Immokalee workers take campaign to college campuses

February 25, 2015

Three advocates with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers visit with staff at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) offices in Louisville, Ky. The group was hosted by Ruth Farrell (right) with the church’s Hunger Program.

Three advocates with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers visit with staff at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) offices in Louisville, Ky. The group was hosted by Ruth Farrell (right) with the church’s Hunger Program. —Rick Jones

LOUISVILLE

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is reaching out to college students in the U.S. to build support for its campaign for farmworkers’ rights. The CIW, a mission partner with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is seeking collegiate backing for its Fair Food Program, a partnership among farmers, farm workers, and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions for the workers who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms.

Three CIW representatives began their tour of eight campuses across the Midwest and Northeast with a visit to the University of Louisville (U of L). The campus is host to a Wendy’s restaurant, and the CIW is hoping students will encourage Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program.

“We want people to know that Wendy’s does not participate in the Fair Food Program,” says Julia de la Cruz, an Immokalee farmworker who joined the CIW staff a year ago. “Consumers need to know whether the food they purchase has met fair food standards.”

A handful of U of L students recently organized a group on campus called The Real Food Challenge, part of a national program that encourages colleges and universities to create a healthy, fair, and green food system. The goal is to shift $1 billion in existing food budgets away from industrial farms and junk food toward local/community-based fair, ecologically sound, and human food sources by 2020.

Natali Rodriguez, a CIW advocate, understands how important it is for CIW to reach out to college campuses. She became involved in the fair food efforts while attending college in California.

“I got involved in the Trader Joe’s campaign in 2010, working with the Student Farmworkers’ Alliance and their efforts,” says Rodriguez. “After graduation, my interest in this initiative kept growing, and I was inspired by the CIW because it’s really a community, not just a campaign or a job.”

The Immokalee workers’ struggles are the focus of a recent documentary, “Food Chains: The Revolution in America’s Fields,” which specifically featured tomato pickers in southern Florida. CIW screened the film at U of L and plans to show it on campuses in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and New York.

For years, farmworkers have faced physical and sexual abuse, extremely low wages, and poor living conditions. According to the CIW, workers average 50 cents for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. In order to earn minimum wage, they must pick more than 2.25 tons of tomatoes or 70 full buckets in a typical 10-hour workday.

Despite the hardships, the CIW representatives say there have been significant improvements in the fields.

“Workers can now afford better housing, there is less abuse, and the working conditions are much better,” says de la Cruz. “Farmworkers know their rights and know where to go for assistance. Shade is provided for workers to rest, bathrooms are nearby, and the water we drink is clean. Field supervisors also know what they can and cannot do.”

The group visited the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) offices prior to the documentary screening at U of L. Staff from the Presbyterian Hunger Program and Self-Development of People and General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons greeted them. 

“The documentary has a powerful message about the hardships faced by farmworkers, not only in Florida, but in other states,” says Ruth Farrell, coordinator for the Presbyterian Hunger Program. “We encourage Presbyterians, community leaders, and the public at large to offer screenings of the film in their communities nationwide.” 

For more information about the documentary and how to host your own showing, go to https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/hunger/foodchainsfilm/.