Why was a group of rabbis singing around some tomatoes at a Publix supermarket in Naples, Fla.? No, it wasn’t a new ritual about mindful eating, but rather an act of protest. Would you pay one penny more per pound for tomatoes to ensure a better wage and a more dignified workplace for farmworkers? That’s the underlying question our prayer circle was asking.
Through Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (where I run a campaign on modern slavery), the fifteen of us have traveled from all over the country to learn about the abuses of the Florida tomato industry: sub-poverty wages, violence and sexual harassment, wage theft, exposure to dangerous pesticides, and — in six successfully prosecuted cases over the past ten years (resulting in more than 1,000 people being freed) — modern slavery. Florida produces most off-season tomatoes eaten by those of us who live east of the Mississippi, so the chances are pretty high that if you’ve eaten a fresh tomato in the winter, it came from Florida. Immokalee, where we were visiting, has been called “ground zero” of modern slavery by a federal prosecutor.