Tomato workers, however, have generally had it the worst. In North Carolina, tomato harvesters have been exposed to pesticides so virulent that women have borne children without arms and legs. And in the fields of southern Florida, the center of America’s tomato industry in the winter, more than 1,000 workers have been freed from modern slavery rings, resulting in a raft of convictions in seven cases but not, prosectors say, an eradication of the problem.
This contradicts not just American notions of fairness but our industrial economic logic, too. Henry Ford was often exalted for his innovation of paying workers enough that they could afford to buy his products. But farmworkers are frequently unable to buy the food they pick once it reaches a store. Paying them better would not typically result in much higher retail prices for produce; a 40 percent increase in farmworker wages would probably cost each American household an additional $16 a year.
Lettuce and equality
The founding fathers understood food’s central importance in building a nation that lived up to its ideals. In 1782, describing his state of Virginia, Jefferson noted a divide between the diets of the poor and the wealthy. The wealthy ate vegetables, but the poor did not — a problem, since “the climate require[d] indispensably a free use of vegetable food, for health as well as comfort.” He called this state of affairs “inexcusable.”
And yet, 230 years later, it persists — as both myth and fact. As a cultural myth, the class connotations of food are stark: Fresh, healthy food has come to be identified as the preferred fare of the affluent, while processed food is the stuff of the masses. Eating well is the province of the elite, and everyone else just has to get by.
Factually, 13.6 million Americans, many of them low-income, live in communities with limited access to supermarkets and the fresh food, such as lettuce, they can provide. What’s more, the food supply most readily available to all of us is heavy on junk that our agricultural policies have made cheaper per bite (and calorie) than healthy, whole ingredients.
This is inequity at its most fundamental. A good diet is as integral to life and liberty as is clean water, and yet we accept as a matter of course that it is more difficult for the poor to eat well than the rich. We shouldn’t accept it for a very profound, very American and very good reason: It is not fair to build a society in which only some people have access to resources that are required for life. Especially not in a country where, our Declaration of Independence states, all men are created equal.
This Fourth of July, I’ll wonder what the founders might think of the meal we use to celebrate the ideals they bequeathed to us — whether they’d condone a system that is dominated by giant corporations, that does not pay fair wages, that feeds the wealthy well and the poor poorly. But really, that’s missing the point. The question isn’t whether the founders would have approved of this; it’s whether we, the Americans of today, do.
is the author of “The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table” and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.
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