11/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What's Fair Got to Do with the Price of Green Tomatoes?

As the world watches the stock markets, nobody, but nobody wants to hear about paying more for anything. But one group is moving ahead with a campaign to pressure corporations to pay a little more (a penny a pound, to be exact) for tomatoes. And they're winning.

Before I go on, think back about six weeks. Where were you on Labor Day, that bittersweet end-of-the-summer holiday? If you had the day off, did your thoughts turn, for a moment, to the labor movement the day is named for, to which we owe not only for a well-timed three-day weekend, but more importantly, for workers' rights as they exist today? If you ate food that day, did you think about the people who helped produce it?

I was in San Francisco that weekend, attending Slow Food Nation, where I had the good fortune to meet and interview Lucas Benitez and Melody Gonzalez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, whose Campaign for Fair Food has persuaded some of the largest corporations in the food industry to agree to a price increase of a penny a pound for tomatoes, allowing for a modest raise for the farmworkers of Immokalee, Florida (where 90% of the US supply of winter tomatoes are grown), whose wages have languished, stagnant, since the 1970's. As Benitez, a farmworker himself, points out in the video below, today's tomato pickers get paid between 40 and 45 cents per 32 pound bucket, which means that to earn $50, a worker has to pick 2 tons of tomatoes.

For Burger King, the Goldman Sachs-owned chain that signed with CIW last May at the US capitol building (but only after months of protests, a blog scandal and allegedly spying on CIW's partner group, the Student/Farmworker Alliance) the penny-a-pound increase amounts to an estimated $250,000 dollars per year. To put that in perspective, Eric Schlosser's November 07 op-ed "Penny Foolish" pointed out that "[i]n 2006, the bonuses of the top 12 Goldman Sachs executives exceeded $200 million - more than twice as much money as all of the roughly 10,000 tomato pickers in southern Florida earned that year."

More recently, organic grocery chain Whole Foods came to an agreement with CIW. That Whole Foods was beat to the table by such cheap, decidedly un-organic eateries as Taco Bell, McDonalds and Burger King may seem ironic to those who snidely call the chain "Whole Paycheck" and may expect that those relatively high prices might translate not only to the food being organic, but also fair. This is, in part, why we're seeing from food advocates a shift away from "organic," a label that has not only been co-opted by huge corporations, but also speaks only to a food's impact on personal health (and to a much lesser extent, ecological health, but only in its initial production and not, say, its shipping) toward the more inclusive term, "sustainable," which is also being co-opted by industry but at least, in theory, speaks to other aspects of food production, including labor.

Now, CIW is after Chipotle, the growing chain that has built a reputation for social responsibility in the organic and local food arenas, and whose "Food with Integrity" campaign stands to take a major hit in the credibility department if they don't sit down with the Coalition. But that could prove difficult for Chipotle, which released a statement last month (before things got really crazy, even) warning share holders that the weak economy, coupled with rising food costs, would likely amount to lower profits than last year's.

No one knows what the future holds, but as our economic system hovers over the proverbial "rock bottom," it seems like a good time to revisit our policies, both national and personal, when it comes to the money we spend. What is the value of a tomato, and why? What (from fertilizers and pesticides to labor to transport) went into it, and does its price reflect those inputs? Or has a market driven by speculation and subsidies installed a false cap on that price, creating a decidedly unsustainable system that benefits CEOs over citizens, puts the squeeze on smaller businesses and leaves the laborers to pick up the slack?

If you'd like to help support the Coalition in their campaign for fair food, visit their Take Action page.

Originally posted on The Green Fork.