A Penny a Pound: Campaign for Fair Food

The Tasti-Lee tomato is featured this week on the Publix grocery chain's website. The Tasti-Lee has been specially developed to mature on the vine, yet "remain firm all the way to the store and your kitchen counter," according to the website.

Tomatoes are not the fruit of irony. But members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers might find it an interesting coincidence that Publix chose to feature tomatoes for their website.

In March, members of the CIW fasted for six days in order to bring attention to the plight of Florida tomato pickers. Publix is a large grocery chain and the CIW has been trying to get Publix to sign up for the Campaign for Fair Food to help increase the wages and end exploitation of farm workers. To date, Publix has refused to participate in the Fair Food program.

The CIW has been campaigning since 2001 to get major fast food and grocery chains to participate in the Fair Food program. And they've been successful in bringing nine companies to the table -- including Whole Foods, The Yum Corp, McDonald's, Trader Joe's and others. The program is pretty simple: When these retailers and restaurants pay one penny more for a pound of tomatoes, workers wages increase dramatically (doubling in some cases). Companies who agree to participate are also held to higher standards regarding laborer's rights.

While the Coalition of Immokalee Workers may not be a social action group that everyone's familiar with, they are quietly and consistently working to insure real and lasting change for farm workers. Aside from the fast that targeted Publix, they also recently held a march in Sarasota and a pray-in at a Publix store in St. Petersburg. There is a Northeast campaign that focuses on getting Chipotle, Stop & Shop and Giant to sign up for the Fair Food Program.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. joined the CIW at Publix headquarters on the last day of the fast. From his speech,

"This is a tale that really is the frontline of the battle to reclaim the soul of our country. And the reason that my father went in 1968 and broke the fast [with] Cesar Chavez [was that] he saw Cesar Chavez's struggle was not just the struggle for farm workers. There was a struggle for all America. It's a battle to see if we are going to as a country live up to [our] ideals... as a template for the rest of humanity, as a template for democracy."

In a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, Eric Schlosser highlights a speech given by Prince Charles of Wales entitled, "On the Future of Food." The speech has been published by Rodale Press with an introduction by Schlosser. Here's one excerpt dealing with farm laborers:

Organic food, for example, isn't just better for the soil and the land. It's better for the human beings who work the land. There is some scientific debate about the health effects of pesticide residues, at minute levels, in food. But there's no debate about the effects of pesticide exposure upon the one to two million migrant farm workers who harvest America's fruits and vegetables by hand. For them, the need for organic food isn't an academic issue. It is literally a matter of life or death...The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that every year, 10,000 to 20,000 farm workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning on the job -- and that's a conservative estimate. Farm workers, their children, and the rural communities where they live are routinely exposed to these toxic chemicals. And what are the potential, long-term harms of the pesticides now being sprayed on our crops? Brain damage, lung damage, cancers of the breast, colon, lung, pancreas, and kidney, birth defects, sterility and other ailments.

I recently spoke with Sanjay Rawal, director of the upcoming documentary film Food Chain. Rawal and his team started out on a road trip and ended up spending eight months crisscrossing the country learning first hand about the ways farm laborers are treated. They also discovered some amazing people who are working to change these conditions, including the CIW. The story of Food Chain centers around three crops -- strawberries, tomatoes and grapes. Rawal explains why:

We use those three crops basically to paint a canvas of all the issues that we want to cover. We can cover most of the exploitation, we can cover the reasons why we have farm workers, we can cover the history and we can cover the economics necessary to change the system. There's probably more interest in food right now then any time in our nation's history, but little to none of the conversation is focused on the labor that picks that food... We think that everything we have in this country is inherently fair trade. So we think that buying organic and local is the pinnacle of conscious purchasing... Unless we look at labor, we're not actually creating a sustainable model for food. That's always been the thing that everybody's always kind of wanted to hide. Organic farmers aren't beholden to any kind of labor standards. Neither are local farms. And yet, organic and local are looked at as the way of the future. While I agree with that to a large degree, it's by no means a holistic solution.

Like so many documentary filmmakers, Rawal set off on the path to shoot one film and discovered that he was actually making a different movie altogether. The more Rawal explored his topic, the more he realized how much power the supermarkets and corporations such as Wal-Mart have.

Wal-Mart is now the biggest purchaser of organic food in the country. Wal-Mart does $400 billion in revenue. It has more cash flowing through it than any other company in the U.S. It's one of the largest employers in the country. So whenever Wal-Mart makes a little decision like carrying organic yogurt -- all the sudden, the entire supply chain changes. That's one of the focuses of the film -- looking at the power of these supermarkets and how they control the supply chains. [It's] all driven by the supermarket's economics, by the number crunching, bean counters who realize that aesthetics trump taste. People won't buy a great tasting tomato that's got a bruise on it. Over and over they are going to pick up the shiny red tomato that tastes like cardboard. The supermarkets have the power to change every aspect of the supply chain including labor -- if they want to.

Emily Clifton, editor on Food Chain, summed things up this way:

"When Sanjay... approached me about the project, my first thought was... I actually know almost nothing about farm labor. I shop at the local Farmers' Market, try to buy seasonally and locally, but I have no idea what really goes into getting produce from the field to a store. When I read the research materials and talked with Sanjay, I was totally shocked by what I learned. How can these abuses happen in modern-day America? I realized that if people knew the truth about the situation, and more importantly, how little it would cost to change it, they would absolutely be willing to do something."

Click here to learn more about The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their campaigns. The film Food Chain is currently in post-production. To learn more about the film and their Kickstarter campaign, click here.