Commentary — March 16, 2016, 2:22 pm

Trump’s Tomatoes

The story behind the billionaire’s fast food of choice

According to the Washington Post, guests on Donald Trump’s luxurious personal 757 jet—gold-plated seat-belt buckles!—who get peckish and order a burger are served Wendy’s. It would have to be Wendy’s. No other food chain strives so hard to avoid buying tomatoes from Florida, where they are almost guaranteed to have been picked by immigrants, a policy surely appealing to Trump. Admittedly, the tomatoes in question are quite possibly picked by a worker confined in conditions of near slavery, paid minimal amounts and forced to scavenge for food, but at least he or she is not an immigrant working in this country.

To understand the background to the Wendy’s guarantee, we have to go back to the beginning of the century, when a workers’ rights group in Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, pioneered an innovative and effective strategy. Agricultural workers are a traditionally exploited group, excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, the New Deal law enshrining basic workers’ rights such as collective bargaining. Conditions have been especially dire for the men and women, almost entirely immigrants from Mexico and Central America, who picked the Florida fruit and vegetable crops. In 2001, tomato pickers were still being paid the forty cents per thirty-two-pound bucket of tomatoes that they were two decades earlier. (Some received nothing at all. When I visited Immokalee in 2001, the C.I.W. had just uncovered a slave camp nestled between a Ramada Inn and a retirement community in the little town of Lake Placid, the fifth such operation busted by the Coalition in the past six years. Inmates who tried to escape risked beatings or worse.)

Naturally, the workers had fought for better conditions using traditional means, but a number of strikes had yielded only defeat. In 2001, however, the C.I.W. conceived and adopted a new strategy, targeting not the agribusinesses that employed and exploited them, but the farmers’ corporate customers, using the leverage of consumers’ social conscience. In the first such campaign, the group fomented a nationwide boycott of Taco Bell. The demand was simple: Commit to paying an extra penny a pound directly to the pickers. This Boycott the Bell movement, augmented with widely publicized hunger strikes by C.I.W. organizers, caught on across the country, especially on college campuses. Eventually Yum! Brands Inc., the parent company of Taco Bell, caved and accepted the terms.

Over successive years other giant enterprises have fallen into line. Burger King, McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Walmart all eventually signed on to the Fair Food Program, a C.I.W. initiative in which participating retailers agree to purchase Florida tomatoes exclusively from suppliers who observe a specified code of conduct that includes zero-tolerance for slavery and sexual violence, as well as the direct penny-a-pound payments.

The program has been a big success. Fourteen major companies, including Walmart and McDonald’s, have now signed on, as have growers responsible for over 90 percent of Florida’s tomato production.

Only one major fast-food enterprise has refused to join: Wendy’s.

For a period, the company, which is controlled by hedge-fund billionaire Nelson Peltz’s Trian Partners, adopted the P.R. gambit of telling consumers, via its website, that it didn’t need to join the program because it was already buying from Fair Food Program growers. Left unmentioned was the fact that it was not paying the workers their penny a pound, nor did it agree to buy only from program-affiliated growers. This subterfuge did not last long. In early 2015, the C.I.W. stepped up pressure on the errant firm to mend its ways, fomenting a campaign for consumers to call its headquarters and demand that it sign on to the program. But Wendy’s now had a ready response. Caller after caller was informed that the company’s strictures were beside the point, because the firm was not buying any tomatoes from Florida at all. Again, the devil was in the omissions, because winter tomatoes for the North American market can only from three places: Florida, Canada, and Mexico.

So which alternate supplier would a corporation too mean to shell out an extra penny a pound in Florida choose as substitute—Canada or Mexico? Clue: Canadian tomatoes are three times as expensive at retail as Mexican tomatoes.

The Kaliroy Corporation, headquartered in Nogales, Arizona, with offices in McAllen, Texas, and Los Angeles, is the U.S. distribution arm of the major Mexican tomato grower, Bioparques de Occidente, which, according to the Los Angeles Times, produces up to 6 million boxes of the red fruit each year for the U.S. market—an enormous operation whose expansion has been fueled in part by a $17 million loan from the World Bank. As Kaliroy confirmed when I called, they are one of the suppliers to Wendy’s.

Bioparques workers who spoke to Times reporter Richard Marosi for an investigation published December 10, 2014, described subhuman conditions, with workers forced to work without pay, trapped for months at a time in scorpion-infested camps, often without beds, fed on scraps, and beaten when they tried to quit.

Although such reports raised eyebrows among some of the firm’s American customers, Wendy’s continues to buy some of its tomatoes from Mexican suppliers. “Walking away from the most effective human-rights program in the food industry into an industry where human-rights violations are endemic and unchecked,” C.I.W. co-founder Greg Asbed told me, “is not only indefensible but immoral.”

In consequence, the Immokalee coalition has dusted off the nuclear weapon last deployed against Taco Bell all those years ago: a nationwide boycott, launched with a march last week that ended at Peltz’s offices in Manhattan. 

“We’re going to keep this up until they join the Fair Food Program,” Asbed tells me, “and if history is any guide, they will.”

But where will The Donald get his tomatoes then?

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington Editor of Harper’s Magazine. Follow him at @andrewmcockburn.

Share
Single Page

More from Andrew Cockburn:

From the April 2018 issue

Mobbed Up

How America boosts the Afghan opium trade

From the January 2018 issue

Swap Meet

Wall Street’s war on the Volcker Rule

From the October 2017 issue

Crime and Punishment

Will the 9/11 case finally go to trial?

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2018

The Sound of Madness

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Looking for Calley

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Comforting Myths

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Wizard of Q

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Punching the Clock

Family History

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combat High·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Afew months before the United States invaded Iraq, in 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time, was asked on a radio show how long the war would take. “Five days or five weeks or five months,” he replied. “It certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” When George W. Bush departed the White House more than five years later, there were nearly 136,000 US soldiers stationed in the country. 

The number of troops has fallen since then, but Bush’s successors have failed to withdraw the United States from the region. Barack Obama campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to send hundreds of troops into Syria. For years Donald Trump described America’s efforts in Afghanistan as “a waste” and said that soldiers were being led “to slaughter,” but in 2017 he announced that he would deploy as many as 4,000 more troops to the country. “Decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk of the Oval Office,” he explained. Every president, it seems, eventually learns to embrace our perpetual war.

With the Trump Administration’s attacks on affordable health care, immigration, environmental regulation, and civil rights now in full swing, criticism of America’s military engagements has all but disappeared from the national conversation. Why hasn’t the United States been able—or willing—to end these conflicts? Who has benefited from them? Is victory still possible—and, if so, is it anywhere in sight?

In March, Harper’s Magazine convened a panel of former soldiers at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. The participants, almost all of whom saw combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, were asked to reflect on the country’s involvement in the Middle East. This Forum is based on that panel, which was held before an audience of cadets and officers, and on a private discussion that followed.

Illustration (detail) by John Ritter
Article
Comforting Myths·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before he died, my father reminded me that when I was four and he asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a writer. Of course, what I meant by “writer” then was a writer of Superman comics. In part I was infatuated with the practically invulnerable Man of Steel, his blue eyes and his spit curl. I wanted both to be him and to marry him—to be his Robin, so to speak. But more importantly, I wanted to write his story, the adventures of the man who fought for truth, justice, and the American Way—if only I could figure out what the fuck the American Way was.

Artwork by Mahmood Sabzi
Article
The Sound of Madness·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Sarah was four years old when her spirit guide first appeared. One day, she woke up from a nap and saw him there beside her bed. He was short, with longish curly hair, like a cherub made of light. She couldn’t see his feet. They played a board game—she remembers pushing the pieces around—and then he melted away.

After that, he came and went like any child’s imaginary friend. Sarah often sensed his presence when strange things happened—when forces of light and darkness took shape in the air around her or when photographs rippled as though shimmering in the heat. Sometimes Sarah had thoughts in her head that she knew were not her own. She would say things that upset her parents. “Cut it out,” her mother would warn. “This is what they put people in psychiatric hospitals for.”

Painting (detail) by Carlo Zinelli
Article
Looking for Calley·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the fall of 1969, I was a freelance journalist working out of a small, cheap office I had rented on the eighth floor of the National Press Building in downtown Washington. A few doors down was a young Ralph Nader, also a loner, whose exposé of the safety failures in American automobiles had changed the industry. There was nothing in those days quite like a quick lunch at the downstairs coffee shop with Ralph. Once, he grabbed a spoonful of my tuna-fish salad, flattened it out on a plate, and pointed out small pieces of paper and even tinier pieces of mouse shit in it. He was marvelous, if a bit hard to digest.

The tip came on Wednesday, October 22. The caller was Geoffrey Cowan, a young lawyer new to town who had worked on the ­McCarthy campaign and had been writing critically about the Vietnam War for the Village Voice. There was a story he wanted me to know about. The Army, he told me, was in the process of court-martialing a GI at Fort Benning, in Georgia, for the killing of seventy-five civilians in South Vietnam. Cowan did not have to spell out why such a story, if true, was important, but he refused to discuss the source for his information.

Photograph © Bettmann/Getty Images
Article
The Last Best Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The family was informed they would be moving to a place called Montana. Jaber Abdullah had never heard of it, but a Google search revealed that it was mountainous. Up to that point, he and his wife, Heba, had thought they’d be moving from Turkey to Newark, New Jersey. The prospect of crime there concerned Heba, as she and Jaber had two young sons: Jan, a petulant two-year-old, and Ivan, a newborn. 

Montana sounded like the countryside. That, Heba thought, could be good. She’d grown up in Damascus, Syria, where jasmine hung from the walls and people sold dates in the great markets. These days, you checked the sky for mortar rounds like you checked for rain, but she still had little desire to move to the United States. Basel, Jaber’s brother, a twenty-two-year-old with a cool, quiet demeanor, merely shrugged.

Illustration (detail) by Danijel Žeželj

Average amount Microsoft spends each month assisting people who need to change their passwords:

$2,000,000

Chimpanzees who join new groups with inferior nut-cracking techniques will abandon their superior techniques in order to fit in.

Trump leaves the Iran nuclear deal, Ebola breaks out in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and scientists claim that Pluto is still a planet.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today