As we near Shavuot, our thoughts turn to the agricultural roots of our people. For many, discussions of justice in the fields, fair treatment of farm workers, and standing up against slavery fail to resonate with our modern experience. I felt the same until one Tuesday morning last December.
I live in Naples, Florida. If I turn left out of my housing development, a ten minute drive brings me to the Gulf of Mexico. On that day I drove out of my development and turned right, driving past the coffee shop, grocery store, and bank where I normally stopped. Almost thirty miles later, that same road brought me to another world within the same county, the town of Immokalee.
This was my first trip to Immokalee, but I know it will not be my last. My travels came as part of a group of rabbis participating with T’ruah: A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Since 2011, more than seventy Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox rabbis, from communities across the country, visited Immokalee with T’ruah to meet with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Affectionately called Tomato Rabbis (#TomatoRabbis on social media), these groups spend three days meeting farm workers, learning the history of the CIW, and bearing witness to the transformation that has led to fields of justice.
One’s heart breaks listening to the stories of the workers and the conditions that existed prior to the Fair Food Program (FFP). Workers had no shade, no break times. Wage theft was rampant as crew leaders doled out pay. Sexual harassment was used to threaten and demean female laborers. One worker was beaten for stopping to drink water, with the crew leader saying to the others, “Are you here to work or drink water?”
As if the conditions in the fields were not bad enough, many workers lived as modern day slaves. Eight instances of modern day slavery were discovered, with the last occurring less than ten years ago! Workers kept in trailers, hosed off at the end of each day, and then locked in to prevent their escape by night. It was so unprecedented that the Justice Department did not know how to even handle the first cases that came forward.
There is a Haitian saying, “A bull would not let a child lead it if it knew its own strength.” The workers began to realize that they had the strength to change their situation. Lucas Benitez, one of the founders of the CIW, explained, “Immokalee was a desert of justice. We searched for hope, and discovered the waters of justice.” The effort began with actions to push the growers to improve conditions. Later, the CIW realized that the chain really went beyond the growers up to the buyers – the corporations who purchased the tomatoes for restaurants, grocery stores and other food services. Rather than being in conflict with the growers, they formed a partnership together.
Torah teaches in Deuteronomy, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” – “Justice, justice, shall you pursue!” Lipman Produce and Pacific Tomatoes, both started and owned by Jewish families, were the first two growers to participate in the Fair Food Program in order to protect workers’ rights, increase safety in the fields, and provide a better wage. These two growers, who joined in the fall of 2010 after a critical mass of corporate buyers had come on board, served as models. Soon thereafter, the majority of Florida’s tomato growers joined in – representing 90% of all tomatoes grown in Florida. Working in partnership, the Fair Food Standards Council was established, to protect the rights of workers, ensure compliance by the growers, as well as monitor the buyers.
Fourteen major corporations have joined this effort, including Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Aramark, Compass, and more recently Ahold USA (Stop & Shop and Giant) and Walmart. Each corporation commits to only sourcing Florida tomatoes from growers who are part of the Fair Food Program, paying a penny per pound premium for tomatoes that goes directly to the farm workers, and accepting responsibility for their role in the supply chain. Conditions in the fields improved dramatically in recent years. Participating growers provide shade stations, water, time-clocks for fair wage management, and education to identify and prevent sexual harassment. As evidence of the Fair Food Program’s success, incidents of violence toward workers in the fields have greatly decreased and workers now exercise the right to complain without fear – over 1100 complaints have been received and resolved since the FFP’s inception.
The New York Times recently identified the Florida Tomato industry as an exemplar in the field of agriculture. Once called “ground zero” for modern-day slavery, the CIW and its partners transformed tomato farming into fields of justice. Efforts continue to expand participating buyers and move into other fields of agriculture. Campaigns exist to encourage Publix and Wendy’s, two corporations that have refused to meet with the CIW, and as a result still do not treat the farmworkers fairly and with respect.
One road links together two worlds. On this holiday of Shavuot, let this story of justice in the fields serve as our reminder that while the world may have evolved, our work is far from done. May each one of us find our road to justice – the path we need to follow as we pursue justice, support the right to human dignity, and act so that fairness, equality, safety and freedom are experienced by all.
Rabbi Adam Miller, the senior rabbi of Temple Shalom of Naples, serves on the Commission for Social Action of the URJ and emphasizes building relationships with the community at large around issues of social justice, interfaith dialogue, Israel, and Jewish education.