Choosing Reverence and Resistance: Reflections on the Farmworker Freedom March

April 22, 2010

For more on how to get involved in farmworker justice, contact our partners at the Student/Farmworker Alliance, or contact us about starting a Real Food Movement on your campus next year.  

In 2001, a dozen or so farmworkers were sitting around in a church basement in a backwater town in Florida and declared a national boycott on Taco Bell, one of the nation’s largest fast food chains.  They called on Taco Bell’s CEO to help improve working conditions and wages for the workers who picked their tomatoes.  And what do you think happened?

Well, people laughed, thinking maybe they’d heard a joke.  Even committed activists had to wonder.  How could these migrant tomato pickers, immigrants, who were poverty-stricken, rural and socially isolated, take on a major multi-national corporation?  What chance did these workers, who awoke at 4am to compete with each other at the mercy of a brutal labor contractor for a day’s work, have?  It seemed a little far-fetched.

Fast-forward ten years and the seemingly-impossible has come true.  The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (Immokalee is the small town in SW Florida where they are based) can now boast of 8 major victories—bringing not just Taco Bell, but McDonalds, Burger King and five other major tomato purchasers to the table.  Yes, fast food execs sat across the table from migrant farmworkers, working out a deal.  And it didn’t happen because McDonalds decided to get all socially responsible out of nowhere.  It took long and creative campaigns—including in one case, a hunger strike and national boycott—to push these giants to action.  In truth, it is one of the most inspiring and remarkable David-and-Goliath stories of the Food Movement and of our lifetimes.   If you’d like a longer account, see http://www.ciw-online.org/about.html

This past weekend I joined over 1,000 other students, young activists, clergy, low-wage workers, grassroots community organizers, and even a few minor celebrities for a 22-mile march.  We walked for 3 days, from Tampa to Lakeland, Florida, headquarters of Publix supermarkets, the largest company in Florida and one of the biggest purchasers of tomatoes in the south.   The goal: get Publix to join Taco Bell and the others in supporting fair wages and working conditions by paying a penny more per pound for their tomatoes, passing the cent down directly to farmworkers.  The march only came after patient months of sending letters, making trips to corporate headquarters, and touring the state with a mobile museum on modern-day slavery in the fields.  The response from Publix had only been silence and denial.

For hours at a stretch we walked two-by-two and four-by-four through town centers and along open highways.  The mood was energetic and creative—people chanting (“Publix, shame on you; farmworkers are people too!), dancing along to bachata, Mexican rock bands like Maná, and of course, the Black Eyed Peas.  In the quiet stretches you’d find marchers from all walks of life simply sharing stories.

It was a truly diverse and inspiring group—and perhaps not the “usual” face of the food movement.  And yet, each of these marchers had come to recognize the struggle of farmworkers as tied up with their own.  Each, in their own way, had realized that, until all of us are free, none of us are truly free.


As student organizers and young food justice advocates, we can learn a great deal from the CIW and their Campaign for Fair Food.

The “Food Movement” has grown to such prominence in recent years, largely because it such a positive force for good in the world.  It’s a great issue to organize around because everybody eats! Who can argue against healthy eating, lush gardens, and celebrating the bounty of the Earth!?  There is something so profoundly human and beautiful about these acts.  The Food Movement is very much a reverence movement.

Many of us come to this movement with that inspiration—the desire to produce something real.  Sometimes is simply a change in our personal eating habit, sometimes a garden in our backyard, or maybe a new farmer’s market in our community.  Whether inspired to act by a class, and movie, or a personal experience with farming and food systems, the youth food movement is producing some of the most creative new food projects around.

Sadly, this reverence-oriented movement has a fatal flaw.  This is one fact that becomes abundantly clear when marching with the farmworkers of the CIW.  If we focus too narrowly on promoting the good we may lose sight of the need to stop the bad or even forget what, exactly, the bad is that we’re working to counter.

For most people on this planet, the “food system” is not a pleasant thing.   It is the labor contractor who yells and curses all day as you work in the fields.  It is the fast food restaurant, most accessible eatery around, that is driving up diabetes in your community.  It is the grocery store that you have to take two busses across town to reach.  It is the seed company, whose expensive products put your family into debt year after year. 

One farmworker-organizer at the march told us a poignant story about a turkey that illustrates this point. In Immokalee, workers live with 8-10 others in a trailer, forced to pay rents as high as you’d see in New York City by abusive landlords.  Due to the artificially low price of tomatoes, they must pick 2.5 tons of tomatoes every day just to make living wage.  It’s a brutal agricultural system.  And yet, when Thanksgiving rolls around, volunteers from nearby Naples, FL (one of the wealthiest cities in America), come flooding in offering free turkeys to farmworkers.  Of course, the workers line up by the thousands to receive the free birds.  And yet, as this worker recounted, he couldn’t help but wonder why it was that the very people who pick the nations food had to rely on charity to feed themselves.  No amount of free turkey (even free range turkey!) would address the very real, daily, and structural issues that held them in poverty to begin with.

This is how too many people experience the food system.  For those most hurt by our current food regime—urban and rural poor, communities of color, low-wage workers, peasants and small farmers—“the problem” with food is an inherently a defining and limiting feature of everyday life. A little more education, a new farmer’s market, or a free turkey won’t cut it here. The quest for “real food” for the most marginalized by nature first requires confronting, challenging and changing the policies and practices of the government, corporations and society that define the current order.  For farmworkers, working for change in the food system is inherently an act of resistance.

The divide between those who seek to promote the good and those who are compelled by their life circumstances to stop the bad is one that has persisted in social movements for generations.  On one side are those whose life circumstances and identity compels them to confront the structures that hold them in a degraded state.  The resistance movement.  On the other side, those of us who hold the unearned privileges that allows us to build alternatives while skirting around the current order when we like.  The reverence movement.  If this state of affairs is left alone, the former group are left without political support, resources or backing of allies, making only haltering gains in already difficult circumstances. Meanwhile, the latter camp go about their work, surprised that in never seems to touch the most “needy,” and frustrated when the need their helping address never seems to go away.

More than anything else, the gift the CIW has given the Food Movement is to highlight a particular type of revolutionary relationship necessary for producing transformational social change.  For in this relationship, we find a powerful union of joy and anger, struggle and creation—the fellowship of collective liberation.

Amongst the many speeches and musical acts at the culminating rally of the march was a unique coming together of the workers and their student supporters. Watching, you could see the appreciation, the confidence and the trust bonds of solidarity between the two groups.  The workers explained, without the power of young people organizing in communities across the country, their work would never have come this far.  The smiling students explained how they saw their role as secondary to that of the workers in this movement—recognizing both their own power as change-agents and the conscious choice to follow the lead of the farmworkers themselves. This, they said, is what solidarity looks like.

So what are the implications of this concept of “solidarity” for us as student food activists, wherever we are? 

Part of the answer may lie in our very definition of “real food.”  We say “real food” is food that truly nourishes consumers, producers, communities and the earth.  In this context, solidarity means that if you’re talking about sustainable agriculture but not listening to real farmers, you’re not talking about real food.  If you’re talking about food deserts but not listening to real community residents, you’re not talking about real food.  If you’re talking about fair food and not listening to the real people who pick, process, and serve your food, you’re not talking about real food. 

This is the key—honoring, listening to, and supporting the real people most affected by our current food system, and the very people we often purport to help without asking.  It’s easier said than done.  By the very nature of this relationship, we as students hold the privilege of being able to opt out when we want to.  Unlike those whose very lives are defined by the ills of our food regime, we can check out when we get tired, get frustrated, or get busy. 

Our challenge then must be to opt in.  Opt in to honest relationships.  Opt in to witnessing the sometimes-painful effects of our food system on real people.  Opt in to holding yourself accountable to others.  Opt in to loving fellowship.  Opt in to the joyous and sometimes frustrating, and always beautiful, struggle for real food and real change.