National religious leaders visit CIW, fields, learn first-hand about the Fair Food Program!

Rabbi leaders from T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights visit Fair Food Program farm in Florida

Rabbi leaders from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights visit Fair Food Program farm in Florida

Leaders of Presbyterian Church (USA), T’ruah bear witness to transformative changes underway in FL agricultural industry thanks to the Fair Food movement, commit to spread Wendy’s Boycott nationally…

Over the past six weeks, we’ve brought you reports from the Fair Food odyssey that was the Behind the Braids Tour, documenting the multiple voyages of crews of farmworkers and allies from Immokalee as they carried the call for farm labor justice to diverse corners of this country – from the great cities of Chicago, Atlanta and New York, to the small rural towns of Appalachian Maryland and Pennsylvania. 

But while the Tour crews were away leading the charge in the farthest reaches of the Fair Food Nation, all was not quiet on the home front.  Over the past two weeks, Immokalee hosted two delegations of powerful faith leaders, the first from the Presbyterian Church (USA), the second from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.  Together, the visitors represented millions of people of faith from coast to coast, and their visits strengthened the ties that have bound the Fair Food movement with these two longtime allies for well over a decade.

For our first visit, we had the honor of welcoming the Rev. Jan Edmiston, Co-Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to Immokalee (Rev. Edmiston is pictured here below on the right).  Representing nearly two million Christians nationwide in the highest elected position within the PC (USA), Rev. Edmiston’s visit signified the latest demonstration of her church’s deep and unwavering commitment to the CIW’s work, a commitment that has been a crucial driving force in the success of the Fair Food movement.

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Accompanied by the Rev. Graham Hart, General Presbyter of the Peace River Presbytery right here in Southwest Florida, Rev. Edmiston received a warm welcome from CIW members and a tour of the very community center and low-power radio station that both the PC(USA) and the Peace River Presbytery generously helped to launch thirteen years ago.  After hearing firsthand from CIW leaders about the transformative changes that have taken place in the fields, Rev. Edmiston both met with Judge Laura Safer Espinoza of the Fair Food Standards Council, to learn about the FFSC’s role in monitoring and enforcing workers’ rights under the FFP, and traveled to Sunripe Certified Brands (formerly, Pacific Tomato Growers), to hear from a participating grower in the Fair Food Program about how this unique partnership is bringing dignity and human rights to the fields for the first time in decades — and having a positive impact on the growers’ bottom line.

Rev. Edmiston receiving a tour of Sunripe Certified Tomato’s new, in-progress training facility – tailored specifically to host the worker-to-worker education sessions farmworkers receive as part of the Fair Food Program.

Rev. Edmiston receives a tour of Sunripe Certified Tomato’s new, under-construction training facility – tailored specifically to host the worker-to-worker education sessions farmworkers receive as part of the Fair Food Program.

Before departing, Rev. Edmiston shared the hope she felt during her visit to Immokalee, and her plans to follow-up her visit with action in the broader PC(USA) community.  Her visit was a welcome ray of inspiration in difficult times.

… and then came the Tomato Rabbis!

Only a week or so after Rev. Edmiston’s visit, we hosted the ninth delegation of “Tomato Rabbis” from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights here in Immokalee.  During a three-day immersive exchange, the eight Jewish leaders (hailing from all across the nation, from Boston to Miami) held lively discussions with CIW members as well as the Fair Food Standards Council and a participating grower in the Fair Food Program, acquiring a deep understanding of all facets of the FFP.

Remarkably, these rabbi delegations – the first of which took place in September of 2011 – have borne witness to the dramatic changes experienced by farmworkers since that first season of the Fair Food Program’s implementation.  Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, director of Programs for T’ruah and organizer of the yearly trip, observed poignantly that the first visit to Southwest Florida came on the heels of the area being dubbed “ground-zero for modern-day slavery” in the U.S. by a federal prosecutor – and yet today, the visit instead provides an opportunity for religious leaders to observe an extraordinary and unique program that has virtually eradicated 21st-century slavery in the fields.

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The #tomatorabbis visit would not be complete, however, without taking action in the Campaign for Fair Food.

Donning prayer shawls and taking up the shofar — the traditional ram’s-horn trumpet used in Jewish prayer — the rabbis concluded their visit by heading to a Wendy’s on busy highway 41 in Bonita Springs.  The rabbis entered the fast food restaurant to deliver a letter to the local manager, chanting prayers while handing out copies of the letter to customers inside.  To their surprise, the manager instructed the rabbis to return 20 minutes later, when a representative from Wendy’s regional leadership would be in attendance — all of which was documented by local channel WINK news:

Though their second visit to the store did not bear much fruit — the Wendy’s representative, in true form, merely demanded that the rabbis cease disrupting Wendy’s business, and instructed them to leave the premises — the rabbinic delegation left determined to take the boycott to their congregations and communities back home.

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Leaders of many faiths have a venerable history of standing with farmworkers, lending both their moral voice and consumer power to the battle for what was once seen as impossible — real, verifiable human rights in an industry once built on the poverty and exploitation of workers at the bottom of the supply chain.  The deep-rooted commitment of people of faith continues to build across the country, and we know that it will only grow as the struggle for justice continues to expand beyond Florida’s tomato industry and spread to new states, new crops, new industries, and beyond.

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