You’ve Eaten a Tomato Picked by Slaves

Right now I’m in the middle of a terrific book called Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook. It’s a scathing exposé of the U.S. fresh tomato industry based almost entirely in Florida. There are a slew of concerns I now have about the way tomatoes are produced having only read 2/3 of this book so far, but there’s one in particular that I wanted to share as soon as possible.

I think a lot of us are living under the blissful assumption that slavery is completely gone from this country, that human trafficking only exists very far away in poor countries that have nothing to do with us. Well, I am telling you right here and now: slavery still exists in the United States, and it exists in our tomato fields.

Most of the workers picking tomatoes in Florida are undocumented Mexican immigrants who couldn’t find work at home, and came to the States thinking they would have a better life here than the poor one they left behind. These people are obviously vulnerable, and some of them are tricked into crashing at a stranger’s home who promises to find them work in the fields. When done doing back-breaking work and being poisoned by pesticides in the fields, these hosts shut the workers into stifling box trucks, vans, or shacks with no toilets, charge them ridiculously inflated prices for rent and an amount of food that couldn’t sustain anyone, leaving the workers forced to work off their supposed debts. Those who attempt to leave or take off of work because of injury are typically beaten.

Even those workers who aren’t technically held in forced servitude are constantly abused. The labor laws that apply in most workplaces in this country do not apply to farmworkers. If they are sick or injured as a result of their work, they aren’t allowed to take time off. The laws that are supposed to protect farmworkers from toxic pesticide exposure are not enforced. Farmworkers are almost always not paid a living wage, not even minimum wage —that is, the people who put food on our tables cannot afford to eat. And as undocumented immigrants they can’t really speak up for themselves. Most of them are trapped in this system, whether or not they are technically slaves.

It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? The few people I’ve told about this have asked me why no one knows this is happening right under our noses. Estabrook recounts in his book a conversation he had with a lawyer, Douglas Molloy, who prosecutes slavery cases in Florida. Molloy told him that, “…any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave. ‘That’s not an assumption. […] That is a fact.'”

Fortunately, before and after the publishing of this book, an advocacy group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has run several successful campaigns to persuade fast food giants to commit to sourcing socially just tomatoes, and they’re still working on doing the same with grocery chains. Just last year, too, a documentary called Food Chains came out that essentially put Tomatoland on the big screen (I highly recommend it). The reason the campaigns haven’t been even more successful and that this horrific problem was under the rug for so long is because the corporate stakeholders have enough money to lobby for laws in their favor and, directly or indirectly, get law enforcement to look the other way.

If this is something you care about at all, I suggest that you only eat tomatoes whose origins you can be assured did not involve slavery and laborer abuse. And just so you know, the canned tomato industry is completely separate and as far as I know, free from these sorts of abuses, probably because canning tomatoes are picked by machine.

I’m writing this post so that hopefully a few more people will know. Please pass along the message.

I happen to have a serious aversion to raw tomatoes, which has always been annoying because they’re in everything. But now I’m very glad I dislike them. I am as disgusted by the abuses involved in their production as I am with their taste.

Checking My Food Privilege

It is ironic that obesity, heart disease, hypertension, Type II diabetes, and even some forms of cancer have been called “diseases of affluence.” While it is true that these chronic conditions are still much more prevalent in wealthier, developed nations, within these countries it is those in the low income sector that are actually the most afflicted. Our backwards food policies being what they are, the default for those with fewer means is a poor diet. One often needs resources and a higher education to even be aware of what a healthy diet is or even that it matters, let alone to be able to incorporate it into one’s life. As someone who wants to influence the way the people in this country eat, having an understanding of the perspective of the majority is critical. But living in the privileged bubble that I have been fortunate enough to inherit, I find myself having to constantly remind myself of this.

I was taught from a young age that what you eat and how active you are determines your health, even if I didn’t listen until high school. My mom made my lunches and cooked dinner for our family most nights, and it was always tasty and usually pretty healthy. I can probably count on both hands the number of times I ate in a fast food restaurant during my entire childhood, and after my parents took me to see Supersize Me I didn’t even want to. Throughout my life I was only really exposed to other people of similar means who understood the connection between food and health to at least some degree, and now I go to a prestigious university where my classes and the liberal community only reinforce my assuredness that the food system needs to be changed.

I keep myself very well-read on the state of our food crisis, so I understand on a surface level that most people are not well-equipped as I am to eat well. But, on the somewhat rare occasion that I do meet someone with a very different experience and perspective on food, I am usually taken aback by the lack of awareness and stubbornness that they exhibit. From where I’m standing it is astounding to me that anyone could be so utterly oblivious to the effect of what they eat on their health. It is astounding to me that anyone could be eating fast food every day of the week. Even though I read about it all the time, when faced with a real live person in those circumstances, I realize how tight of a bubble I’m actually in.

If I want to have a part in making real change, I need to be able to comprehend the barriers our society faces to eating better. And among those barriers are poverty, lack of education, and, consequently, vulnerability to the marketing monster that is the food industry in this country. I am lucky enough to be able to evade those barriers almost entirely, but most people are not quite so fortunate. The privileged population cannot go on with the attitude that the obese are at fault for their health problems. Yes, people decide what to put in their mouths, but agricultural policies and corporate money have in large part determined the choices available to the lower income population. I (we) have a long row to hoe, pun intended.

Here’s The Skinny On Fat

Lately I’ve read and heard some different things about fat (as in the nutrient in food, not body fat) and I realized I’ve never addressed my views about food fat content on this blog. Fat has been a controversial nutrient in American public health dialogue for almost fifty years now, since scientists realized that consumption of dietary fat, especially animal fat, was associated with the mounting incidence of coronary heart disease. So the government started encouraging the public to eat a lower fat, higher carbohydrate diet, focusing on fat as the villain. In response, the food industry started manufacturing low-fat products, sometimes reducing the oil in a snack food, or sometimes re-engineering typically high fat products like cheese to have a lower fat content.

There is a contingent of health professionals and other stakeholders who look back on this low-fat fad as the instigator of our collective sugar and carb addiction. They say the focus on lowering fat consumption encouraged overconsumption of carbohydrates and consequent weight gain, which led to the obsession with low-carb, high protein and fat diets, now popular in the Paleo incarnation. They say that reducing fat clearly did nothing for public health.

This claim, however, is dependent upon the assumption that people actually reduced their fat consumption in the first place. In fact, the research tells us that the average fat percentage of the average diet has actually stayed constant throughout both the low fat and low carb fads. And even if fat were the villain it was made out to be, replacing higher fat foods with nutrient-devoid, sugar and salt-filled processed foods that are easy to overeat wouldn’t be likely to fix the problem anyway.

So what is really the deal with fat? Should we avoid it, should we slather it on? Here’s my pretty educated opinion.

It is pretty clear that excess amounts of saturated fat, the type found mostly in animal products, raises blood cholesterol and promotes inflammation and chronic disease. So in general I try to avoid that type of fat. This is one of the myriad reasons I avoid animal products in general. The same is true of trans fats, which come almost exclusively from man-made partially hydrogenated oils, and are most likely worse for our health than saturated fats. Fortunately, trans fats have been disappearing from the food supply for years now and are now in the process of being phased out completely.

As for other sorts of fats, you definitely need to have some quantity of unsaturated fatty acids in your diet for optimal functioning, and possibly a bit more to help prevent chronic disease. Omega-3 fatty acids, which come in high quantities in fish, although you can also get them from plant sources, seem to be particularly important in fetal development and may discourage inflammation. Fish, nuts, nut butters, avocado, and cooking with oils are all healthy sources of these essential fatty acids. Not only are these important nutrients by themselves, but they also are critical for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.

But here’s the caveat. Any high fat food like nuts or avocado is going to be very calorie dense, which can be problematic if you’re trying to watch your weight. Olive oil may be good for you, but cook with a lot of it or drown your salad in it and it’s a recipe for weight gain. Deep frying can be done in healthy oils too, but it makes for a much higher calorie meal, not to mention lower in nutrients and potentially higher in carcinogens.

So I advocate a low-fat diet for two reasons. One is that lower in total fat usually means lower in animal products, which means lower in harmful saturated fat. Two is that lower in total fat, particularly added fat like cooking oils and salad dressings, means less chance of excess calories. And I don’t mean go into the store and pick the products labeled “low-fat.” If you are eating a large variety of whole, plant-based foods, your diet will be naturally low in fat because most plant-based foods are. Go ahead and spread some peanut butter on your toast and roast your veggies with a little oil, just don’t go overboard.

The real tragedy here is that public health interventions are still way too focused on individual nutrients and not enough on making sure people have enough access to whole, nutritious foods. Thanks for reading!

You might as well be smoking

I’ve heard mixed responses to the claim that a poor diet is equivalent to a cigarette habit, with people who have a similar point of view to me agreeing and people who have a different one laughing. I cannot impress enough upon you how very real this comparison is. Poor diet has been linked to as many, if not more, chronic diseases and consequent deaths as cigarettes. Living in a privileged, educated bubble as I do, it continues to amaze me that there are still hordes of people out there who don’t understand how important the food we eat is to our long term health. It shouldn’t surprise me though, because it wasn’t so long ago that the public was unaware of tobacco’s threat to health. I think individuals have a very hard time accepting these truths because doing so implies that they are “doing it to themselves.” I would argue, however, that environment plays a very big part in someone’s choice to engage in harmful behaviors. The tobacco industry worked very hard to make smoking convenient and appealing, and that is the same thing the food industry, aided by the government, does today.

There’s good news and bad news here.

The good news is that when it was discovered that smoking was causing hundreds of thousands of deaths through cancer and heart disease, the ensuing public health campaign had a magically simple goal: get people to stop smoking. Of course, it took decades to actually reign in the tobacco industry, ramp up education, and implement other policies that make it nearly impossible and definitely undesirable to smoke in a public place. Still, the way to keep tobacco from harming your health is wonderfully uncomplicated, and public health efforts to curb smoking and smoking-related mortality have been hugely effective.

The bad news is that when public health experts realized that people’s diets were making them sick, the next step was not nearly as intuitive. The goal obviously could not be “get people to stop eating.” It had to be “get people to eat more of the right things and less of the wrong things,” which is infinitely more complex, and it has proved to be nearly impossible for the various stakeholders involved (doctors, researchers, industry, policymakers) to come to a consensus on which foods are definitively good for us and which are definitively bad.

Fortunately, there are some foods that people seem to finally agree have no place in a healthy diet—foods like soft drinks. Sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and energy drinks provide absolutely no beneficial nutrients and a huge hit of liquid sugar which promotes weight gain, metabolic disease, and tooth decay. So, like smoking, soda provides a hit of pleasurable stimulation, is quite addicting, and if consumed frequently, promotes the development of chronic disease. Accordingly, there have recently been several proposals in localities around the country proposing policies aimed at reducing sugary drink consumption.

But, because of the complex nature of nutrition, I fear it will take much longer to flip the environment towards supporting a healthy diet than it did to flip it against smoking. Perhaps the first step is to get the public to grasp the potential harms of poor diet, as they’ve accepted the dangers of smoking. Hopefully my blog is pushing us a tiny bit closer toward that goal.