March Marching for Fair Food

Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.25.23 AMThis International Women’s Day, women harvesters of our nation’s tomato crops will be five days into a 200-mile trek across Florida that will end March 17.

With its emphasis on human rights and social responsibility in the produce industry, the march is another leg of the longer journey to eradicate poverty wages, sexual harassment and abuse, and in extreme case, modern-day slavery in the produce supply chain of our food system.

As will surely be discussed throughout the world on March 8, women’s empowerment benefits women, their children, their families and their communities. But women farmworkers, in the U.S. and globally, remain largely invisible in these discussions. The persistent gender inequities that endure in agricultural labor undermine the progressive movement towards equality and justice for all.

While the Florida march, entitled “Derechos, Respeto y Comida Justa” (Rights, Respect and Fair Food), is not only about women and girls, the focus on human rights and the ability to work freely with dignity and respect are longstanding feminist goals. And the march celebrates the significant partnership among farmworkers, Florida tomato growers and major food corporations (such as McDonalds, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Burger King) that has been made possible by the Fair Food Program (FFP).

The FFP is the result of a 20-year struggle on the part of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community-based, grassroots organization comprised of farmworkers and their allies. The FFP includes a Code of Conduct which protects workers’ access to improved wages (one additional penny per pound of tomatoes picked); regulated access to shade, water and work breaks; and an independent oversight system for reporting abuses and wage theft, among other provisions. Improved wages and the ability to report abuses are the most impactful for women farmworkers who seek to labor under just and equitable conditions—conditions no different than their sisters working in offices, classrooms and factories across the U.S.

The Campaign for Fair Food, a project of the CIW, began in 2001 with a national boycott of Taco Bell to compel the fast-food corporation to take responsibility for the human rights abuses experienced by those who worked in the produce fields. It took almost five years, but the fast-food giant agreed in 2005 to raise wages and improve working conditions for the tomato pickers in its supply chain.

Since then, the CIW has created a domino effect, with fast-food companies (Subway, Burger King, McDonalds), grocery chains (Whole Foods) and food service providers (Bon Apetit Management Co., Compass Group, Aramark, Sodexo) signing on to the agreement.  The most recent victories in 2012 included agreements with Trader Joe’s and Chipotle Mexican Grill. Foodies everywhere can now feel better about the food we’re purchasing knowing that worker-sensitive agreements are being hammered out.

But some grocery chains are holding out. Florida farmworkers, students, leaders in faith communities, scholars, activists and entire families are trekking to the headquarters of one of the state’s wealthiest corporation—multi-million dollar grocer Publix—to call on that company to do its part to end abuses of farmworkers, especially women farmworkers.

Last year in March, the CIW and its allies held a six-day fast to pressure Publix. On International Women’s Day 2012—Day Four of the fast—Nely Rodriguez, a CIW staff member and farmworker, offered a spontaneous and powerful testimonial to the realities women farmworkers, and particularly mothers, endure. The video sparked a nationwide Mother’s Day campaign that went head to head with Publix’s clever advertisng about a (white, upper-class) mother’s ability to bond to her daughter (and baby on the way) through food preparation.

Women from the CIW also united to call on Publix to “do the right thing” (the grocery giant’s corporate slogan, ironically) during last year’s Thanksgiving holiday. The CIW Women’s Group—Junta Communitaria para Mujeres—delivered a letter to Publix requesting an end to the oppression in which it participates. They wrote,

Publix: Hear our cry for justice. We want fair wages. We want the implementation of basic rights for farmworkers and our families. As mothers we would like to be able to provide an adequate Thanksgiving Day meal for our children, earned with our own sweat, and not to have to wait in line this Thanksgiving and depend on charity and handouts. Today we end our traditional silence …

According to Jordan Buckley of Interfaith Action (a CIW partner organization), Publix is “the anchor of resistance” and poses a threat to the Fair Food Program’s success. In fact, grocery chains across the country are watching Publix’s response, even as they, too, become targets of CIW’s campaigns (see here and here). Publix poses a major threat to hard-won farmworker rights, and it jeopardizes women’s equality in doing so.

As the world celebrates on March 8, women farmworkers’ resistance and accomplishments will remain invisible to many. Perhaps we can celebrate today through action: Individual consumers can, and perhaps should, challenge their grocers and other food vendors to “do the right thing,” and ensure gender equity in the most intimate of commodities: our food.

The CIW also recently released a powerful campaign video that underscores the pressing need of women farmworkers to be treated with dignity and respect. Share the video and learn more about the movement here.

Photo courtesy of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.


Kris De Welde is Associate Professor of Sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University where she teaches courses on gender, family, theory, methods, and sociology of food. Her research interests include women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, gender inequality in the academy, and violence against women.