Chipotle and the CIW end the tomato war

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"At long last," proclaims the Coalition of Immokalee Workers website, "a grower steps forward."

And let's not forget a restaurant company, Chipotle, which, as spokesman Chris Arnold had told us three weeks ago, was negotiating with that grower to get around a stalemate that had prevented the Denver-based outfit from raising the price it paid for Florida-grown tomatoes - a raise that will now go directly to Florida farm workers.

The grower that made it possible: East Coast Farms, one of Florida's largest tomato growers, "somebody willing to make a change," Arnold says, by defying the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which had blocked a half-dozen of CIW's Fair Food agreements with growers for close to two years.

"Chipotle has been a leader in driving change in the nation's food supply," says East Coast's Batiste Madonia. "When their representatives came to us to negotiate this agreement, we agreed that it was the right thing to do. With this framework in place, we hope to work with other companies that are looking to make similar improvements to wages and working conditions for Florida farm workers."

Under the agreement, announced yesterday, East Coast workers who harvest tomatoes for Chipotle will received an additional penny per pound - amounting to a wage increase of 64 percent, since they currently receive 50 cents for 32-pound buckets of tomatoes, and will now get 82 cents.

"That's a significant amount," Arnold says. "More significant is someone who picks tomatoes for Chipotle in a given day may also pick them for six to eight to ten other buyers.... We're pleased with the step forward, and hope that the folks at CIW are pleased and recognize that it helps the whole universe of companies that have committed to programs of this kind."

That's important, because Chipotle is "not a particularly large tomato buyer," Arnold points out. "We use them basically in one thing, our mild tomato salsa. Compared to others, our rank among tomato buyers gets pretty small pretty fast." And not only is Chipotle a relatively small tomato buyer, but it only buys tomatoes from Florida during the short, twelve-week winter season.

"We are extremely pleased that East Coast has shown the courage and the vision to seize on this tremendous opportunity and by so doing help lead the Florida tomato industry toward a fairer, more sustainable future," says CIW's Gerardo Reyes. "We will be working closely with East Coast and our food industry partners in the coming weeks to ensure that we have an effective mechanism in place for passing the penny-per-pound to the workers." And the CIW will also be working to move companies like Wendy's and Quizno's that have "remained on the sidelines."

But for now, it's done with Chipotle, whose corporate offices in LoDo had received a load of CIW petitions just three weeks ago, asking Chipotle founder Steve Ells to live up to his commitment to serving Food With Integrity.

"This agreement will make a difference in the lives of workers who pick tomatoes for Chipotle," Ells says in a company release. "But our commitment goes well beyond this....These choices come at a price, giving Chipotle the highest food costs in the industry. But we continue to think it is the right way to run our business. It's how we are changing the way people think about and eat fast food."

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