“Difficult to dance ’round this one…”

by Katie Pizzuto on February 19, 2011

in Food politics,Food Shopping,Politics

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Trader Joe’s and their inoffensively priced, high-quality food. Walking through one of their stores puts you in a sort of tree-hugging, granola-crunching groove that makes you feel good about the food you’re buying. It’s Whole Foods without the Whole Paycheck.  And over the last couple of decades, folks like me that don’t have deep pockets but refuse to sacrifice their love of good food—if you ever catch me calling myself a foodie, do me a favor and just take me out back and shoot me, OK?—have made Trader Joe’s a regular stop, helping them grow to over 350 stores that raked in over $8 billlion the year I wrote a post that warned, “It’s not a reasonable assumption that if you eat a fresh tomato in winter it’s been picked by the hand of a slave—it’s a fact.” A fact that apparently, Trader Joe’s cares little about.

Trader Joe’s limited-selection/high-quality/low-price philosophy has always restricted its inventory, and that control has afforded them a shitload of purchasing power and the luxury of being able to demand deep discounts from its suppliers. And that high-volume/low-cost purchasing, while great for the consumer, absolutely sucks for the majority of farmworkers, forcing down wages and working conditions as suppliers scramble to cut costs and maintain profit margins. And while you can’t go blaming supermarket chains for farmworker poverty and modern slavery, they’re not exactly losing sleep as they line their pockets perpetuating it.

If you haven’t yet wrapped your head around the clusterfuck that is tomato farming in southwest Florida, do yourself a favor and read my previous post. The long and short of it is that most consumers have no clue how many hard-working people are being exploited and abused to put that out-of-season tomato on a produce bin. Sub-poverty wages, the denial of basic labor rights, sexual harassment, health and safety risks, and wage theft are the name of the game, with nine farm labor slavery operations actually being outed in the last decade.

Enter, stage left, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and their Campaign for Fair Food which seeks to improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers by calling on major buyers of tomatoes to pay a premium of one penny more per pound for their tomatoes. That penny, inconsequential to a multi-billion-dollar supermarket chain, is passed down directly to farmworkers. And since 2007, the CIW has been knocking on Trader Joe’s doors and all but crooning under their windows to pitch the woo of supporting their efforts and helping bring an end to this human rights atrocity. But that pitch has fallen on deaf ears. Trader Joe’s has spent five years refusing to join the Fair Food program. Despite the fact that the majority of fresh tomatoes found on store shelves during the out-of-season months come from Florida, Trader Joe’s is throwing in with other supermarket industry leaders and refusing to support the Fair Food principles with its significant purchasing power, choosing instead to screw the farmworker that helps stock it.

And who is the honorable exception in all this? Whole Foods. Other than that, the supermarket industry is cold shouldering the repeated requests for accountability, and though I might expect that kind of indifference from a giant like Walmart, Trader Joe’s hard stance has blown my mind and kept me outside its walls, no matter how much I like their raw milk cheddar. This hip retailer that many would believe is an enormous spoke on the wheel of fair trade has fallen from grace…at least in my eyes. It’s not news that agribusiness wants tomatoes on your supermarket shelves. They aren’t busy worrying about how the tomatoes get to you as long as they get there—supply and demand is a cold-hearted bitch—but I expected more from TJ’s.

Thanks to the Fair Food program, many workers are receiving wage increases and better living and working conditions. But it’s a drop in the tomato bucket until the industry giants step up to the plate and support these higher standards. Hilariously enough there are key players in the fast-food industry that have already committed their support, while Trader Joe’s stands silently on the sidelines, chinks no doubt beginning to appear in its feel-good, do-good armor.