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The Price of a Tomato

How much does a tomato cost? $1.29 a pound? More? Less? What if the true cost of a tomato weren’t measured in change at the check-out counter but in the health of a farm worker who lives in deplorable conditions in order to ensure that tomatoes are stocked in your local grocery store year-round?

In many parts of the United States, we have access to fruits and vegetables year-round, regardless of seasonality. This means that many Americans will add a rubber band-wrapped bunch of green stems to their cart well into November or December (the growing season for asparagus peaks in April and May).

Ask any chef, foodie, blogger or competent home cook and they’ll likely tell you that the best tomatoes are found in August and September, period. But something disturbing has happened to America’s tomato industry that until recently, was not often in media stories or minds of the modern consumer. Besides, who really wants to know that the modern tomato contains 14 times more sodium than its 1960s counterpart?

It’s not glamorous to know that most tomatoes grown in this country are designed for one purpose: shipability. Forget flavor or nutrition, the average supermarket tomato is void of what typically characterises a gorgeous, in-season, ruby-red tomato and instead is replaced by “30 percent less vitamin C, 30 percent less thiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium” than it had in mid-century. Tomatoes are picked green and shipped across country to warehouses where ethylene gas ripens them to a pale shade of pink.

In Tomatoland, the next book on my list to read, Barry Estabrook takes us inside Florida’s tomato industry where we learn that since Florida’s lowlands are not native habitats for tomatoes, plants can succumb to as many as 29 different diseases and fight off 27 separate insect species. Chemicals to fight these pests affect the plants as well as the farm workers who often live in slave-like conditions.

Eating in season should be a way of life and farm workers should be taken care of, not exposed to chemicals and pesticides on a daily basis. As consumers, we should fight back by refusing to purchase out of season produce whenever possible.

3 Comments to The Price of a Tomato

  1. It’s daily choices like these we all make at the grocery store that directly affect the world we live in. I will not eat out of season tomatoes, and during tomato season I buy local for the freshest, most succulent tomatoes. This post you’ve written is a great way to illustrate the problems in our food system as a whole, especially for those who are not “part of the choir.”

  2. I just received a copy of Tomatoland! I just haven’t found time to read it yet. Getting accustomed to life without fresh tomatoes most months of the year has been a challenge, but they really taste better in season!

  3. givingtable

    @la domestique: I agree. Sometimes it’s hard to make these choices, but when you know the truth about what’s happening, it’s hard to ignore.
    @Cookie and Kate: Let me know how the book is! I’m hoping to download it soon and start reading myself.

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"To care about food but not food production is clearly absurd." // Wendell Berry

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