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Fighting back against food chains

Andrew Kang Bartlett, Associate for National Hunger Concerns

People who grow, harvest, process, prepare and serve our food are breaking the chains of injustice, not with tempered steel cutters but with human solidarity and the muscle of cross-sector alliances.

From the retail chain link – food chain workers demanding $15 per hour and coordinated strikes across the country at Wal-Mart and other retailers – to the production link of farm workers who in Florida are monitoring wages and conditions themselves, the movement for justice is strong. Led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a mission partner with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), they have forced – through years of organizing of farmworkers, students, food justice advocates and people of faith – 13 major fresh tomato purchasing corporations to take responsibility for their supply chain and the humans who labor at the bottom.


National Associate Andrew Kang Bartlett addresses the crowd at a recent showing of “Food Chains: The Revolution in American’s Fields.”

National Associate Andrew Kang Bartlett addresses the crowd at a recent showing of “Food Chains: The Revolution in American’s Fields.”

The Presbyterian Hunger Program has spearheaded the support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers since 2001 when the PC(U.S.A)’s Campaign for Fair Food was initiated by Presbyterians who stepped up their involvement with the General Assembly voting to support the Taco Bell boycott. Along with that was the commitment to devote PHP staff time to this important partnership. From the initial victory with Yum Brands signing on until today, we are committed to stand behind and with the farm workers in their historic struggle.

Now, a new documentary is raising awareness of the abuses faced by farm workers in the United States. The film, “Food Chains: The Revolution in America’s Fields,” was released in November and focuses on these tomato pickers from southern Florida. The film, produced by actress Eva Longoria and journalist Eric Schlosser, brings the entire issue to light as well as efforts by the CIW and others to change the mindset of corporate America. Recently, PHP, along with some local community partners, hosted a showing of Food Chains at a local theater.  More than 170 people came to see the film, participate in an after-film panel and learn more about the CIW.

The CIW is a human rights organization with more than 4,500 farm worker members. For years, farm workers have faced physical and sexual abuse, extremely low wages and poor living conditions. Farm workers are not paid by the hour, but by the piece, which means they have to work longer and harder to meet minimum wage. On average, they earn from $10,000 to $12,500 a year, which puts them right around the poverty line for an individual.

Research by the film team has also shown that thousands of female farm workers face sexual abuse on the job. Many refuse to file formal charges for fear of deportation or loss of income. There have been reported cases of farm workers being held in debt bondage, a byproduct of an agricultural system dependent on immigrants.

Meanwhile, large buyers such as fast food and supermarket chains have been cashing in on an estimated $4 trillion empire. Their hold on agriculture has contributed to the conditions farm workers now face, according to film producers.

The farm workers who plant and harvest crops work one of the most dangerous and low-paying occupations in the country. The danger involves working in extreme heat without regular water stations to hydrate their bodies in addition to operating dangerous, heavy machinery. Their life expectancy is the shortest of any occupation in the US — 49 years as compared to a national average of 75.

Thirteen food-related corporations have agreements with the Coalition:  Yum Brands, McDonalds, Burger King, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, Aramark, Compass Group, Bon Appetit, Sodexo, Subway, Walmart and Fresh Market. More than 30,000 farmworkers in Florida benefit from the Fair Food Program. The current campaigns are focusing on one of the last fast-food holdouts, Wendy’s, and Publix Super Markets in Florida.

The latest agreement between the CIW and Fresh Market raises the bar higher than previous agreements by committing to purchase 15 percent more Fair Food tomatoes each year and to financially contribute toward monitoring the Fair Food standards.

National Farmworker Awareness Week  is a week of action for students and community members conditions and to honor their important contributions to us every day. This would be an excellent time to host a screening of the film in your community. Learn how and see where other showings have already happened.

Visit the Fair Food page or the Alliance for Fair Food  to learn more about the campaigns to see how you can plug in.

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