Friday, March 30, 2012

How much is that lettuce worth to you?

I purchased this "mircosalad" at the farmers market
in Union Square, Manhattan.
It's made up of shoots from a variety of vegetables.

Buying organic at your grocery store doesn’t ensure that any of the extra money you’re paying for your produce is going to make it all the way back to the farm workers who pick the food. Whether they pick organic or not, theirs is a grueling thankless job with little reward beyond bare bones survival.

When driving through the vast fields of vegetables in Homestead, Florida, on my way to the Everglades or the Keys for a winter vacation, I always wonder: Why can’t we pay for the true value of our lettuce and our tomatoes? I would rather pay $5 for a head of lettuce so the man out in the field could make enough money to live in a house and feed his family.

In a county of bounty, such as ours, where people in mega stores like Costco and Walmart fill up enormous shopping carts with food, we lose perspective. We are so blinded by our largess that we cannot comprehend the real worth and beauty and deliciousness and nutritional value and importance of a crisp head of crunchy romaine. The only reason I can is because I’ve seen the bent-over pickers and I eat at least one salad a day. Lettuces and greens of all types form the base layer of a majority of my meals.

Very little of what we pay for our romaine gets back to the farm. More than 80 percent of the price of our produce goes to distribution and marketing.

Migrant workers get none of the labor protections our government affords most of us workers. There’s no such thing as sexual harassment training or videos on the ergonomic way to pick tons of bunches of grapes and trim them back so only the good ones remain.

Pickers work long hours under blazing sun. They suffer many job-related health problems, from sunstroke to crippling repetitive motion injuries to loss of use of limbs and fingers. They have no negotiating powers when it comes to the routine and deliberate shortfalls in their paychecks due to the way farmers convert their wages from piecework to hourly to comply with government requirements.

If you read Tracie McMillan’s new book, “The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table,” then you will have a little better understanding of where our food comes from and why it is important to treasure every single head of lettuce. Someone somewhere picked it and trimmed it just for you. By the time it gets placed a Walmart supercenter shelf, that romaine may have been chopped to a fraction of its length and crisped and peeled back more than once by store produce workers who are paid only slightly better than the field workers.

Today I had an errand that took me to the edge of the big farmers market in Union Square, New York City. I walked through the vast array of wonderful foods, marveling at my good fortune. I saw farm workers selling the produce they grew. There were beautiful displays of spinach, root veggies including carrots, beets, potatoes and parsnips, kale, and fun microsalads made from shoots of all sorts of vegetables.

The workers brought the food to us in a truck. They probably set off at the crack of dawn in order to get set up in time for the morning rush of shoppers. I paid $5 for a small tub of microsalad that had been decorated with a few yellow pansies. This treasure I will bring with me to my friend’s house for dinner tomorrow night.

The microsalad is special. I took it from the hands of the farmer who produced it. It is beautiful to look at and it will be both delicious and nutritional. My friend will love it, too. This purchase was fortuitous on my part, but for once, my food purchase felt exactly right. I was paying for the true value of my fresh food.

Here is a link to my review of “The American Way of Eating.”

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