Florida United Methodist Church Bishop Kenneth Carter, cabinet members visit Immokalee, meet with CIW, Fair Food Program grower!

CIW members join the statewide delegation from the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church for a group photo outside CIW headquarters in Immokalee.

On Monday, Bishop Kenneth H. Carter, Jr. and the cabinet of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church kicked off a two-day tour of the Conference’s missional areas across the state of Florida.  And where did this estimable team of Methodist Church leaders choose to launch their tour?  Right here in the CIW’s hometown of Immokalee, birthplace of the Fair Food movement!  

With a delegation including all nine district superintendents charged with leading nearly 700 congregations throughout the state, the visitors represented the tens of thousands of Florida Methodists who, throughout the long history of the Campaign for Fair Food, have put their unwavering faith into action in the pursuit of farm labor justice, partnering with farmworkers in the fight to end generations of poverty and abuse in Florida’s fields.

Indeed, the Methodist Church’s long and profound history of support can be traced back to the campaign’s early days.  From a General Conference resolution endorsing the seminal Taco Bell boycott in 2004, to the thousands of United Methodist clergy and laity who have prayed, fasted, written letters, sat vigil, and marched with farmworkers over the years, to the remarkable landslide vote at 2015 Annual Conference in favor of a formal resolution calling on Publix and Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program, Florida’s Methodists have steadfastly stood with farmworkers.

And today, as they have in the past, United Methodists continue to put their faith into action in the pursuit of farm labor justice.  From local congregations to Church-wide organizations like United Methodist Women, the call from Florida’s United Methodists to corporations like Publix and Wendy’s to come, at long last, to the table with farmworkers grows louder by the day.

United Methodists visit the Fair Food Program… 

Bishop Carter and the Florida Conference Cabinet journeyed to Immokalee to bear witness, firsthand, to the unprecedented transformation that has taken place in Florida’s tomato industry.  They came to visit with the protagonists — farmworkers and growers alike — of the remarkable story of conflict, reconciliation and redemption that has played out over the past two decades in this once-forgotten farming community.

The United Methodist delegation meets CIW members and farm representatives at the offices of Sunripe Certified Brands (formerly Pacific Tomato Growers) outside of Immokalee.

The visit began with an open-armed welcome to the CIW community center by farmworker leaders.  In the conversation that ensued, some of the visitors heard for the first time of the changes that the Fair Food Program has wrought in the daily lives of farmworkers in the Immokalee community, from measurable benefits such as the economic relief provided by the FFP’s “penny per pound” premium (with over $25 million in premiums paid by participating buyers to date) to the immeasurable, including the remarkable new sense of dignity experienced by farmworker women who can today go to the fields without fear of being subject to the humiliating sexual predations of their supervisors.

Judge Laura Safer-Espinoza of the Fair Food Standards Council closed the meeting at the CIW offices with an overview of the Fair Food Program’s mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement, and of the central importance of the market power of the 14 participating corporations — demanding human rights from their place at the top of the supply chain — that provides the teeth to enforce the FFP’s groundbreaking human rights standards. Members of the cabinet asked insightful questions about the CIW and the FFSC, sparking a compelling conversation regarding the future of agriculture within the transformative new framework created by the Fair Food Program as well as the urgent need for longtime holdouts Publix and Wendy’s to do their part in upholding human rights in the industry.

From the community to the fields…

From there, the group traveled to the nearby tomato fields of the first grower to join the Fair Food Program in 2010, Sunripe Certified Brands (formerly, Pacific Tomato Growers).  Meeting in a brand-new air-conditioned facility built expressly for hiring and training field workers, the faith leaders engaged in dialogue with farm management to hear the story of the Fair Food Program from their perspective.  Angel Garcia of Sunripe spoke to the positive impact that the Fair Food Program has had on the participating growers, an impact made possible by the spirit of worker-grower-buyer partnership fundamental to the Fair Food Program:

What I see was created through the CIW is transparency. The CIW promotes and provides for farm businesses a transparent way of doing business, from the employee to the employer, to the buyer to the consumer. Now, you can check all those boxes and know that you are supporting a business that respects the product and whoever worked to produce that product.

After an inspiring set of presentations and a warm meal shared in community, the group gathered outside the training room for a moment of reflection before departing.  The district superintendents and other members of the Florida Conference Cabinet shared their impressions of the Fair Food movement’s impact on the lives of farmworkers.  Superintendent of the North West District of the conference, Durwood Foshee, who had witnessed the poverty and abuse characteristic of Immokalee in the early ‘90s, remarked that, by comparison, the transformations in the community seen today were truly “overwhelming. ”

Longstanding ally Rev. Roy Terry (below, right) agreed:

My family moved here in 1978, to Collier County…From that point in 1978, and then growing up in Naples, then coming back in the ‘90s, and then experiencing what has happened through the work of the CIW, we’ve come to a point at which families are able to make Immokalee their home and feel proud about being part of Collier County. [I have seen] the level of growth in our full community and now, greater equity amongst all people. CIW has initiated a lot of that. We have a long way to go still, but this is a breath of fresh air. And, it all was borne out of the field, which is I believe is where God usually begins all those great movements. 

CIW’s Cruz Salucio then offered his own words of appreciation for the Bishop and the cabinet’s gracious interest in Immokalee and the Fair Food Program, situating the visit and farmworkers’ struggle in the faith that many workers hold:

For us workers, we never imagined arriving to this point and at this moment, to be on a grower’s property, and to work in partnership with them…I believe that God is with us today, just as God has accompanied us throughout our struggle including in difficult and frustrating moments we have faced throughout the years, when we were not able to embark on the path we sought. Today we believe God is still at the forefront of the CIW’s struggle.

From my perspective, God is happy with us carrying forth this struggle together. And I believe we can do more, that we can work together to arrive to the moment in which corporations that still don’t want to participate finally join us so that one day, we can see an even bigger change.

Farmworkers were deeply touched as Bishop Carter concluded the moment of reflection with his own moving words of gratitude, and a blessing for the community of Immokalee:

We thank you, God, for our sisters and brothers here in Immokalee. We pray that we would remember their stories. That we would know that we are a part of a network of mutuality in this life—and where we rejoice, we rejoice together; where we weep, we weep together. Thank you for their hospitality and openness to receive us. And we pray that we would reflect on what we’ve learned, and that we would act.

Meanwhile, back in the streets, the Publix Campaign continues…

And taking action in support of justice is exactly what a large group of farmworkers and their allies were doing just two days ahead of Monday’s exciting visit!  

Just a few, short miles from the very same fields where the United Methodist delegation met with growers, a brand new Publix opened on Immokalee Road in late March.  And in recognition of that opening, curious customers were greeted this past Saturday not only by the store’s eager new manager, but also by more than 50 farmworkers, their families, and allies from across Southwest Florida, who kicked off the summer protest season with a sunny picket in front of the shiny new supermarket.  Among those who made it out to support workers from Immokalee were the Rev. Esther Rodriguez of Tice United Methodist Church, members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ft. Myers, members of the Quaker Meeting of Ft. Myers, students from FGCU, SURJ of Southwest Florida, members of the Southwest Florida Resistance Coalition, and students from OSU, who were in town for meetings with CIW members and a closer look at the Fair Food Program in action!

The protest was covered by local news networks, including the local Fox 4 station and the Naples Daily News, who followed up that same day with an account of the day’s action:

Farmworkers protest at new Publix

May 7, 2017
Thaddeus Mast

“Exploitation: It’s what’s for dinner.” “No more abuse.” “Publix: Do the right thing.”

Protest signs were held high in front of the newly opened Orangetree Publix in Golden Gate Estates. Supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers filled the sidewalk with signs, music and chants to remind locals that the supermarket chain does not participate in the Fair Food Program.

Passing cars honked in support of the group during the hourlong protest Sunday afternoon.

“We’re hoping that people in this neighborhood know that for eight years Publix refused to support the livelihoods of people who live right down the road,” said Patricia Cipollitti, coordinator for the Alliance for Fair Food. “Publix hasn’t been a good neighbor by not joining the program, which is a proven solution to farmworker abuse.”

A Publix representative was not immediately available for comment.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers started the Fair Food Program in 2011. The program has ballooned to encompass several states, earning recognition from the United Nations and a Presidential Medal for its effect on workplace protections.

“The Fair Food Program matters a lot to our community, to farmworkers who are experiencing their rights being respected and their dignity being up held in the fields and in the workplace,” said Oscar Otzoy, a former farmworker and CIW leader, translated by Cipollitti.

“Thanks to the Fair Food Program premium, which is paid out from corporations to farmworkers, we’ve been able to distribute $25 million,” Otzoy continued. “This is providing an incredible economic uplift to workers in this industry.”

McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and other companies are participating buyers of the Fair Food Program — they purchase only from participating growers and pay a premium in addition to the regular price of tomatoes.

Just as important as the premiums are the strides taken toward workplace standards, Cipollitti said.

“It’s preventing the kinds of extreme abuse that were happening,” she said. “Workers now have access to shade and water and protections against sexual harassment and assault. It’s driven by farmworkers who know what to ask for and accomplish.” … read more

We close today’s update with a full slideshow of photos of the CIW members, the intrepid Women’s Group, and dedicated allies from the afternoon’s sunny protest — photos that capture beautifully the indefatigable spirit of a community firmly set on seeking real, lasting social change, no matter how long or arduous the road one must take to get there.

, , ,