"A penny-per-pound boost means increasing wages from $50 per day to $70 per day."

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[Photograph: Coalition of Immokalee Workers]

Even in an era of heightened food awareness and activists fighting for sustainable food across the country, there are still great inequities in the American agricultural system. One of the most harmful is the plight of tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida. The Immokalee region has a $600 million tomato growing industry, and its workers are some of the most abused and poorly paid laborers in the country.

The main advocate for tomato pickers in Immokalee is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (whose work we've covered in the past). Part of the CIW's current campaign involves holding the biggest tomato growing operations accountable for higher wages and better working conditions for pickers.

Earlier this year, Pacific Tomato Growers and Six L's, two of the region's biggest growers, signed on to the CIW's Fair Food Code of Conduct. Last week, in a landmark agreement, ten other growers signed on to the Code of Conduct. In all, these growers represent 90% of the tomato picking operations in Immokalee.

The Fair Food Code of Conduct includes a penny-per-pound increase in wages for tomato pickers, a strict code of employer conduct, a system for dealing with picker complaints, and a health and safety program to protect pickers. While a penny more per pound seems like a meager victory, for Immokalee pickers it means a wage increase from $50 per day to $70 per day. While certainly not enviable, this is at least a livable salary.

The CIW has thus far taken a three-pronged approach to reforming the tomato picking industry. First, they targeted fast food corporations and encouraged them to stop sourcing tomatoes from growers with poor wages and worker conditions. These campaigns were extremely successful—chains such as Taco Bell, McDonald's, and Burger King have changed their purchasing practices due to pressure from the CIW.

The next step was working with growers to increase wages and improve working conditions. And now the CIW is looking to national supermarket chains, wanting them to source only fairly-picked tomatoes from Immokalee.

Last week saw the Student-Farmworker Alliance's nationwide Week of Action. Student advocates staged protests outside of restaurants and supermarkets, calling for Fair Food practices across the industry. The CIW's mission of convincing grocery giants to stop purchasing unjust tomatoes was advanced in Berkeley, Washington D.C., Providence, and many other cities.

The CIW is a strong organization. Odds are good that they will, in time, achieve their goals of creating a 100% fair tomato picking industry in Florida, and a more just supermarket produce section. For more information on their projects and progress, and to see how you can get involved in your community, check out their website.

About the author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.

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