From Protest to Partnership: An Example of Justice Advocacy

AACRC Social Justice Team
By Barb Fichtenberg, SJT Hunger and Poverty Leader

Like it or not, we are all consumers. How can we be faithful followers of Jesus as consumers of the food we eat?

Do we ever think about where that food came from, and who harvested it? In my own faith journey, I became aware of the plight of farmworkers about 18 years ago. I learned that farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, had organized in the 1990s because of certain conditions that they were facing: being locked up in squalid trailers after a long day’s work with no freedom of movement, wage theft by their employers, sexual harassment and abuse in the fields, not being allowed to drink water or take breaks in the shade when working in unbearable heat and fear of retaliation for speaking up. After years of protesting against farm owners, in 2001 the Coalition of Immokalee Workers decided to target companies like Taco Bell and McDonald’s that bought the produce. Protests staged at corporate headquarters and boycotts against fast-food giants worked. Many grocery stores and fast-food chains joined, which put pressure on farm owners. The CIW is built on a foundation of farmworker community organizing reinforced by a national consumer network, of which the Fair Food Program is a part.

In 2011, The Fair Food Program grew out of this movement of the CIW. Retailers in the CIW’s Fair Food Program agree to purchase from suppliers who comply with a worker-driven code of conduct, which includes a zero-tolerance policy for forced labor and sexual assault. Retailers also pay a premium, which is passed down through the supply chain and paid out directly to workers by their employers. Since the program’s inception in 2011, buyers have paid over $45 million in premiums.

Corporate-driven social responsibility ultimately doesn’t work. Corporations tend to focus on their bottom line—economic profitability, rather than the benefits to their lowest rung workers. The Fair Food Program uses Worker Driven Social Responsibility, meaning that the farmworkers identify the problems, propose the solutions, and negotiate agreements.  Since its founding in 2011, the Fair Food Program now protects tens of thousands of farmworkers harvesting over a dozen crops in 10 states and 3 continents with many more in the process of joining since the Agriculture Department began offering subsidies earlier this year to farms that follow safe labor standards and participate in worker-led monitoring programs.

One thing we can do is to support the program by the place we choose to shop and eat. Participants in the Fair Food Program include Trader Joe’s, Walmart, Whole Foods Markets, Burger King, Taco Bell, Subway, McDonalds, Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Non-participants, which have been boycotted by many for years, include Kroger and Wendy’s. If we speak up and let them know we do not support modern day slavery, perhaps they will be persuaded to join the program!

Food, Inc. 2, a major new documentary featuring the CIW and Fair Food Program, was released on April 9 and as of April 12 is available on major streaming platforms, including Amazon Prime. Here’s a link for the trailer: