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If You Want to Support Farmworkers – Buy a Florida Fair Food Tomato

Modern Day Slavery

Eva Longoria, Eric Schlosser, Smriti Keshari and I have been doing a number of private screenings of our upcoming documentary, Food Chains. The film has been screened to every possible demographic – from farmworkers in Florida to chefs like Alice Waters in San Francisco. It hits theaters nationwide on November 21st.

The film chronicles the Coalition of Immokalee Workers‘ (CIW) epic battle for better wages and working conditions in the tomato fields of Florida. Rather than focus on farmers for these demands as had been done in the past by organizers like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, the CIW analyzed the recent metastasis of the food industry – from farmer-driven to supermarket-ruled.

Supermarkets now control the food system in the US. Their market power is so vast that one or two of the largest stores can effectively set the terms for the entire industry. Walmart does not have a monopoly, for example. It controls just 25% of the industry, but that stake gives them the power to effectively control farms across the US. Walmart and other large supermarkets can effectively tell farmers what they should grow, how they should grow it, what fruits and veggies need to look and taste like and lastly, how much farmers will earn for their work. If farms want to have a chance to sell to large buyers like Walmart, they need to follow their rules. Thus, the entire farming industry in the US has been conformed to the needs of just a few supermarket chains. This is called a monopsony.

As the supermarket sector has consolidated its power, farmers have seen their profits cut in half. And we’re not just talking about the decline of the family farm. Large corporate farms are suffering too. Even if a farm is earning $100 million a year, they’re no match for companies like Kroger, Publix or Walmart which earn approximately $96 billion, $28 billion, and over $300 billion from grocery sales, respectively.

After screenings of Food Chains, we are always clear to say – farmers are small fish in a big pond.

That’s why the CIW began focusing their Campaign for Fair Food on large buyers of produce like supermarkets and fast food chains – demanding from them a penny extra per pound for tomatoes and to enforce a code of conduct in their supply chain. If supermarkets can set economic terms, why can’t they set terms for how people are treated?

The result of this campaign is the Fair Food Program, hailed by the New York Times as the “the best workplace-monitoring program” in the United States. The Fair Food Program is a groundbreaking partnership between farmers and farmworkers in Florida’s tomato industry that ensures that workers on participating farms are treated fairly.

This program is a testament not only to the determination of the CIW, but to the vision of some of the biggest farming corporations in the world, a vision given expression in 2010 when Jon Esformes, Chief Operating Partner of Pacific Tomato Growers, signed the first-ever Fair Food agreement with the CIW, followed by other large growers, including Lipman Produce, Gargiulo and Dimare. Consumers might not have heard of those companies, but they are responsible for supplying the vast majority of fresh tomatoes grown in the United States.

This partnership between farmers and farmworkers is entirely unique. The true power of this unique system came to full light last January, when Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, joined the Fair Food Program.

I happened to be present at the signing ceremony in Immokalee, Florida, where Kent Shoemaker, CEO of Lipman, gathered with Walmart executives and members of the CIW to celebrate an historic achievement in the civil rights of farmworkers. On January 14th, 2014, Walmart joined the Fair Food Program, pledging not only to support the program in Florida, but to help it grow beyond Florida.

True, the program is a success because of the involvement of workers. Farmers play a critical role in that program, however. This multi-stakeholder initiative is, dare I say, the most progressive thing happening in agriculture anywhere in the United States.

And after screenings, when audience members ask what they can do to support farmworkers – we always say, “Buy a tomato from a Fair Food retailer and support the Florida tomato industry which is in large part supporting farmworkers.” The more we support participating Florida tomato farms, the better it will be for farmworkers. Our support of the Fair Food Program will have nationwide ramifications as more retailers sign on and spread the program far and wide as Walmart has pledged to do.

Animal welfare, organic growing, integrated pest management – these are all great things. But none is closer to the heart of our nation’s agrarian ideal than a system where people are treated justly and with respect.

Thomas Jefferson expressed it best when he wrote, “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.”

Watch the trailer of Food Chains here.

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