A one-cent per-pound increase in the price of tomatoes may not mean much to most consumers, but to many of the workers who pick these tomatoes — a physically exhausting job with no health benefits, overtime or sick pay — it would go a long way toward improving their working conditions and their lives. That's the idea behind the Fair Food Program, a campaign, spearheaded by Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), in which several major fast-food chains and other food providers have agreed to pay a penny-per-pound wage increase to the 30,000 Florida workers who pick nearly a third of the tomatoes that Americans eat.

Whole Foods signed onto the campaign along with McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, Yum! Brands (Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut and WingStreet), Sodexo, Aramark, Compass Group and Bon Appétit Management Company. One of the major holdouts, however, has been Trader Joe's.

As Barry Estabrook, author of the book Tomatoland and the blog Politics of the Plate, wrote in Zester Daily back in June: “If you harvest Florida tomatoes, it's the difference between making $50 a day and $80 a day — the difference between a wage that doesn't allow you to properly feed and shelter your family and a livable, albeit paltry, income.”

Along with most of the national supermarket chains including Ahold (Stop & Shop, Giant) and Kroger, Trader Joe's has staunchly refused to sign the Fair Food Act. Why? Because Trader Joe's claims it is already paying a penny-per-pound “fair food premium” and that it has promised to only buy from Florida tomato growers abiding by the Fair Food Code of Conduct.

Here's Trader Joe's letter to consumers explaining why they refuse to sign the agreement. Unfortunately, as the CIW emphasizes in its response to the letter, none of Trader Joe's claims can be verified. And so the battle goes on.

As Mark Bittman, writing in The New York Times points out, the agreement signed by the major fast-food retailers goes beyond the penny-per-pound wage increase to provides some important safeguards for workers:

–a time-clock system in the fields, which mean less unpaid waiting time

–portable shade tents for breaks

–reduced exposure to pesticides

–worker-to-worker education on rights

–a code of conduct for growers

–a grievance system for workers whose rights are violated

To keep the campaign in the public eye and hopefully spur Trader Joe's to change their official stance, the CIW is organizing a march and rally this afternoon.

At noon today, workers and their allies will gather outside the Monrovia Trader Joe's at 604 W. Huntington Dr. then head east on Huntington for a rally at Trader Joe's corporate headquarters at 800 S. Shamrock Ave.

[@elinashatkin / eshatkin@laweekly.com]

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