On Monday, February 23, journalist Barry Estabrook will be visiting the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford to discuss his book Tomatoland.
The book, an exposé of Florida’s tomato industry, was among several texts examined by Southern Studies graduate students in our fall seminar on Southern Foodways. While students could share personal experiences of encounters with tasteless tomatoes, Estabrook’s vivid depictions of “modern-day slavery” in Florida’s tomato fields presented a more unsavory portrayal than they may have expected.
Estabrook also profiles efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a grassroots food justice organization that has exposed injustices suffered by the mostly Latino labor force in Florida’s agricultural sector. The group has won notable and important victories, including wage increases and commitments from major buyers (including most major fast food and grocery chains) to only purchase agricultural products that have earned CIW’s “fair-food” stamp of approval. (CIW members gave a presentation on the fair-food program at the 2014 SFA Symposium. You can watch their talk here.)
To put contemporary agricultural labor struggles into context, the Southern Foodways class watched the 1960 CBS documentary Harvest of Shame (available on YouTube). Through his investigations in Harvest of Shame, Edward R. Murrow exposed Americans to the harsh realities underlying the industrial agricultural system on which they had come to depend, particularly the plight of poor migrant farm laborers.
Now, more than fifty years after the documentary aired, it is surprising to note how little has changed; the parallels between Murrow’s exposé and Estabrook’s are eerie and compelling. We are fortunate to contemplate these conditions in the classroom, and in our own lives. If you have some time this week (if, perhaps, you have a snow day…), watch the film or grab the book. And, if you’re in Oxford, come hear Mr. Estabrook speak on Monday.