Late August marked an important victory for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers when Sodexo, an multinational food-service and facilities management giant that serves 9.3 million meals a day, signed the Coaltion’s Fair Food agreement. From now on, all the Florida tomatoes Sodexo buys will come from producers operating under a Code of Conduct that includes fair treatment of farm workers and third-party investigation of farmworker complaints. The agreement also commits Sodexo to paying a small premium (1.5 cents a pound) for their tomatoes in order to ensure fair wages for farmworkers, and being transparent in their tomato purchasing.
This is the latest in an impressive string of victories for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who describe themselves as “a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian, and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida.” Through grassroots organizing, boycotts, raising public awareness, and partnerships with organizations like Student/Farmworker Alliance and Alliance for Fair Food, the Coalition has signed the Fair Food agreement with nine food giants, including Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King. While at first fair food advocates struggled against long odds and ferocious opposition, now one food purchaser after another seems to be falling in line.
As much as we’d like to believe that advocating against forced labor is no longer necessary in the United States, the Coalition’s work is as relevant as ever. As Jaelithe Judy wrote on Labor Day, farm workers in the United States often face long hours, low wages, and dangerous working conditions. Many, particularly those who are in the U.S. illegally, are forced to work for dollars a day, or nothing at all. For me, part of eating and advocating for “real food” is working to ensure that my food has been harvested by workers who are paid fair wages and treated with respect. (I use the Real Food Challenge‘s definition: “Real food…is a food system — from seed to plate — that fundamentally respects human dignity and health, animal welfare, social justice and environmental sustainability.”)
Many different approaches are needed to keep farmworkers safe and make sure they’re getting a fair wage for their work. Government regulation has a role to play, as do localized strikes and protests against unfair working conditions. Focusing our purchasing power on local producers and farmers’ markets where we can directly interact with those who are growing our food could also undermine more exploitative, large-scale farms. But any one approach is limited in its effect. I believe the Coalition’s cooperation with the food giants is important, both because it effects change broadly — Taco Bell alone buys 10 million pounds of Florida tomatoes a year — and because it uses market-based solutions. When foodservice giants like Sodexo agree to buy only produce that has been harvested by workers who are treated fairly, producers and subcontractors suddenly have a powerful economic incentive not to exploit their employees. Decisions by large food corporations to buy ethically can change the entire culture of food production by lining up incentives in a new way. In the long run, appealing to food producers’ profits instead of to their honor and compassion — or their fear of governmental penalties — could be a sustainable solution.
While I am very happy about the Coalition’s latest success, and inspired by their model of ground-up activism, there is still a lot to be done. At The Huffington Post, Sean Sellers recently pointed out that restaurant chain Chipotle, which trumpets its “food with integrity,” has refused to cooperate with the Coalition and has taken no steps to collaborate with the farmworkers who pick their tomatoes, or even encourage oversight of working conditions. Other big hold-outs include Publix Supermarkets, Kroger (the country’s largest grocery chain), and Ahold (which includes Stop & Shop markets).
To support farm workers, let’s advocate on their behalf. And let’s use our power as consumers — the next time you’re thinking dreamily of a Chipotle’s burrito, consider forgoing it and telling them why. Let’s make sure Sodexo is only one of the first food giants to commit to using produce that’s harvested fairly.
by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons.