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Faces on Faith: Immokalee on my mind

By Staff | Jan 30, 2019

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs

Recently, I spent three days in Immokalee.

Immokalee is where 90 percent of all tomatoes eaten fresh in the eastern United States are grown. It is one of the state’s poorest cities but only a short drive away from our Isle of Splendor.

Not long ago, rampant sexual abuse, pitiful working conditions and equally pitiful, sub-poverty wages were the backdrop for the tomato workers’ efforts.

Complaints against these abuses met with summary dismissal.

The sorry history of farm work in Southwest Florida also includes episodes of forced labor in which workers found themselves locked up in windowless and bathroom-less trucks overnight or housed behind barbed-wire enclosures patrolled by armed guards to keep them from escaping.

The Campaign for Fair Food, begun in the 1990s, requested major food retailers pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes – paid directly to workers and aimed at increasing wages – and buy only from growers who had committed to stringent, legally binding human rights monitoring in the fields.

In a lovely auditorium designed for worker educational sessions, our group met with Sun Ripe Certified Brands Human Resources Director Jessica Castillo who told us: “When as a child, I saw my mother get up in the middle of the night to go out into the fields and be subject to all of the abuses I never imagined that today I would be here paid by the company to provide mandatory education for workers on their basic rights.”

Fortunately, most major fast food chains and several grocery stores, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Wal-Mart, are now part of the Fair Food Program to guarantee the human rights of the people who pick the food we eat every day.

Unfortunately, Wendy’s and Publix have not yet signed on to the Fair Food Program. I would like to ask you, when you are in one of either company’s stores, to politely ask to speak to the manager. Inquire of her or him, why they have not yet signed on to the Fair Food Act that has done so much to insure safe working condition and a more livable wage for those who labor so hard just a few miles away?

Is a penny a pound too much to ask to enable those who pick our tomatoes to work safely and with dignity? I hope not.

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is with the Bat Yam Temple of the Islands.