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Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster Headshot

Thankful for a New Day for Florida Farmworkers: Publix, Join the Fair Food Program

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The Jewish blessing for thanksgiving, the shehechiyanu, thanks God for granting us life, sustaining us and bringing us to the particular moment in our lives that we are grateful for. In a rushed world, we slow down to savor the present, and to reflect on steps brought us to this time. No moment of blessing happens in a vacuum. On Thanksgiving, when we sit at the table and reflect on the food before us, we know it didn't get there by magic. We take a moment to thank the cooks for his or her hard work. And maybe we say a prayer, to thank God for the blessings of the land and of the harvest.

Of course, we know that many more hands touched that food on the journey between God's blessing of the earth and our holiday table. The farmworkers who picked the food, the workers at the packing plant, the staff at the grocery store: as our food travels, its story grows. The Jewish blessing for bread recognizes the human component in the bounty of our table. It thanks God "for bringing forth bread from the earth." But bread doesn't come from the earth fully formed. It takes human participation -- to harvest, process, sell and bake -- to make bread. We are partners with God in the blessing of producing food from our earth.

Over the past year, I have visited Immokalee, Fla., to see both the suffering that this production can bring and the new day that is dawning for farmworkers. Most of the tomatoes we eat in the winter come from Florida, and farmworkers daily face extremely difficult conditions, including modern-day slavery. The situation for farmworkers in Florida is so bad that one federal prosecutor called the Florida agricultural sector "ground zero" for human trafficking in America.

Forced labor and slavery in Florida is just the extreme end of a continuum of worker exploitation that includes sexual harassment, dangerous exposure to pesticides, wage theft and violence. The average wage paid to farmworkers for picking tomatoes in Florida has not risen in more than 30 years, preventing them from earning a living wage. Farmworkers want real solutions, not charity. As a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Gerardo Reyes has repeatedly said, "Why do I spend every day harvesting food for the rest of America and then have to stand in line at a food pantry on Thanksgiving for a plate of food?"

There is a solution: an amazing, worker-led organization in Florida called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is bringing transformation and justice to the tomato fields. Their Fair Food Program is grounded in human rights and dignity for farmworkers. Under the Program, retailers (such as major fast food companies and grocery stores) commit to paying an extra "penny a pound" premium for tomatoes directly to the farmworkers (raising their wages without raising costs for growers) and to only buying from growers that have instituted a strict human rights code of conduct in the fields. The first farmers agreed to implement these agreements in 2010, and last year was the first year that the Program was in place in more than 90 percent of Florida's tomato farms.

In Immokalee, I hear stories of how the Program is changing lives. One man tells of how he used to get up hours before his children to go to the fields, just to sit unpaid waiting for the work to start. Now, because there are time clocks in the fields that require payment for all hours on the job and which discourage unpaid time in the fields, he leaves later and can see his children in the morning for the first time in their lives. Another man was the subject of both wage theft and a subsequent denial by the grower that he had ever picked tomatoes in those fields. After an investigation by the Fair Food Program, the grower had to acknowledge that he had worked there, and the man walked through the front door of the company to receive his paycheck. Complaints of violence or harassment are taken now serious and investigated, and there are market consequences for failing to appropriately respond to sexual harassment or forced labor. Workers have received over seven million dollars of wage increase through the penny-per-pound pay increase, and they finally have the right to water and shade in the fields.

This year, I am thankful the Fair Food Program is making a difference. The Fair Food Program is unique among the various supply chain audits that human rights groups use because it prioritizes the wisdom and experience of the workers themselves in ending abuses in the fields. The workers educate each other about their rights, both under the Program and under American law. They now know there is a confidential way to report abuses that will be taken seriously.

This year, I give thanks for the 11 corporations who have already signed Fair Food Agreements, including two -- Trader Joe's and Chipotle -- who have signed in 2012. But many grocery stores have not yet committed to this new day in the tomato fields. For example, in the CIW's home state of Florida, Publix Supermarket has refused to sign a Fair Food Agreement. Publix founder, George Jenkins, said: "Don't let making a profit get in the way of doing the right thing." It is unfortunate that today, when there is such a clear way for Publix to "do the right thing," that Publix has not demonstrated that it values the hard work of farmworkers who make possible the food we share this holiday. They need to hear from us that it is time for that to change.

This Thanksgiving, as we thank God for the many people and their hands that produce our food, we can be thankful for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Fair Food Program. There is a story of real suffering behind our food, but today that story is changing, thanks to the historic partnership among workers and growers and retail purchasers established in the CIW's Fair Food Program.

Click here to watch the CIW's video "A Tale of Two Thanksgivings" and to ask Publix to sign a Fair Food Agreement.