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What do tomatoes and slavery have in common?

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Jonathan Coley stands outside the office of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Jonathan Coley stands outside the office of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Jonathan Coley is a CHANGE leader for Oxfam America and a student at Samford University. Here’s his account of a recent visit to Immokalee, Florida, where many of the nation’s tomatoes are grown—and often picked under grueling conditions.

When you’re enjoying your sandwich or burrito at lunch, do you think about the hand that picked your tomatoes?

Despite working in one of the most dangerous industries in the United States, the average farm worker earns just $7,500 a year with few benefits and no overtime pay. Children as young as 12 work in the fields.

I knew many of these facts before I traveled to Immokalee, Florida, recently for the annual gathering of the Student/Farmworker Alliance. However, I was not prepared for the realities I confronted when I walked the streets of this little-known Florida town.

I passed by hundreds of small, dilapidated trailer homes. My guide informed me that two private families basically dominate the Immokalee housing market, charging up to $500 a week for the trailers, forcing many workers to share living quarters, sometimes crowding 10 or more per trailer so they can afford the rent  That’s more than I pay to live in my similarly sized college dorm room with just one friend.

We walked by another house that had been the site of a modern-day slavery ring. Farm workers had been forced against their will to harvest tomatoes. At night, according to news accounts, they were locked up behind the house in box trucks, some beaten and at least one chained by the wrists.

Fortunately, one of the farm workers escaped and sought the help of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. It’s one of Oxfam America’s partners and has not only worked to locate and bust several slavery rings over the past decade, but has led a nationwide campaign for corporations like Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King, to increase the amount they pay for their tomatoes. The Student/Farmworker Alliance has worked with the coalition in each of these campaigns, which have all ended in success.

Though going up against the corporations and other powerful interests that defend the status quo for farm workers may seem daunting, the coalition has truly taught me the meaning of Margaret Mead’s famous quote: “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The farm workers are now focusing their campaigning efforts on grocery store chains such as Florida-based Publix, Kroger (the country’s second-largest grocer behind WalMart), and Ahold (parent company of Giant and Stop & Shop), as well as campus food service providers like Aramark and Sodexo. If you’d like to join these farm workers in their fight, check out the Student/Farmworker Alliance’s website for more information.

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