the program). All four of the largest foodservice companies in the country -- Compass Group, Bon Appetit, Sodexo and Aramark -- have signed on, too. But in the supermarket industry, only three companies have stepped up to the plate: Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and, most recently, Walmart.
  • Is your favorite grocery store one of those that continues to turn a blind eye to human rights? You can find out at the CIW website here.

  • You play an important role in how produce pickers are treated. The Fair Food Program is powered by consumers. In 2001, farmworkers in the Florida town of Immokalee launched an ambitious new campaign -- the Campaign for Fair Food -- crossing the country to educate consumers on the appalling labor conditions behind the food they eat and to share their dream of a more modern, more humane food system. Over the next decade, they built an alliance that won "Fair Food" agreements with a dozen of the world's largest food companies, and changes in the fields ever since have been nothing short of spectacular. But those changes never would have happened without the active support of tens of thousands of consumers, from Maine to California.
  • Today the advances brought about by the Fair Food Program are poised to expand to fields outside of Florida and crops beyond tomatoes, thanks in part to our new CGI commitment. But for that expansion to be successful, workers need your support so that the holdout food chains know this matters to you. You can learn more about the Fair Food Program and how you can join the movement at the CIW's website, here.

    Learn more about the documentary "Food Chains" at foodchainsfilm.com. See the trailer above.