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On The Menu: Fairer Tomatoes

Bon Appetit could not source slicing tomatoes that met its fair labor standards. (Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)

In April, food service company Bon Appetit Management drew a line in the sand. If it could not find a tomato grower that provided good working conditions and fair wages, there would be no tomatoes at the company's more than 400 restaurants and cafes.

Good news. It's got them.

This week, Bon Appetit signed a deal with Alderman Farms, a tomato grower in Boynton Beach, Fla. As part of the deal, Alderman agreed to pay its workers a higher rate than the 45 cents per 32-pound bucket that is the industry standard. It also promised to ensure that working conditions, such as access to bathrooms and drinking water, meet a standard that workers' groups allege are absent at many large commercial farms. Meanwhile, Chipotle Mexican Grill also announced on Wednesday that it had reached a deal with one of Florida's largest tomato growers to raise the wage by a penny a pound for workers who harvest tomatoes.

Alderman Farms is a relatively small operation by modern standards. It farms about 1,000 acres, more than half of which are tomatoes. Bon Appetit buys about 5 million pounds of tomatoes annually. "There are some things here that we will fine tune so we can document what's happening," said Tom Wilson, Alderman Farms' sales manager. "But we didn't have to change much to meet their code of conduct."

There is one catch. Alderman does not grow the round slicers traditionally put on hamburgers and at the salad bar. It's too difficult to compete with imports from Mexico, said Wilson. Instead, Bon Appetit chefs will have to make do with smaller cherry and grape varieties. "Our focus is on fair labor practices and our chefs really embraced the challenge," said Maisie Greenawalt, Bon Appetit's vice president. "They said, 'Get us the grape tomatoes and we'll figure out what to do with them.' "

Bon Appetit executives became aware of the plight of Florida tomato pickers when they received a letter from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a South Florida farm workers organization, earlier this year.

For eight years, the coalition has targeted fast-food giants including Burger King, McDonald's, Subway and Yum Brands, which owns Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell, among others. In 2001, the coalition led a boycott of Taco Bell. Students succeeded in booting 20 franchises off college campuses. CIW's demand: that each company sign a code of conduct and pay workers an extra penny for every pound of tomatoes picked.

Eventually, each company agreed to the wage increase, the equivalent of a 74 percent raise for each worker. But many workers never saw the money. In 2007, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a trade association that says it represents more than 90 percent of state production, barred its members from passing on the increase to workers. The CIW estimates that as much as $1.5 million is being held in escrow.

Chipotle, which buys 15 to 20 percent of its tomatoes from Florida, reached agreement with East Coast Farms, according to a news release, after months of negotiation with the CIW. Under the agreement with East Coast Farms, farm workers who pick tomatoes for Chipotle will see their pay go from 50 cents to 82 cents for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes, or a 64 percent increase. According to a Chipotle spokeswoman, East Coast Farms has also agreed to abide by the fast-food company's code of conduct for suppliers, which includes standards for "all manner of health and safety issues."

Steve Ells, founder, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle, said in the release that the company reviews its purchasing decisions not only in the hopes of improving farm-worker wages and working conditions but to raise animal welfare standards and minimize environmental impact. "These choices come at a price, giving Chipotle the highest food costs in the industry," he said. Chipotle has been a longtime pioneer in bringing organic, sustainable and even local food to the masses.

For Bon Appetit, finding the farm was only the first step. "Just having a farmer willing to sell to you doesn't make change," said Greenawalt. "We had to find distributors to move the product" from Alderman Farms to Bon Appetit's restaurants and cafes at corporations and universities around the country.

The company got lucky, Greenawalt says. Its current distributors agreed to make special stops at Alderman Farms -- and to work together. For example, a distributor in Cleveland might pick up a full truck of tomatoes from Alderman and deliver some to its own customers. It would deliver the rest to another regional distributor, who would carry the product on to its customers.

"We'd like to reward producer for doing the right thing," said Greenawalt. "I think it will send a signal to the other growers that people are willing to go outside the system."

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  September 10, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Food Politics , Sustainable Food  | Tags: Jane Black, tomatoes  
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