A Chef Speaks Out on Farm Labor

Recently, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) received the prestigious Four Freedoms Medal from the Roosevelt Institute. The CIW, a worker-based human rights organization recognized worldwide for its ground-breaking work to end modern-day slavery and other agriculture-based labor abuses, joins a truly remarkable list of laureates, including Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton. 

Rising from the tomato fields near the Florida Everglades—identified by one U.S. Justice Department official as “ground zero for modern slavery”—CIW has relentlessly waged David-and-Goliath battles against monolithic food corporations. And they are winning these battles.

As a professional chef, their fight is of central importance to me. Aesthetic factors of taste and quality are the most obvious reasons: Most people will agree that workers who are fairly paid will deliver a better product. But more important to me are ethical principles behind the food I prepare: Why should anyone feast at the sacrifice of another person’s dignity?

And not just dignity, but wellness, sustenance, and personal security are being sacrificed in the fields. We reap a multitude of benefits from their labor, yet their labor brings them poverty-level wages, physical and sexual harassment, dilapidated shelter, exposure to hazardous chemicals, and exemption from many federal labor regulations, including overtime pay.

It’s an enormous disparity, and at the center of it all lies a question: Shouldn’t we honor those who provide us with our nourishment? As we celebrate amidst overabundance, shouldn’t we work for complete enfranchisement of all workers along the food supply chain?

CIW s is doing just that. In 2010, they established the Fair Food Program to improve worker conditions by asking retailers for only one more penny per pound for tomatoes grown in the southern Florida fields.

The program contains other features, too, such as a human-rights-based Code of Conduct for growers to implement in their fields. This code mandates zero tolerance for forced labor and sexual harassment, provides educational sessions for workers to learn about their rights and responsibilities, and establishes an oversight committee to monitor safety and compliance to the program.

All together, it speaks of respect, dignity, and equality, allowing field workers more access to the basic rights we all enjoy.

However, as national retail chains come to Asheville, North Carolina, we are reminded that there are more battles to fight. Publix Supermarkets, Inc. has announced plans to open a store in Asheville in 2015. For four years, they have refused to participate in the Fair Food Program.

Florida-based Publix is not only the most profitable supermarket in the U.S., they are also the 8th largest privately owned corporation in the country. In 2012, their retail sales totaled $27.5 billion. Their refusal to improve conditions for the workers who grow their tomatoes, in their home state of Florida, indicates that they are not entirely neighborly.

Eleven major retail chains and onsite restaurant companies have signed on to the program: Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, Subway, Bon Appétit Management Company, Sodexo, Burger King, Aramark, and Compass Group. The benefit for the workers has been tremendous, as more than $10 million has been paid to them through the program. But it’s about more than just pay. It’s also about humane standards. And it hits close to home in North Carolina.

North Carolina is one of our country’s leading agricultural states. It is easy to see that the experience of tomato growers in Florida is the experience of tobacco workers in North Carolina. And just as civil rights have always been important in North Carolina, farmworker rights should be important—for they are civil rights.

For me professionally, ethics along the food supply chain have become increasingly important. As I become more aware of injustice in the system, I also learn about companies and organizations who are trying to set things aright. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and those that have joined its Campaign for Fair Food are making major strides towards fairness for all.

Congratulations to CIW for this latest honor bestowed upon them by the Roosevelt Institute. They have been commended and awarded by the White House, the State Department, numerous international human rights organizations, and agricultural organizations, and we should award them by purchasing food where their program has been embraced.

We can award them further by sending a strong message to Publix Supermarkets that Asheville citizens will not patron their store until they join the other national retailers in the Fair Food Program. You will not miss the penny you spend elsewhere, but it will constitute a fortunate bonus for the workers in the field.

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