Bill Maxwell

Eating that tomato can put you in moral peril

Some deeds and practices define our individual and shared morality. When, for example, we turn our backs on the cruel treatment of farmworkers, we are complicit in inhumanity and are acting immorally.

Tens of thousands of Floridians read about the case of U.S. vs. Ronald Evans without blinking an eye. To me, everyone who eats fruits and vegetables should be outraged and should be, in some manner, advocating for farm-worker justice.

A review: In 2007, farm labor contractor Ronald Evans, his wife Jequita Evans and their son Ron Evans Jr. were sentenced to federal prison for enslaving farm workers and for other labor-related crimes in Florida and North Carolina. They were sentenced to 30, 20 and 10 years respectively.

Ronald Evans recruited homeless U.S. citizens from shelters across the Southeast, including in Tampa, Miami and New Orleans, with promises of decent jobs and housing. After the farmworkers arrived at the labor camps in Palatka and New Grove, N.C., Ronald Evans deducted the price of rent, food, crack cocaine and alcohol from the workers' pay, keeping the workers "perpetually indebted" in what the U.S. Justice Department referred to as "a form of servitude morally and legally reprehensible."

Justice Department records show that the Palatka labor camp was enclosed by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. A "No Trespassing" sign warned outsiders.

The Evans family worked for grower Frank Johns, then-chairman of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, the powerful lobby of the state's agricultural industry. As a grower, Johns was not charged with a crime.

This is not an isolated case. Since 1997, through efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, six other labor outfits have been prosecuted for servitude. The cases involved more than a dozen employers and more than 1,000 workers, who testified to being locked in their compounds at night, beaten, raped, pistol-whipped and shot.

Remember, the average U.S. farmworker earns a little more than $10,000 a year. They are excluded from the protections of the nation's employment laws, and they are prevented from legally organizing.

As a result of such inhumanity and exploitation, American consumers can enjoy cheap, fresh and attractive produce. Companies such as Tropicana, Minute Maid, Taco Bell, Wendy's, Burger King, McDonald's, Kroger and Wal-Mart profit from so-called "everyday low prices" made possible on the backs of abused workers.

As individuals, we are morally obligated to demand economic justice for those who harvest our food. George Orwell, who wrote extensively about poverty in England, said: "Economic injustice will stop the moment we want to stop it, and no sooner, and if we genuinely want it to stop the method adopted hardly matters."

One person I know who is trying to get consumers to see that their buying habits directly contribute to the hardships of farmworkers is the Rev. Aaron McEmrys, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Santa Barbara, Calif. I recently met McEmrys, a former union organizer, when he participated in a farm-worker seminar in Fort Lauderdale.

I quote him at length: "The things we do and the ways we live affect our fellow beings in ways that are often hard to see. Sometimes, even things that seem small and innocent to us can do terrible damage to others in the wider world. As long as we remain blissfully ignorant, we might be passively complicit in the suffering of others, but we are not knowing, willing participants. We are just ignorant.

"Once we know, however, really know, about how our choices or our lifestyles can hurt and oppress others, we have some real choices to make. We can either change our ways to stop hurting people or we can go on as we always have. But with one big difference: We aren't innocent anymore. We are still complicit, but now actively so. We have chosen to live in such a way that pushes people down instead of lifting them up, that strips away our humanity and theirs instead of celebrating our shared humanity.

"We all agree that slavery is an abomination — a sin — a crime against humanity. And yet this kind of oppression is exactly what the people who pick our tomatoes have to live with every day. The tomatoes that nourish our bodies and add flavor to so many of our meals come with a price tag. They come at the cost of human dignity, human freedom. Once we know this, we have some real choices to make: We can either change our ways or we can go on eating those cheap tomatoes knowing that we have chosen, by default, to be fed by the suffering of other human beings — human beings just like us.

"It's not a question of whether we should get involved. If we eat tomatoes, then we are already involved. The only real questions are: What are we going to do about it? How will we be involved from here on out?

"Here is a real truth: When we do the right thing, when we change our ways, even just a little, to live in such a way as to lift up the best in ourselves and others, the tomatoes will taste better. I guarantee it."

American consumers have a moral duty to stop the exploitation of farm workers. If we do not, as McEmrys argues, we enable servitude and are guilty of the "sin of complicity."

Eating that tomato can put you in moral peril 07/12/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 8:33pm]

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