Over the past six weeks, the Fair Food Nation has been on the road, as crews from Immokalee joined allies to take the call for farmworker justice to diverse corners of this country – from the grand metropolises of Chicago, Atlanta, and New York, to the small rural towns of Appalachian Maryland and Pennsylvania.
But the Behind the Braids tours have not been the only momentous events taking place in the Fair Food Nation! Over the past two weeks, Immokalee has hosted two sets of powerful faith leaders, first from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and then T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, representing millions of individuals from coast to coast. Since the earliest stirrings of a worker-led movement in Immokalee, farmworkers have counted on the moral weight, hospitality, and friendship of leaders of faith and conscience from all corners of the United States. Today is no different.
Two weeks ago, the CIW and AFF had the honor of welcoming the Rev. Jan Edmiston, Co-Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to Immokalee. Representing nearly two million Christians nationwide in the highest elected position within the PC (USA), Rev. Edmiston and her visit signify the latest demonstration of deep and unwavering commitment from an institution that, over the course of our history, has been a driving force in the movement for Fair Food.
Accompanied by the Rev. Graham Hart, General Presbyter of the Peace River Presbytery 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 transformations that have taken place in the fields, Rev. Edmiston both met with Judge Laura Safer Espinoza of the Fair Food Standards Council and traveled to Sunripe Certified Brands (formerly, Pacific Tomato Growers), to hear from a participating grower how this unique, unparalleled partnership is bringing dignity and human rights to the fields for the first time in decades.
The church leaders even received a tour of Sunripe’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.
Before departing, Rev. Edmiston shared the hope she felt during her visit to Immokalee, a welcome ray of inspiration in trying times.
Only a week or so after Rev. Edmiston’s visit, Immokalee hosted the ninth delegation of “Tomato Rabbis” from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. During a profound, three-day immersive exchange, the eight Jewish leaders (hailing from all across the nation, Boston to Miami) held lively discussions with CIW members as well as the Fair Food Standards Council and Fair Food Program participating growers, acquiring a deep understanding of all facets of the FFP.
Remarkably, these rabbinic 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: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights 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 provides an opportunity for religious leaders to observe an extraordinary and unique program that has virtually eradicated 21st-century slavery in the fields.
The #tomatorabbis visit would not be complete, however, without strategizing for the year ahead or taking action in the Campaign for Fair Food – which represents the consumer power and resulting market consequences foundational to the Fair Food Program.
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.
Though their second visit to the store did not bear much fruit – as the Wendy’s representative 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.
Leaders of many faiths have a mighty and venerable history of standing with farmworkers, lending both their moral voice and consumer power to achieve what was once seen as impossible – real, verifiable human rights in an industry once built on 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 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.