The cost of a pepper

In midwinter, when my garden is blanketed with snow and seed catalogs arrive in the mail with their promises of juicy red tomatoes, crisp lettuces and deep green kale, I begin to crave fresh vegetables. The frozen ones tucked away in my deep freeze taste really good. I know they were picked carefully and processed just right.  I know the work that went into the gardens from the earliest days of spring until they were covered with mulch and snow for the winter. I know the cost of the food in my freezer because I paid for it with the work of my hands and the bending of my back.

In the grocery store, plastic bags and boxes of spinach and baby lettuces entice me. Tiny red, yellow and orange peppers call to me. Rosy red tomatoes beckon with promises of the taste of the vine ripened fruits I remember from last summer. Broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages tempt me.

Because I know the real cost of a carrot, having paid hours of back bending labor to grow my own, I realize that the prices in the grocery store are a bargain. It is January, after all, and almost no vegetables grow here this time of the year except in very
In December the “Los Angeles Times” published a series of articles about how those delicious winter vegetables are grown. The series, entitled “Product of Mexico,” researched and written by Richard Marosi with photography and video by Don Bartletti details the inhumane working conditions of farm workers who tend and pick tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and more across Mexico.

I wish I hadn’t read it. expensive greenhouses. Fresh fruits and vegetables are good for us. They taste good. I don’t want to think about the moral implications of baby lettuce and sweet peppers in midwinter, of food miles, or country of origin. I just want a salad!

Mexico exports millions of dollars worth of fruits and vegetables to the United States. Check the label on your next bag of peppers. Most of the produce is picked and packaged by the hands of workers who earn between $8 and $12 a day. Many sleep in dormitories with no beds or furniture in labor camps surrounded by barbed wire fences and armed guards. Cramped living conditions, rats, scorpions, inadequate bathroom facilities and lack of clean water are common. Workers are recruited from remote indigenous communities with promises of good wages, food, day care and schools. Rarely are those promises kept. Even though illegal by Mexican law, wages are often held until the end of the picking season to keep workers from leaving in the middle of the harvest. Since there are no grocery stores nearby, workers buy food from the only store in the camp and sometimes end the season owing more to the store than they have earned.

In spite of efforts to end child labor by the World Bank and many corporations, children as young as nine can be found picking. Their parents say wages are so low that the children must also work in order for the family to earn enough to live.

The exploitation of poor workers around the world does not have any easy answers. The economics of poverty is multifaceted and interwoven with politics, education, culture and history. It is a product of greed, racism and hatred. Perhaps it can never be changed. I feel overwhelmed.

I have suddenly lost my hunger for out-of-season salads.

My carefully reading labels for the country of origin of the peppers in my dinner, eating spinach in season and savoring the green beans in my freezer will not change working conditions for Mexican farm laborers. If, however, more people make the same decisions, grocery stores will start asking their distributors where the peppers were grown. Perhaps distributors will ask growers about how their pickers are treated and growers will change how they treat their workers. Only if awareness of this kind of human slavery has an impact on corporate earnings will change happen. Only then will WalMart, Safeway, Whole Foods and others pressure the Mexican government to enforce labor laws meant to protect workers.

A cheap price for peppers is paid for by someone else. Perhaps it is a mother living in a tin roofed barn, sleeping on a cement floor while rats climb the walls. Perhaps it is a father working ten hours a day, six days a week in the hot sun for $8 a day. Maybe it is a child who will not learn to read because there are no schools or her family moves every three months to follow the harvest or because he is in the fields picking peppers one by one. I can’t knowingly eat food produced with those kinds of costs.

Read the “Times” stories. < > Look at the faces of the workers in the photos. Listen to their voices. Learn more. Ask questions. Make a difference.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains