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Fast for Fair Food: Farmworkers Fast so "Our Children Won't Have To"

The choice to fast is both an evocation of the history of farmworker activism and a moral choice, made to highlight the poverty the workers face.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Coalition of Immokalee Workers

 
 
 
 

In a sunlit field in Lakeland, Florida, outside the headquarters of Publix Supermarkets, a group of around a hundred and fifty clergymembers, farmworkers in blue T-shirts, and community members have been holding vigil since Monday, March 5. And about sixty of them haven't eaten since then.

The Fast for Fair Food is part of a campaign by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, one of the country's most innovative labor-rights organizations, to get Publix to join the CIW's Fair Food Program, guaranteeing better conditions and pay for the thousands of workers who pick the tomatoes sold in the grocery chain's more than 1,000 stores across the South.

Publix prides itself on being an “employee-owned” company, which its website explains means that “Publix associates – as a group – own more shares of stock than any one stockholder – 49% to be exact.” It's number 102 on Fortune's 500 largest American corporations, last year it raked in over $1.3 billion in profits, and was ranked number 78 on the list of “best companies to work for.” Yet for three years it has balked at providing a penny more per pound of tomatoes picked for the workers who spend 10-hour days in the Florida sun, or complying with the Code of Conduct that would ensure conditions on the farms—still grueling, even with their new protections—don't include forced or child labor, or sexual harassment.

Fresh from a victory in their campaign to get Trader Joe's to sign up for the Fair Food Program, CIW and its interfaith allies took a page from legendary organizer Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers, and decided to undertake a fast outside of Publix's headquarters, calling for the company—which prides itself on its Christian values--to acknowledge its moral obligation to the workers whose labor allows it to profit.

Every day thus far, Publix employees have driven past the fasters, who sometimes sit on the red buckets that they fill with tomatoes in the fields. No one has yet stopped to speak with them, let alone indicate that the company might relent. But each day a few more of them wave, or honk their horns in support. Each day a few more of them acknowledge the signs that say “You are Human, So am I.”

Fasting for Justice

The signs the fasters carry, the banner under which they hold the vigil, declare, “We go hungry today so our children won't have to tomorrow.” It's a poignant reminder of the real struggle of the workers, who even with the CIW's Fair Food Program, still make poverty wages and have little job security.

“All the cars that pass by, they give us a lot of motivation when they wave at us and honk,” Eduardo Saustino Galindo, a farmworker who has been part of the campaign for fair food since 2005, told AlterNet through a translator.

The choice to fast is both an evocation of the history of farmworker activism and a moral choice, made to highlight the poverty the workers face and the fact that they are responsible for putting food on the tables of millions—without these workers, people would not eat. Also, Galindo noted, “Our fast corresponds to the Lenten season,” as many of the workers are Catholic. “It's true that we're hungry but because of the cause, because we're trying to get the public to listen, we have a lot of energy,” he continued.

They have the support of a broad coalition of religious leaders, many of whom are also fasting in solidarity with the workers. Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, as well as their daughter Kerry, will meet with the workers on Saturday, March 10, to symbolically break their fast—just as RFK, then a candidate for President, did with Cesar Chavez in 1968.