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Field Notes on Food Justice: Why Your Local Grocery Store Makes Farmworkers Poor

"Fresh and Fair from Florida"... Five words that would look so beautiful stamped on your next tomato purchase. Five words that would signify a revolution in agricultural working conditions.
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"Fresh and Fair from Florida"...

Five words that would look so beautiful stamped on your next tomato purchase.

Five words that would signify a revolution in agricultural working conditions.

Five words that today remain tantalizingly just out of reach, even with two decades of tireless organizing by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and our allies and, most recently, several years of unprecedented victories. With the victories, of course, has come increased recognition of the CIW and its work. One such honor that we are most proud of, and humbled by, is being recognized as the first-ever Food Justice Winner for this year's Natural Resources Defense Council's Growing Green Awards.

But more importantly, these recent victories have begun to shine a spotlight on the value and meaning of fair food, and on the workers without whose who labor and input that term has no meaning, and on the CIW's Fair Food Program, implemented this season on over 90 percent of Florida's tomato fields. We now know that the day when we can certify Florida tomatoes as the fairest in the world is not far off, and the Fair Food Program is mapping the path for getting there.

Let's back up a bit and share a little about the CIW and the environment in which its members toil before we get to what lies ahead.

The CIW is a worker-led human rights organization based in the farmworker community of Immokalee, the heart of Florida's (and the nation's) $600 million fresh tomato industry.

The CIW and its more than 5,000 members spearhead the Campaign for Fair Food, the national collaboration of consumers and workers designed to harness the purchasing power of the country's largest food retail corporations to improve the lives of the farmworkers who harvest the tomatoes they sell. To date, ten retail food corporations have signed binding agreements to participate in the Fair Food Program, including McDonalds, Subway, Burger King, Sodexo, Aramark, Compass Group, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's.

According to the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE), "Florida produces virtually all the fresh-market, field-grown tomatoes in the U.S. from October through June each year, and accounts for about 50 percent of all fresh tomatoes produced domestically."

Farm labor remains among the worst-paid, least-protected jobs in the country. Farmworkers face a daunting combination of back-breaking, hot, dangerous labor with sub-poverty wages (according to the USDOL, farmworkers earn between $10,000-$12,000 per year), few or no benefits or fundamental labor rights (farmworkers are excluded from the right to overtime pay and to bargain collectively, for example), no job security and a high rate of labor rights abuse (sexual harassment and systemic minimum wage violations remain prevalent in the industry). "Home" is too often a dilapidated two-bedroom trailer, well past any rational expiration date, that is shared with numerous other workers.

CIW's Campaign for Fair Food begins from this simple premise: If we can diagnose what makes farmworkers poor -- the forces that result in farmworker exploitation -- then we can redirect those forces in ways that reduce farmworker poverty. In Immokalee, we realized years ago that the volume purchasing practices of today's retail food giants, massive multi-billion dollar companies that didn't exist a generation ago, create a tremendous downward pressure on produce prices at the farm level. That downward pressure is passed on to farmworkers -- the weakest link in the food supply chain -- in the form of ever lower wages.

In other words, your local grocery store makes farmworkers poor. But not just your store, all the food industry giants, from Kroger to Stop & Shop, Publix to Safeway, that enhance their profits year after year from pricing policies that drive farmworker poverty and exploitation.

In the words of a Swahili proverb, "when the elephants fight, the grass suffers." It isn't that the retail chains set out to impoverish farmworkers. It's just that in the regular course of competing against each other for market dominance, they fight for the lowest prices possible from their suppliers, and our nation's two to three million farmworkers ultimately pay the price.

But if the market is the problem, then the market can also be the solution. The Fair Food Program seeks to reverse the process that now exploits farmworkers, by requiring buyers to send pennies per pound of tomato purchases back down the supply chain to increase farmworker wages and to leverage their overwhelming purchasing power to demand more modern working conditions from their Florida suppliers.

Of course, changing the market also means changing the demands consumers make on the retail chains. By creating a new demand for the fair treatment of farmworkers, consumers and the CIW have moved participating buyers to commit to purchasing only from growers who comply with the Fair Food Code of Conduct, the most progressive code of conduct in the produce industry today. This has changed the market incentives facing growers at the bottom of the supply chain, which in turn elevates the day-to-day working environment of farmworkers in the fields.

The theory of change behind the Campaign for Fair Food has been shown to work. With protests that began a decade ago in front of Taco Bell's headquarters outside Los Angeles, California, the CIW has managed to change wages and working conditions in the fields outside of Immokalee, Florida.

And so, after twenty years of organizing, today we have a strong national network of consumers pressuring retail food corporations to support the Fair Food principles, a growing mass of buyers committed to the Fair Food Program, over 90 percent of Florida tomato growers signed on to the Fair Food Code of Conduct, and an organized, mobilized work force ready to do its part to enforce the new standards. We're strides closer to labeling tomatoes with those five beautiful words -- "Fresh and Fair from Florida."

However, for two key reasons, it is still not quite time to start ordering those labels.

First, the degree of change that we are able to make in the fields is directly dependent on the number of retail giants participating in the Fair Food Program. More participating buyers means more change, in both wages and working conditions. The penny-per-pound bonus that workers are receiving on their weekly paychecks today depends on the number of pounds purchased under our Fair Food Agreements; every pound the participating buyers purchase is accompanied by a surcharge that goes to increase workers wages, but there are many more companies out there -- Publix, Kroger, Stop & Shop, and Giant among them -- who are still buying their Florida tomatoes the old way, "no questions asked." To realize the full potential of the wage increase promised by the Fair Food Program, all the major buyers must do their part.

Second, the hard work of implementing the Fair Food Code of Conduct takes time. Codes of conduct, if not enforced, are nothing more than words on paper. That fact is not lost on the corporations that use their supplier codes of conduct as cost-free tools for damage control when faced with accusations of abuse in their supply chains. But enforcement of a code of conduct is expensive, hard, time-consuming work. That is why so few corporations are interested in doing it and why so few social auditing enterprises are able to effectively monitor.

Of course, the Fair Food Code of Conduct is just a set of standards, too, although one developed by farmworkers themselves, in conjunction with buyers and growers, that improves farmworkers wages and working conditions well beyond the current requirements of law. The critical difference in the Fair Food Program, however, is that the CIW, a worker-led organization, is a constant presence doing whatever it takes to enforce the code. And it takes a lot. The day-to-day, field-to-field, worker-to-worker job of implementing the CIW's agreements has just begun. Years of neglect have left behind a stubborn residue of bad farm bosses, abusive labor practices, fear and mistrust in Florida agriculture that must be scrubbed away before any kind of credible claim of fairness is possible.

But the cleansing process is well underway. Through the Fair Food Program, the CIW has put together all the tools necessary to strip away the abuses of the past. Today, the Fair Food Standards Council, a third-party monitoring organization, is up and running, auditing the farms where the Code of Conduct is in effect, tracking the penny-per-pound payments from buyers to growers to workers, and investigating and resolving complaints as they come in from over 30,000 workers across the industry. Failure to adhere to the Code of Conduct will ultimately cost a grower the business of all the participating buyers, as that is an element of the Fair Food Agreement that each buyer has signed with the CIW.

At the same time, the CIW is crisscrossing the state to do worker-to-worker education, on the farm and on the clock, to ensure that the workers themselves understand not only their rights under the program, but also that they, as the ever-present eyes and ears in the fields, are an indispensible part of its ultimate success.

All of this takes time, hard work, and collective commitment. And as the saying goes in Spanish, it is not something done "de la noche a la manana" (overnight). Winning NRDC's Food Justice Award will hopefully help take the Campaign for Fair Food and the Fair Food Program to the next level, so that we can turn the dream of branding a truly fair tomato into a reality.

Your support for more humane working conditions for farmworkers in Florida's fields and beyond is more important than ever; both today, in taking action to convince more retail food corporations to support the Fair Food principles, and tomorrow, in supporting these principles when a labeled, certified fair tomato finally makes it to your local grocery store.

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