Tomorrow, I’m heading down to Immokalee, Florida, to check out conditions in our nation’s tomato basket. During the growing season — between December and May — something like 90 percent of tomatoes consumed in the U.S. come from the area in south Florida anchored by Immokalee.

I’m going as part of a delegation of food-oriented writers and activists including authors Frances Moore Lappé and Raj Patel, Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel, and others.

For decades, working conditions in South Florida’s prodigious tomato fields have ranged from ruthlessly exploitative to outright slavery. Even under the best conditions, wages are stagnant and workers live in poverty.

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Yet workers in the area, represented by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, have made headlines in recent years by forcing gigantic tomato buyers like Taco Bell and Burger King to pony up an extra penny a pound — which would cost fast-food companies a tiny sliver of profit, but represent the first substantial wage gain for pickers in decades.

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There’s a catch: the state’s growers cooperative, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, refuses to pass on the raise to workers. Thus workers still get 45 cents for every 32-pound basket they fill — a wage that hasn’t budged in years, eroded by steady inflation.

Immokalee is one of the hotspots of of a globalized, industrial food system. The plight of its workers — many of them refugees from small farms in Mexico and Central America that have collapsed under the weight of that same system — represents just another externalized cost of stocking supermarkets, fast-food outlets, and school cafeterias with “cheap” food.

For a great brief backgrounder on the Immokalee situation, check out Barry Estabrook’s piece in the current Gourmet.

Look for a wrap-up of my Immokalee trip on Friday.

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