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Fighting for Farm Workers at Our Dinner Table

We need to establish a “slave-free” section at our supermarkets.

A migrant worker picks tomatoes on a farm in Fort Blackmore, Virginia. (Photo: Bread for the World)

The movie Food Chains should dramatically raise our collective consciousness – and conscience – about how our food is produced. We need to establish a “slave-free” section at our supermarkets.

Does it matter how people who pick our food are treated? The film Food Chains, recently released nationally, argues that it does. In consequence, my children and I are thinking differently, not just about what we eat, but also about from where we get our food.

The film depicts the struggle of tomato pickers in Florida, organized as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). For the past few years, the CIW has been developing a workplace safety system called the Fair Food Program that is rapidly gathering support from advocates, corporations and human rights groups.

The White House called it “one of the most successful and innovative programs” to fight against and prevent modern-day slavery.

Recently, I took my 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son to hear from Silvia Perez, a CIW leader who had come along with Natali Rodriguez from the Student/Farmworker Alliance to talk about how farm workers often do not make enough money to feed their families. And when they are beaten, refused wages, forced to work or harassed, they have little recourse.

My children were each reading Esperanza Rising, a historical fiction book about a young girl born wealthy in Mexico, who loses her father and then travels with her mother to work in the fields of California in the 1960s. In the story, the mother is terrified of first crossing the border and then of losing her job in the fields or of having to move out of the tiny place they shared with another family.

Listening to the CIW, I translated stories of teenagers being beaten for trying to get drinking water, mothers and fathers going weeks or months without being paid, and families being forced to work and live in poor conditions. My children nodded, patiently listening to my piecemeal translation. As the presentation continued, they seemed increasingly worried.

After the presentation, both children asked, “Is this happening right now?” They know of course that bad things are happening to people all around them. But the idea that the stories of Esperanza Rising might be happening to people who picked the food that went into their mouths that morning was powerful.

Now the CIW is successfully working to stop and prevent modern-day slavery in fields across the United States. They have successfully negotiated fair food agreements with many major chain restaurants and buyers including Subway, McDonald’s, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Sodexo and – to my children’s great relief – Chipotle. But the public sentiment has not swayed most major supermarkets. As Eva Longoria, one of the film’s executive producers, powerfully argued, “We have an organic section at the supermarket, but not a slave-free section.”

As a family, we are now thinking about how we can actively help the CIW and make a difference to the people who pick the food that sustains us. This has resulted in some ideas.

1. Avoid places that have not signed the Fair Food Agreement.

The CIW has a list of companies that have agreed to the Fair Food Program. The CIW has a perfect record of convincing companies who are willing to talk with them about the program. Wendy’s, along with most major supermarket chains, have refused to speak with the CIW.

2. Buy organic, but not for the reasons you might think.

Buying organic is about protecting those that pick your food. Farm workers who work in fields sprayed with pesticides are two to three times more likely to have cancer than those without constant exposure.

3. Make a garden or work in a community garden.

Teaching children about the work that goes into harvesting a single pea pod, carrot or tomato is an important way to help them respect the food and the worker.

4. Write a letter to your local supermarket and attach copies of receipts showing you shop there regularly.

Writing letters with our children is a demonstration of our commitment to the Fair Food Program. It would only take a couple hundred in each city to make a difference.

5. Talk about injustice with children.

Read Juan Herrera’s Calling the Doves or Pam Munoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising to discuss stories of children working in fields and being part of farm worker families. Talk about the ways in which parents in the stories work hard for their children and about the injustice of working hard without being paid or having a safe, comfortable place to live.

Finally, parents can support the film Food Chains by seeing it or watching clips online with their children. We can help send a message to supermarkets that begins at our tables and ends when all major food companies support basic rights for farm workers.

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