You Are What You Eat

I’m a big fan of my local Publix supermarkets. When our boys were little, they always managed to steer the shopping cart to the bakery section, where a free cookie awaited them. I’ve served on the boards of several non-profit agencies through the years, and I’ve seen how generous Publix employees and managers can be. I used to pick up food for homeless people from the boxes provided at local Publix stores. From my perspective, Publix has been a model corporate citizen

Also impressive is Publix’s commitment to offer Fair Trade coffee at its stores. As the label on Publix-brand coffee reads, “Fair trade is only fair.”

Having seen how generous and just Publix can be, I can’t understand why corporate headquarters is refusing to support the efforts of farm workers to secure a mere extra penny for pound for the tomatoes they pick and Publix buys. Even more baffling is the refusal of Publix CEO Ed Crenshaw even to sit down with farm workers and discuss their Campaign for Fair Food

For many years the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been working with Florida growers to adopt a code of conduct that ensures increased wages and workplace protections that have never before existed for agricultural workers. Last year 90% of Florida’s tomato growers signed the code agreement.

Under the new code, Florida’s 30,000 farmworkers will have mandatory access to shade and water, the right to report abuses without retaliation, a clock-in system to guarantee minimum wage payment for hours worked, the right to form health and safety committees in the fields, and the promise of zero-tolerance for forced labor and sexual harassment.

It took years to achieve this agreement with tomato farmers, but, as Publix says, “Fair is only fair.”

Even with these advances, the fact remains that wages for farmworkers have remained stagnant for decades. According to the Department of Labor, poverty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage earners and salaried employees. Annual income for these workers ranges from $10,000 to $12,499 for physically demanding and dangerous work. In order to improve the lot of farmworkers, everyone in the supply chain, from growers to consumers, needs to step up.

That’s where Publix comes in. With revenues last year of $25.3 billion, not only is Publix the largest company in Florida, it’s amongst the largest buyers of tomatoes for resale. The farmworkers are asking Publix to do its fair share — by committing to buy only from farms that comply with the new industry code while moving purchases away from farms that violate it — and also by passing along to those who harvest tomatoes an additional penny per pound.

That’s all – a mere penny per pound. As a Publix customer, I’d be more than happy to pay an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes I buy at Publix, knowing that my neighbors in the fields would benefit. Just as I’m happy to pay more for fairly-traded coffee, I’d be happy to pay that extra penny for fairly-traded tomatoes.

My question is, “Why Fair Trade Coffee, but not Fair Trade Food?”

When I wrote Mr. Crenshaw about this, he responded by saying that Publix pays the “fair market price” for tomatoes. That’s what buyers used to say about coffee, too. The fact is, there are two market prices: the penny-per-pound extra to raise wages or the “fair market price” that keeps harvesters in poverty. I’m no economist, but I think Mr. Crenshaw’s response is less than forthright.

Interfaith Action of Southeast Florida is launching  a prayer campaign to support the Fast for Fair Food from March 6-10.  To break the fast on March 10 there will be a silent march to Publix headquarters in Lakeland.  I’m praying that the Faith Moves Mountains prayer campaign and the CIW’s fast will help to change the hearts and minds of the folks at Publix.

Here in the state capital, Tallahassee Interfaith Clergy will host a press conference on March 6 at noon in front of the Publix store at 2111 Capital Circle Northeast (in the Lowe’s shopping center).    We will share our Open Letter to Publix urging that Publix join Trader Joe’s and the other Florida supermarkets who have entered the Fair Food agreement.

The official Publix Guarantee is, “We will never knowingly disappoint you.” Here’s one loyal Publix customer who’s not only disappointed, but baffled by Pubix’s refusal to join this effort.  The Publix I know can do better.