Uniting Our Food System
The Coalition of Immokalee workers is a farmworker-based organization that coalesced in the early 90s in order to confront stagnant wages and egregious human rights violations that tomato pickers had faced for generations in Florida’s fields. Farmworkers understood that major produce buyers were able to demand an artificially low cost for tomatoes through their unprecedented purchasing power and were ultimately responsible for farmworkers’ wages and working conditions. With this analysis, in 2001 the CIW partnered with the thousands of allies across the country who make up the Alliance for Fair Food to launch their national Campaign for Fair Food.
A decade and a half later, the Fair Food movement has become the organizing success story of our generation, achieving landmark agreements with thirteen major corporations, including Taco Bell, McDonalds, Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and Wal-Mart, and striking a deal with 90% of the tomato farms in Florida, resulting in the CIW’s Fair Food Program.
Under the Fair Food Program, buyers agree to condition their purchases on a strict worker-designed Code of Conduct — including a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment ant modern-day slavery — enforced by a third-party monitoring organization and reinforced by the corporation’s market power, which are obligated to cut purchases from farms that violate this new set of basic rights. In addition, retailers commit to paying a small premium for the tomatoes they buy to be passed on to farmworkers. In the last 4 years since the program went into place, more than $16 million has been paid out by participating retailers and received by farmworkers in their weekly paychecks.
While the changes underway in Florida’s fields are truly historic, prompting the New York Times to call the Fair Food Program “the best workplace-monitoring program” in the US and the Washington Post to dub it “One of the great human rights success stories of our day,” our work is far from over. Today, we must fortify the gains underway in the fields, extend these changes to the remaining 10% of Florida tomato growers who are not participating, and expand this proven solution to other crops and other states where farmworkers are not yet guaranteed these protections.
One of the largest supermarkets in the US, Publix, and fast-food chain Wendy’s have both refused to be part of this proven program, instead choosing to mislead their customers and hide behind a veil of charity, public relations, and a flashy, more-modern brand image. As Wendy’s stubbornly turns its back on the new day of human rights dawning in agriculture, a national network of student food activists behind the Real Food Challenge have just announced a nationwide boycott of Wendy’s dubbed the “Boot the Braids” campaign. The student boycott will continue until Wendy’s gets on the right side of history and commits to ensuring the rights and dignity of farmworkers in its supply chains.
Today, as the Fair Food Program grows and the Campaign for Fair Food sees a reach far greater than ever before — through the Food Chains film, the Fair Food Program label, and the ever-strengthening on-the-ground organizing of the Fair Food movement, we must continue to join together in a powerful, accountable relationship with farmworkers, and work to build a more just food system for all.
The student activists behind Real Food Challenge may have said it best when they spoke of choosing reverence and resistance over complacency and resignation:
The divide between those who seek to promote the good and those who are compelled by their life circumstances to stop the bad is one that has persisted in social movements for generations. On one side are those whose life circumstances and identity compels them to confront the structures that hold them in a degraded state. The resistance movement. On the other side, those of us who hold the unearned privileges that allows us to build alternatives while skirting around the current order when we like. The reverence movement…
More than anything else, the gift the CIW has given the Food Movement is to highlight a particular type of revolutionary relationship necessary for producing transformational social change. For in this relationship, we find a powerful union of joy and anger, struggle and creation—the fellowship of collective liberation.
The current food justice movements are popular and imaginative. They are beginning to transform communities and reform our relationship to the land and the way we feed ourselves. But, the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food is not simply a workers movement — if we eat, we are all connected and we must act. We must bridge the gap between the “reverence” movement and the “resistance” movement, joining together in a powerful, accountable relationship with farmworkers, and uniting to build a more just food system for all.