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November 7, 2014  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

#tomatorabbis visit Immokalee to support Fair Food Program

By Rabbi Michael Torop Temple Beth-El, St. Petersburg

It was still dark outside last Wednesday at 6:30 a.m. as eight “#tomatorabbis” (four Conservative, three Reform, one Reconstructionist) gathered to start a brief 20 minutes of “davening,” with a few traditional prayers, songs and meditations. The parking lot across the street from the community center was already filling up with pickup trucks, colorful buses and an assembly of men from Guatemala, Haiti and Mexico who were hoping for a day of work helping to prepare the fields, staking up the seedlings and laying the groundwork for what everyone hopes will be a successful growing season in the tomato fields around Immokalee.

I spent most of last week in Immokalee, learning the powerful story of how these workers have organized a national coalition of allies, how these workers’ cry for justice is finally being heard across America and creating groundbreaking and historic changes in human rights in the fields.

In recent years our country has undergone a transformation as the tide toward healthy eating has turned many Americans to embrace the value of eating more fresh vegetables and fruits. Many communities promote the benefits of buying locally, supporting the local economy of growers and producers. The Fair Food movement and the Fair Trade movement have illuminated the need to be more aware of the sources of the foods we enjoy. We are starting to care a great deal more about the conditions and the locations out of which food comes to our tables.

Jewish tradition has long expressed a concern that we acknowledge God as the source of our food. Judaism teaches us to say blessings before everything that we eat. From the well-known hamotzi recited over a meal containing bread, to the lesser-known brachot over foods that grow from the ground or on trees, these practices are intended to create a context of holiness for the everyday act of consuming food. We are asked to express our gratitude to God as the ultimate source of the food we enjoy.

Unfortunately, between the saying of these blessings and even the heightened awareness of the issues brought to light by the “food movement,” many of us remain woefully unaware of what is happening across America in the agricultural industry at the very start of the food chain that results in our abundant plates of fresh fruits and vegetables. As Jews we know that our obligations extend beyond the ritual to the ethical, beyond prayers and blessings to an active engagement in our community and our world to pursue justice, to protect human dignity, and to ensure that fairness, equity, safety and freedom are experienced by all. This is equally our religious obligation.

On Nov. 21, just before Thanksgiving, the film, Food Chains, will open in 10 cities around the country, including the Tampa Bay area (Veterans AMC). Food Chains is a hard hitting documentary (actress Eva Longoria and journalist Eric Schlosser are executive producers). It gives pause for thought with every plate of food we eat by exposing the rampant abuse and injustice embedded in America’s agriculture and food production industries.

The film sheds light on the wage theft, physical abuse and in some extreme and exceptional circumstances outright slavery that constitutes everyday life for thousands of America’s (mostly Latino) farm workers, and gives voice to those fighting to change these practices and bring justice to the table. “Ground Zero” for what is now a highly effective struggle for farm worker justice is in our own back yard, in the Florida tomato industry, centered in Immokalee, near Naples and Fort Myers.

Alliances are being formed around the country between sustainable agriculture organizations, the antihunger community, the produce lobby, the consumer lobby, religious communities, and public health and health care organizations. There are many who are committed to building a more just and sustainable food system.

But very few Americans, even in the Food Movement, are aware of the efforts being made at the ground level, efforts that are already so uniquely powerful that they are transforming the industry. Already the incredible success of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has radically improved the conditions for tomato workers, demonstrating the power of an oppressed immigrant labor force to sway opinion at the highest level of American corporate power structures.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has created a Fair Food Program that they ask corporations to join. When corporations such as Yum Brands (Taco

Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut), McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, Trader Joes, Whole Foods and, most recently, Walmart, agreed to participate in the Fair Food Program, dramatic changes have taken place: increased wages for the workers in the field, human rights protections against physical and sexual abuse in the fields, increased attention to health and safety issues, and a structure to audit and monitor compliance at every level of the industry.

The New York Times (April 25, 2014) detailed how the efforts of CIW and the Fair Food Program have taken the tomato industry “from being the worst to the best” work environment in U.S. agriculture.

Currently, the CIW is campaigning for Publix Supermarkets and Wendy’s, two of the long-standing outliers in the corporate world who have not agreed to join the Fair Food Program. Wendy’s is one of the largest buyers of fresh tomatoes in the restaurant industry, and Publix is the leading supermarket chain in the Southeast. Their buying power will significantly strengthen and solidify the successes already achieved by the tomato workers.

What can we do? Let us be clear that the CIW is not seeking a boycott of either Publix or Wendy’s, but rather that we support the call for each of these corporations to join the Fair Food Program. We can each communicate that request personally to every store manager and ask him or her to convey that message up the corporate ladder.

We can all go and see the film, Food Chains, when it is released and learn in detail about this compelling story of the successful pursuit of justice in the tomato fields of Florida. And we can all increase our awareness of the many issues involved in bringing fresh fruit and vegetables to our tables, and know that our responsibility is not just to thank God as the ultimate source, but to care about the justice issues at play throughout the industry that feeds our nation.

The Rabbinically Speaking column is provided as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. Columns are assigned, on a rotating basis by the board.

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