The tomato retailer Publix insists on underpaying workers and forcing them to work in conditions “most of us do not and would not tolerate,” said the Rev. Michael Livingston, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister and director of the National Council of Churches Poverty Initiative. 

Livingston, a former president of the National Council of Churches (NCC), called on churches to express their disapproval of Publix’s policies by joining farm workers and the Presbyterian Hunger Program in a public fast beginning March 5 to urge the company to change its ways.

“I do not regard this fast as a hardship on my part,” Livingston, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is quoted as saying in a message to NCC communions and congregations. “By God’s grace I can offer the luxury of my time to brothers and sisters whose humanity I value as much as my own. I count it a privilege, as the season of Lent begins, to, as Paul asks of us in Romans 12:1: ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.’”

Church leaders in the U.S. will join farmers and consumers in the March 5-10 fast to protest Publix’s rejection of the Food Fair Program in Florida, which would have addressed many of the problems faced by laborers.

Religious leaders will appeal to Publix “to recognize the humanity of the workers who pick its tomatoes,” Livingston said. The fasters will ask Publix to join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian, and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs in Florida.

The movement has wide support among religious leaders and public figures including Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy; the actor Martin Sheen; and Brian D. McLaren, a nationally known author, speaker, activist, and public theologian.

Two weeks ago the Coalition of Immokalee Workers reached a wages and working conditions agreement with Trader Joe’s. Since 2005, it has struck deals with Yum Brands — parent company of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut — as well as McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, Subway, Bon Apetit, Compass Group, Aramark, Sodexo and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.