10 Ways You Can Fight for Fair Labor Practices in America’s Fields
Food Chains, a documentary released last fall, balances an intimate look at the working conditions for tomato workers in Florida with a broader discussion about supermarkets and farm labor in the United States. “I realized that the topic of farm labor was underreported,” says director Sanjay Rawal, whose father worked as a tomato breeder. The film’s focal point is a 2012 hunger strike against the giant Florida supermarket chain Publix by the formidable Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker-based human rights organization (see Food Tank’s earlier piece about the CIW). As the film makes clear, it’s the supermarkets (as opposed to the farmers) that have power over pricing – and over workers’ lives. “The grocery industry is entirely unregulated, unlike other major industries,” says Rawal. “Grocery stores make the majority of profits off the perimeter of the stores – the dairy, the produce. And produce prices are not checked at all.”
It is therefore upsetting, but not really a surprise, when the CIW’s six days on hunger strike go by without a word from Publix. Luckily, the CIW and the story outlive the film. “Publix began to respond to people’s comments and questions on Facebook,” says producer Smriti Keshari. “Film can serve as a tool for breaking down walls and getting some answers.” Says Keshari: “It was important for us to make a film that was based on the solution. When you see these terrible conditions, it’s natural to ask why and how this can continue to perpetuate. We as consumers are part of the system.” Whether or not you’ve seen the film, here are ways you can get involved in worker-driven social responsibility and the fight for fair food.
1. Start a conversation about where your produce is coming from: “Simply start asking questions,” says Rawal. “Ask your grocer, store manager, cashier. At your favorite restaurant, ask your server or chef. The answers might not be readily available… but they want to be asked these questions; it gives them the impetus to demand answers from the supply chain.”
2. Get updated: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers continues its fight to improve working conditions both in and out of Florida, and the Alliance For Fair Food has posted a timeline of recent victories. The Fair Food Standards Council, a Sarasota-based nonprofit, works to oversee the implementation of the Fair Food Program. “Other groups have begun to replicate their model, modified to suit their own constituencies,” says Rawal. “Berry-pickers in Vermont, and the Workers' Defense Project.”
3. Look for the label: As Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland, says early on in the film, “The entire modern supermarket goes out of its way prevent you from being reminded of where your food came from, or who picked it.” The Fair Food Program’s new label, which you can find in these partner stores, is an effort to change that.
4. Host a screening: You can request a screening at this link. If possible, organize a post-screening discussion. “It’s easy for viewers to see the impact that food choices have on them – that it’s better for their health, or for mother earth,” says Rawal. “It’s a challenge to try and get viewers to feel that their choices have an impact on other people, to accept people who are different from us, and to create a sense of empathy.”
5. Share the story with your favorite comics fan: The Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of worker-based organizations in the food industry, created a comic book based on the experiences of food workers. The comic follows five characters who each work in a different segment of the food industry, and whose stories are drawn from workers’ experiences. This is a great way to introduce a kid to the interconnectedness of the food system. “That’s what fair food is,” says Rawal. “Creating awareness that our food choices effect the lives of other people.”
6. Read on: .“Tomatoland exposed the slavery and sexual harassment which had not been covered in the national media,” says Rawal. The American Way of Eating is another work of investigative journalism, in which the author goes undercover as a farm worker. Recently, the LA Times published an exposé on the conditions for tomato pickers in Mexico.
7. Join a local chapter of the Fair Food Alliance: Check this listing to find a group in your area.
8. Plan an action, sign a petition, or join a protest: The Fair Food Alliance has posted this guide to organizing public actions. The Food Chains website has provided helpful links to talking points, phone numbers, and distribution materials for protesting Wendy’s and Publix.
9. Visit Immokalee: The Student/Farmworker Alliance facilitates alternative break trips during which student groups can learn about the fight for workers’ rights in the food industry.