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Vegetables food justice

(Photo credit: 16th Street J/ WordPress)

By Alan Wisdom (@AFHWisdom)

“Because of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers over the last decade, a new day of human rights has indeed dawned right now in the tomato fields.” So proclaimed the Rev. Noelle Damico, the PCUSA staffer coordinating the denomination’s partnership with the Florida farmworkers’ union, at an April 5 conference on “Food Justice.” She told how the PCUSA has helped the Immokalee coalition win agreements with tomato growers to raise wages and improve working conditions.

According to Damico, the denomination committed itself a decade ago to “work for the transformation of the entire tomato industry rather than just tinker around with small changes or fall back into charitable efforts.” In endorsing boycotts of Taco Bell and other restaurant and grocery chains that buy large volumes of tomatoes, the PCUSA “demanded that those who are profiting from exploitation have a moral and ethical responsibility to end that exploitation.” It confronted “an industry-wide problem deeply embedded in cycles of production and purchasing whose wheels have been greased with the sweat and blood of the men and women in the fields.”

The PCUSA staffer offered the Immokalee campaign as a model for the larger struggle against greedy and dishonest corporations. She said the church brought “at least three important things” to that struggle: “our moral power,” “our loyalty to those who have been made poor by the systems of this world,” and “an unswerving confidence in the sovereignty of God.”

For Damico, “moral power” meant that the church is called “to create truthful spaces, not neutral places … which always favor the powerful and the status quo.” She warned, “The church likes to think of ourselves as a peacemaker, but far too often we play the role of ‘appease-maker.’” Church members try to avoid conflict, “and in doing so we forget that the Divine works powerfully amidst disruption.”

But Damico was confident that the PCUSA had done well in backing the farmworkers’ coalition. “Over the course of a decade the Presbyterian Church has spoken out time and time again,” she rejoiced. “Stated clerks, for example, have not allowed companies to publicly tell falsehoods about the CIW or the Fair Food Program. We’ve called them on it. We’ve not let corporations make false promises at the negotiating table and then go off and break confidentiality. We’ve called them on it publicly. And all of this has been essential to our integrity as a church.”

Later in the conference, Coalition of Immokalee Workers staffer Gerardo Reyes Chávez addressed the same topic in a markedly different tone. He spoke modestly, matter-of-factly, gratefully, without resentment. The Hispanic farmworker came across as a classic American trade unionist, devoted to making his coworkers’ lives better rather than to any ideological crusade.

“Many problems have been eliminated,” Reyes said, as a result of the agreements with tomato growers and buyers. Wages that had been stagnant for decades have gone up with a penny-per-pound bonus paid every week. Workers have the right to stop picking in the event of excessive heat, dangerous storms, or exposure to pesticides. They can complain without fear of being fired. An independent Fair Food Council receives the complaints and is empowered to give redress. Instances of slavery, violence, and sexual harassment, common in the past, have been exposed and punished. Abusive overseers have been removed and prosecuted.

The union leader summed up the change in the tomato fields: “Now they treat us with respect.” He attributed the change to a shift in tactics a dozen years ago. After limited earlier progress in direct negotiations with the growers, Reyes said the workers’ coalition started to ask, “Who benefits from these conditions, and who has responsibility and power which should be used to address the sub-poverty wages and the poor working conditions that we confront every day?”

That is when the coalition began to apply pressure on the large tomato buyers, starting with Taco Bell. The Taco Bell boycott, supported by the PCUSA and other groups, brought a breakthrough with the penny-per-pound agreement in 2005. After a 2010 accord with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, some 30,000 Florida farmworkers are now covered under the coalition’s Fair Food Program, according to Reyes. That’s not a large number in terms of the U.S. economy; however, the agreement has made a difference for those 30,000.

“We are not against corporations,” Reyes explained regarding the boycotts and demonstrations. “We are not against any particular brand. What we are against is injustice.”

The union leader thanked his audience of Presbyterian activists: “The support of churches has been fundamental, but the support of the Presbyterian Church’s witness has been irreplaceable, because they have been working with us side by side.” He credited the PCUSA as “the only church to have one staff member dedicated to working with us on a national level.”

That PCUSA staff member is, of course, Noelle Damico. Since 2002, through a period of turmoil and downsizing in the denomination, the Presbyterian Hunger Program has steadfastly supported her work, using funds collected through the One Great Hour of Sharing.

Alan Wisdom is an Adjunct Fellow at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.