“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.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Don February 21, 2011

I would love the ability to hate Trader Joes. But unfortunately the nearest one is about 250 miles away in Bend, Oregon. That said, I have been in the one in Eugene Oregon, and liked it. It reminded me of the neighborhood groceries of my youth. about 25000 square feet, and a limited selection. That is how everyone used to shop. What I liked about Joes tho is most everything was good. So I would love to hate them, but I guess I’ll just have to hate the Boise Co op until we get noticed.

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2 Katie Pizzuto February 21, 2011

I agree with how the store made you feel….it definitely has that old-world bent to it, and that’s no mistake, believe me. That’s exactly why I find this hypocrisy so nauseating. I’d expect this crap from the big boys but not from someone that’s built their reputation on fair trade, organics, etc.

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3 The Wine Commonsewer February 26, 2011

I love these kinds of grass roots movements and often they can be successful.

IIRC, TJ’s is owned by a German conglomerate so that may be part of the problem.

As for moi? I have never appreciated TJ’s in the way everybody else does. I guess that makes me kinda strange.

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4 Katie Pizzuto February 27, 2011

Curious why you never liked the place, Mike. I’ve always like their selections, particularly the multi-ethnic sort of appeal they have, and their organic stuff tends to be less expensive than everywhere else. But screw it now…Whole Foods may cost more, but at least I know they aren’t trampling on the people that work to fill its shelves.

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5 julius February 27, 2011

Fortunately, I live in NYC (Manhattan) so it’s easy for me to avoid shopping there without any impingement upon a vast assortment of foods – affordable, artisanal and otherwise. I also tend to not be a big fan of prepared dishes, which seems to be one of their popular offerings, especially to the (NYU) dorm crowd.

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6 Katie Pizzuto February 27, 2011

Don’t rub it in :)

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7 The Wine Commonsewer March 3, 2011

Curious why you never liked the place, Mike I know, everyone thinks I’m strange.

It’s not that I don’t like TJ’s, I shop there sometimes but I’m just not knocked out. The people who work there are way cool, though.

I really love TJ’s sliced, organic, pastrami with no nitrates. They have some cool stuff like whole grain Dijon mustard and Ezekiel bread (which is both tasty and good for moi). My kids love the chocolate chip cookies, but they aren’t exactly organic or healthy for you, though they beat the crap outta Chips Ahoy (gag).

One thing I really object to, though, is the crapola bargain wine they offer. Not Two Buck Chuck, everybody knows what that is. TJ’s has always got some wine that they’re pushing. The implication is that they have special buying prowess and this wine here is really extra special good and it’s a one time buy and you better grab it now cuz when it’s gone, it’s gone. The price is always pretty good, but 90% of the time it is plonk, often no better than two buck chuck. Most of the time they got a deal because it wasn’t wine that anyone would buy. The hook is this: every so often it really is a very good wine at a very good price. So, you buy one bottle to try, dump it down the sink, and try again next week. Except I won’t do that anymore.

At the other end, at least here in California, the decent wines are always a little bit higher than you can get them elsewhere. Granted, that isn’t going to be true in many other states, but in Ca we have pretty good wine prices and TJ’s isn’t razor edge competitive.

And, California is a huge market so good stuff is widely available at good prices, which may affect my outlook as well.

Off topic, but the one thing we don’t have out here is all those cool little bakeries that places like NYC and DC have. Closest we get to that is Panera Bread, thank the Lord for small favors, but you really are hard pressed to find a good bagel anywhere in So Cal. Ditto for BBQ

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8 B Atchison July 7, 2011

I feel like the new popcorn you introduced is not worth buying. Give back the low salt kind, please!!!!!!!

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