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Tomatoes give a new perspective to Easter

Laura Bradley | Monday, March 31, 2008

Every Lent, I am struck by the fact that at places like Notre Dame we have to remind ourselves of the suffering of Christ on His way to the cross when there are people who identify most with Christ’s suffering every single day of the year.

This spring break, I went on the Migrant Seminar, sponsored by the Center for Social Concerns, to Immokalee, Florida. The main industry is agriculture and the main crop is the tomato. The farm workers, who are the backbone of our society, do not have to set aside a specific time in their liturgical calendar to reflect on suffering – they suffer every day, living under the poverty line.

In Immokalee, I encountered the worst poverty I have ever seen in the US. The normal living condition is 15 men living in a tiny, rat and roach-infested trailer, for which they pay $1600 a month. I stayed in one of these trailers for a night with a family of three and I cannot even imagine how 15 people sleep in one.

The conditions in the fields are even worse. Farm workers wake up at 4 a.m. so they have time to walk to a parking lot where they will be picked up to be bussed to the fields. There is no guarantee anyone will get work, so they must get to the parking lot as early as possible. When the workers get to the fields, they may have to wait up to three hours because they cannot start picking any tomatoes until they are completely dry. They are not paid for this period of waiting. The workers must pick the tomatoes as quickly as possible, as they are paid by the bucket. For each 32-pound bucket, they are paid 40-45 cents. In order to make Florida’s minimum wage, they must pick 2 tons of tomatoes each day. This kind of pace is impossible for an entire workday. After more than 12 hours from when they were picked up, the workers return home to sleep so they can wake up and do it all over again. This is their life.

Through this seminar, we got the chance to work in the fields alongside some of the farm workers. We only worked for three hours and we were exhausted by the end of it. This was the most intense, backbreaking work I have ever done in my life and it was even worse with the sun beating down on us in the humid 80-degree Florida heat. Everyone had to wear long sleeves, pants and heavy work boots to protect us from the pesticides. We talked to some of the workers afterwards and most told us that they had dropped out of school and had begun working in the fields when they were 13 or 14 years old. Can you imagine starting this work at age 13, knowing that the only way to survive would be to do this every day of your life for the next 50 years or more?

This problem may seem far removed from our daily lives, but really, we are intimately connected to the farm workers of America. Have you ever thought about why your food at fast food restaurants or grocery stores is so cheap? Our agricultural system is able to keep the prices down because in giving us the cheap food we desire, businesses cut down on the wages of the farm workers – their wages have not increased in 30 years. We as consumers have the power (and the responsibility) to make sure the farm workers are given the wages that they deserve. We all ignore this systematic problem because we want our food cheap and we don’t care how we get it.

As consumers, Christians and (most importantly) people, we have a choice to make. We must decide if the food we eat or the people who pick the food are more important.

After seeing the effects of my decisions as a consumer (unjust wages, inhumane working and living conditions, extreme poverty), I cannot simply be a passive consumer and give into the system anymore and I challenge you to do the same. We need to look beyond the brand names and the slogans and open our eyes to the injustices of the agricultural business. We must recognize the role we play in this unjust business every day.

Let us remember the farm workers who carry Christ’s cross every day as they work in the fields in the hot sun to provide us all with the cheap food we so covet, getting nothing but ridicule and degradation in return.

Laura Bradley is a senior Psychology and Theology double major. If you are interested in actively working to give the farm workers what is theirs, please contact her at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.