Friday, April 9, 2010

Tomato, Tomahto: The politics behind your purchases

If you're anything like me, your weekly shopping trip gets more and more complicated all the time. There are just so many things to consider; local, fresh, organic, free-range and fair trade, as well as the obvious consideration of cost. Sometimes I find myself spending a good 10 minutes staring at labels, trying to figure out which item will provide me with the most nutrients without breaking the bank. Ideally, this singular purchase will land in my grocery basket with an emphatic thump, without compromising my morals or beliefs. In reality, if I can't trace the item back to its source, I don't really know where my money is going. Sometimes that emphatic thump gets muffled by packaging and labels using words such as, 'wholesome', 'nutritious', 'farm fresh' and 'traditional'.  We're told time and time again that we, the consumers, hold purchasing power and that, ultimately, we control the market. But since tracing food stuffs from your local grocery store back to the source is virtually impossible, how can you make an educated and informed decision? Can we really have purchasing power without knowledge?
The answer, quite simply, is no. For most people, standing in a grocery aisle for 10 minutes while scrutinizing a can of salmon is not an option, nor does it bear satisfactory answers. Moreover, we simply do not want to spend our downtime doing investigative research. Often, and understandably so, choices are made based on those persuasive words and  powerful images. So, if you are much like me and you don't have 10 minutes to decide which can of salmon best fits your foodie dogma, eating locally might just be the answer. Not only does it save time, but you can ask the food producer all those niggling little questions that the can of salmon couldn't or wouldn't answer.
That said, I still find myself dissecting  and analyzing labels at the local grocery store from time to time. But what about produce? What do the tiny little stickers on our fruit and veggies tell consumers? If you look closely, you'll see where they were grown and whether or not they were grown organically. Is this really enough information to make a good decision? Do we need to know more? Well, this morning I read an article that, once again, changed the way I will look at produce forever.
A Case for Florida Farmworkers:

In order to keep up with global demand, American fruit and vegetable production has dramatically increased. Although demand and production have risen, the farmworkers who pick and pack this produce have seen their wages and working conditions either remain stagnant, or decline.
In 2001, the US Department of Labor sent a letter to US Congress describing working conditions for Florida farmworkers. The report described farmworkers as "a labor force in significant distress". Its conclusion sited farmerworkers' "low wages, sub-poverty annual earnings, (and) significant periods of un- and underemployment" as evidence of this distress. According to the 2008 USDA Profile of Hired Farmworkers, their work setting is similar to that of industrial workers. Farmworkers operate heavy machinery, which is hard physical labour. They also confront significant health risks such as sun exposure, pesticide exposure, inadequate sanitary facilities and crowded and/or substandard housing. Farmworkers earn poverty level wages, have no right to overtime pay and are not allowed to organize or collectively bargain with their employers. Due to the fact that farmwork is seasonal and unpredictable, rates of unemployment are double those of wage and salary workers. Furthermore, it has been more than 30 years since their rate of pay has risen significantly. Florida tomato pickers, for example, earn 45 cents for every 32 lb bucket of tomatoes picked. In a 10-12 hour day, workers have to pick 2 1/2 tons of tomatoes just to make the equivalent of Florida's minimum wage! In some extreme cases, workers are made to work against their will for little to no pay. This is basically modern-day slavery and absolutely despicable! Since 1997, Federal Civil Rights officials have prosecuted 7 slavery operations, involving over 1000 farmworkers!!
If you're not moved by environmental factors and you don't believe in the health risks involved in shipping food from afar, surely we can all agree on one thing: every worker, no matter what industry they work in, deserves to be fairly paid and justly treated. They deserve to make decent wages, work in a clean and safe environment, and be protected by labour laws so that they may not be exploited by their employers.
If you would like to learn more about farmworkers in Florida and what is being done to raise awareness, the entire article can be read here:

I didn't really need another reason to hem and haw in the produce section, but I'm certainly going to be extra careful when purchasing my fruits and veggies in the future. As I see it, buying local is the only way to truly know your food.
What do you think? As a consumer, how can we be sure that what we are buying isn't in direct conflict with our morals and values? Post your comments here.

No comments:

Post a Comment