“Maybe I should have said to-may-toes instead of to-mah-toes,” laughed Stuffed and Starved author Raj Patel after he and a dozen other sustainable food advocates were rapidly escorted out of a Florida Publix grocery store. The group consisted of small farmers, chefs, journalists, and community organizers from around the U.S., convened to learn about the most recent developments in food worker sustainability. While there, they spoke with farmworkers, toured a 3,000 acre tomato farm, and learned how little sustainability means if it doesn’t also include a vision for the hands that bring America’s food to the table.
Immokalee might not seem to be high on the list of sustainable food tourism, but the southwest Florida town is home to the migrant farmworker-led Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). With the support of allies across the nation, the CIW has created the most comprehensive, sustainable, verifiable system to ensure that the food on America's tables is fairly picked.
To date, the group has signed Fair Food Agreements with 11 major corporations (McDonalds and Whole Foods among them). The agreements include a penny-per-pound premium sent down the supply chain to workers, stipulate working conditions, and establish a third-party monitoring system to ensure change is lasting. Indeed, the Fair Food Program could prove to be a model for how to re-shape the rest of American agriculture.
Leonel Perez, a farmworker and CIW member, explained: “Until very recently, we earned a piece rate of .40 – .45 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes, which hadn’t changed in 30 years. We had to average about 125 buckets per day – approximately one ton of tomatoes – to make around $50. Many workers faced violence on the job. Women faced sexual harassment, and there were even cases of modern-day slavery. Today, because of the Fair Food Program, this is all beginning to change. We are making more money for our work and our rights are respected. A new day is dawning in the tomato fields of Florida, due to the collaborations between consumers, farmworkers, corporations, and the growers they buy from.”
Delegation participants learned that while the changes have been monumental, they are held in place by one crucial aspect – consumer power. Across the nation, consumers hold protests at local retailers, do educational outreach, and drop off signed letters to store managers that call on retailers to partner with the CIW.
Greg Asbed, a CIW representative, explained, “Market power often has adverse consequences for the poor. This is an example of market principles being applied in an upward fashion to ensure change for workers at the bottom of the supply chain. But we are far from system-wide transformation. We need more corporate buyers to come on board, and we need consumer support to make that possible.”
The CIW is currently focusing on trying to reach an agreement with Publix, one of the five largest grocery retailers in the U.S. Thus far the corporation has been reticent. One representative told an Alabama newspaper, “If there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business.” Delegation representatives rounded out their trip with a visit to a local Publix to speak with the manager about the issue and drop off a letter expressing their concerns, but were escorted out within moments.
Delegation participant Rebecca Wiggins, Farm Fresh Director at La Semilla Food Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico, reflected on her experience before leaving Immokalee, saying, “I feel so empowered…I can’t wait to network with others and share this important story. Change is possible, but it won’t happen without all of us – foodies, activists, chefs, everyone – on board to help out.”