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packing for the north

by Deborah Barnt | January 21, 2002

Independent publisher Sumach Press had an intriguing idea for its Women’s Daybook 2002 – “the complex world of food,” from the perspective of women. For each month of this year, the Daybook takes a look at an aspect of food, and how it “threads its tenacious way through our everyday lives.” Here is an excerpt, the entry for October.

packing for the north

Since I first entered the tomato packing plant in Jalisco, Mexico, in December 1996, I have never been able to think about eating a winter tomato without thinking of Juana. She started working for this agribusiness when she was fourteen. Now thirty-seven, she has been moved by the company year after year from harvest to harvest, as part of a female moving “maquila” (flexible workforce).

In peak season, she works more than twelve hours a day, standing, to sort out the blemished tomatoes for the Mexicans, saving the perfect specimens, waxed and stickered, to seduce us in northern supermarkets. Since NAFTA, eighty-five percent of the tomatoes packed in Mexico are for export.

Women working long hours for low wages are key players in this continental food chain; planting, picking and packing tomatoes in Mexico; scanning, selling, and slicing them in Canada. The tomato I mix in my stew carries the stories of the many women whose hands have brought it to me.

Deborah Barndt has written of herself and her experiences:

For the past seven years I have been photographing and interviewing women along the tomato trail from Mexican field to Canadian table – Mexican field workers and packers, Canadian cashiers and fast-food workers. While I was denied permission to photograph inside a McDonald’s or a Loblaws in Canada, as well as in Burger King and export-oriented greenhouses in Mexico, I was allowed to tour and photograph the packing plant pictured here. Why do companies fear a woman with a camera? The women working on the tomato trail, on the other hand, welcomed me and my camera, and appreciated receiving their photos in exchange for their stories. Both are featured in my new book, Tangled Routes: Women on the Tomato Trail (Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2001).

resources for this story
  • To obtain a copy of The Women’s Daybook 2002, or any other publication of Sumach Press, visit their website, or:
    – e-mail
    – write Sumach Press, 1415 Bathurst Street, # 202, Toronto, ON M5R 3H8
    – telephone (416) 531-6250
    – fax (416) 531-3892
  • Women Working the NAFTA Food Chain: Women, Food and Globalization, by DEBORAH BARNDT, ed., Sumach Press | 2000

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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