Last week, I went with a group of students to visit the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Southwest Florida. We went to meet, talk with, and learn from both the men and women who make up the Coalition and the local congregations and religious leaders who have joined them in their struggle. Before this trip, I had no idea what CIW was or what it did. (So don’t worry if you don’t.)
CIW is made up of farm workers hailing mainly from Haiti, Mexico, and Guatemala who pick tomatoes and other produce for the big farms that supply fruits and vegetables to businesses like McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, Publix, Stop & Shop, and more. These workers, who’ve been paid the same wage since the1970s, work 6 or 7 days a week in extremely hot, humid conditions–crouching to pick the produce, hoisting 30-40 pound buckets up and over their heads, and running down the rows of plants to dump the buckets into a truck, and running back to start all over again.
Historically, they’ve been sprayed with pesticides while they were working in the fields (which has resulted in cancer for veteran workers), they’ve been beaten and harassed by overseers, denied water breaks, and worked 14 hours days without pay. There have been seven documented accounts of modern slavery in and around Immokalee in recent years, and countless others have gone unreported. The Coalition has united and organized itself to try to end the violence and other human rights violations; and the CIW center has become a safe place for abused workers and escaped slaves to tell their stories and seek justice.
While listening to these men and women describe their efforts and hearing them narrate the birth of the Coalition and its many successes and failures, I was struck that they never complained about their job. The members of CIW are not asking for a different job, they simply want to be compensated more fairly for the work that they do. One more penny per pound of produce is their motto. This small increase would give them a fighting chance at making minimum wage.
When I got home from Florida to an empty fridge, I took stock of my pantry and my bank account (both sad), and proceeded to the store with a heavy heart and an empty wallet. I roamed the aisles wondering whose hands had picked, prepared, and packaged the food before me, all the while painfully aware that every cent counted.
I got to the produce section and just stood there with an empty cart, nearly paralyzed. I was finally and utterly immobilized by the heavy political, economic (and I would say theological) issues that now inhabit such a seemingly simple and innocent place as the grocery store. Issues that are shrinking my Stop & Shop faster than I ever imagined.
For me, the case of The Incredible Shrinking Grocery Store began years ago with the rise of the organic movement. I learned to steer clear of foods covered in chemicals, particularly ones like grapes and apples where the skins get eaten. Bye-Bye normal produce section. Then we learned how to pick apart a label and what to watch out for, so I started steering clear of unpronounceable things, artificial sweeteners, and high fructose corn syrup. With that, most of the middle of the store disappeared. Then came coverage of the inhumane treatment of animals, so I started buying cage-free birds and eggs and looking for humanely raised meat and wild seafood. No more cheap meat case. And finally, as we started to understand the notion of carbon footprint, I began to seek out local sources of food.
But now I was standing in what I thought was the last ‘safe’ section of the grocery store—the organic produce—and it didn’t feel very safe anymore. I know for a fact that the Immokalee workers pick tomatoes on two large organic farms, as well as the big chemical-spewing ones.
Luckily, that day was a Friday, so I resolved to go to the farmer’s market the next morning. But, my empty piggy bank forced me to put back the expensive organic granola bars and the local artisanal bread. Eating right (at least for me) can be expensive. Kashi ain’t cheap, and neither is New Haven’s own Chabaso bakery.
The way I see it, I need to save my money for the eggs, meat, and produce that I can’t make and use the two hands I’ve got to save money where I can. That means making my own fancy granola bars and baking my own bread.
The granola bars are still in the testing phase (ask Tony…they’re not ready), but here’s a simple recipe for bread. I’m hoping to bake enough every Sunday, when I have a few restful moments, to last us all week.
Mercifully, bread keeps well in the freezer.
I so hear your Sharon. Both about the political, economic and theological issues here and balancing the (for me) shrinking pay check with wanting to purchase responsibly. The shrinking grocery store is at least allowing me to have fun though – saving where we can and doing things like making our own bread is fun and yummy as well as responsible!
I love the way you phrase it–the incredible shrinking grocery store. It’s so true.
Are you the sister that’s in divinity school? I hope so. I love it when faith and agriculture come together. It’s the most basic of things God asked of us–grow food on this fertile earth, feed yourself, feed others too. So simple and wonderful.
I’ve also started baking bread recently. Part of my reason is quality, part is that a loaf of “good” bread costs more than a bag of flour which will give me multiple loaves of bread. Another reason is that it tastes better.
Mixing bread-baking and political ideals reminds me of Carol Flinders’ “Always a Choice” in the Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book.
Looking forward to a good granola bar!
Sharon, I feel you. Oh how I feel you! With our kitchen still in shambles, I feel awful eating out every night. I have no idea where this food is coming from, and it bothers me greatly.
We have a bread machine, and we were using it faithfully for a good long while. I was not happy with the sandwich bread recipe we had, but have seen a few out there on the web that might be better. I’m going to follow your lead. As soon as the kitchen’s back together, we’re back to making our own bread.
First, I just have to say how much I love Kevin’s illustration for this post. What a juxtaposition. The incredible bounty of our grocery stores next to the incredible poverty and exploitation of migrant workers.
I know what you mean about the shrinking grocery store. A few years ago when Andy and I started trying to eat more locally and sustainable, a trip to the store was taking us two and three times as long as it previously had. It took so much longer to look through all the apples, all the meat, the eggs, the cheese, the bread – what’s good, what’s bad?
Let me preface this by saying that I definitely shop in a grocery store, but I feel like I can hardly trust any of the products. The guidelines for calling things “organic” or “sustainable” or “grass-fed” or “antibiotic-free” is often not at all what you think it would mean. It just makes me realize how important it is to eat as locally as possible whenever possible.
Thanks for this great post, Sharon and for sharing your experience in FL with us.
sink girl says
thanks again for choosing such a meaningful and relevant topic to discuss. thank god our local farmers markets have started up again for the season.
a very popular book (the omnivore’s dilemma) spoke at length about the “organic” and “natural” federal guidelines. it appears that organic and natural farms have equally as horrible working conditions for their employees and equally as awful living/feeding conditions for the animals. it’s a challenge sometimes to stay on track and not purchase the purdue chicken that is so conveniently packaged and so affordable. but the guilt i feel when i do leaves a bad taste in my mouth. both literally and figuratively.
jenn paul says
Maggy, I agree with you… I feel like a nut job when I shop anymore. Especially being responsible for two young children. I’m constantly torn between what I can afford and what is best for them. I hate the reading and deciphering of ingredients..are they cage free really? is it really organic or just skating by…ugh. In all reality I should set up my time better so that I can just hit up local farmers markets..after all, there is one right at the high school! This article has inspired me!
Lisa B. says
So glad to have seen this. Sometimes in our busy lives we forget how hard others work to give us things we take for granted. We’ve always had cheap food so for us to pay the real price (so a farmer and the workers make a decent wage), comes as a shock. I really feel sorry for those who don’t cook.