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Dirty Tomatoes: A Spiritual and Dietary Proposal

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In various religious communities, certain foods are considered acceptable and others unacceptable. For observant Jews and Muslims, for example, pork is unclean. For Hindus, any meat is unacceptable. Christians like me often adopt a food abstention of some sort during Lent.

I have a proposal for a different way of thinking about clean and unclean foods. It involves tomatoes.

Let's say that clean foods are those produced and distributed through fair and sustainable means, and unclean foods are those produced and distributed through unfair and unsustainable means. The more locally grown and ecologically produced a food is, the cleaner it would be. The more fairly the farmers, harvesters, transporters and marketers are treated, the cleaner it would be. In this way of thinking, there would be clean and dirty vegetables for vegetarians and clean and dirty meats for omnivores.

I've been thinking about clean and dirty tomatoes because of where I live in southwest Florida. Just up the road is the town of Immokalee. Immokalee is ground zero for the U.S. winter tomato crop. Chances are, if you eat a tomato in the winter, it was grown here. And chances are, it was picked by a low-paid migrant worker like Oscar and Wilson, some new friends of mine.

A few days back, I joined Oscar, Wilson and a group of local religious leaders in a pray-in at a local Publix grocery store. We knelt down in the produce section and prayed for the grocery store chain, its CEO, and Oscar and Wilson's fellow farmworkers, who have been treated as little better than slaves in the past. They've made some progress lately regarding basic working conditions, but their pay is still incredibly low. Just how low became clear to me after our pray-in, when participants bought some Publix tomatoes and carried them out to the parking lot where we began filling one of the bright red buckets Oscar and Wilson use in the fields. (We left an extra penny per pound with the cashiers, for reasons you'll understand in a minute.)

It takes about 32 pounds of tomatoes to fill a bucket. You stoop in the hot sun, pick a tomato, pull its stem off with your teeth, gently place it in your bucket, fill your bucket, hoist it on your shoulder, walk up to a hundred yards to a truck, hoist it up to the truck, walk back, and do it again -- 125 times a day, just to earn minimum wage. By day's end, you've picked and hoisted 4,000 pounds of tomatoes, and you make (when adjusted for inflation) less now than you would have 30 years ago.

Oscar, Wilson and their colleagues in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have fought long and hard to get the major tomato distributors to agree to a 1-cent-per-pound raise, and several major fast food chains -- including McDonald's and Taco Bell -- have already agreed to pay the higher price. But major grocers like Publix have so far ignored all requests to agree to pay the distributors the extra penny which will be passed on to the farm workers. That, to me anyway, makes their tomatoes dirty.

I like Publix. I think they are a good and decent company -- apart from their dirty tomatoes. Perhaps their CEO, Ed Crenshaw, doesn't fully understand what's being requested. Perhaps the Public Relations department has shielded him from CIW's requests. That's why we decided to go into a Publix to pray: We wanted to do our part to help the message get through.

And that's why Oscar, Wilson and some allies are going to bicycle 200 miles up to Publix headquarters in Lakeland to see if they can meet with Mr. Crenshaw in person on Sept. 6, the day after Labor Day. I'm going to drive up and join them because I really like Oscar and Wilson and I want them to be treated fairly. And I prefer my tomatoes clean.

I never really understood religious dietary restrictions, and to be honest, I've never even given up chocolate for Lent. But this kind of dietary scruple makes sense to me.

Where do you shop? Are your tomatoes clean? How long do you think it will take for us to get all of our local grocers to be as careful about their foods being as ethically clean as they are physically clean?

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