Why was a group of rabbis singing around some tomatoes at a Publix supermarket in Naples, Fla.? No, it wasn’t a new ritual about mindful eating, but rather an act of protest. Would you pay one penny more per pound for tomatoes to ensure a better wage and a more dignified workplace for farmworkers? That’s the underlying question our prayer circle was asking.
Through Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (where I run a campaign on modern slavery), the fifteen of us have traveled from all over the country to learn about the abuses of the Florida tomato industry: sub-poverty wages, violence and sexual harassment, wage theft, exposure to dangerous pesticides, and — in six successfully prosecuted cases over the past ten years (resulting in more than 1,000 people being freed) — modern slavery. Florida produces most off-season tomatoes eaten by those of us who live east of the Mississippi, so the chances are pretty high that if you’ve eaten a fresh tomato in the winter, it came from Florida. Immokalee, where we were visiting, has been called “ground zero” of modern slavery by a federal prosecutor.
This past Sunday, as I marched with nearly 1,000 others, passing by 5-star hotels, bewildered tourists and students, I felt proud to be holding the new “Boston Jews for Fair Food” banner. A group of interfaith individuals, we were marching in support of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers and the “penny per pound” campaign. The campaign, which Whole Foods, Taco Bell and even McDonalds have already signed on to, promises one more cent paid per pound of tomatoes collected by workers in the Immokalee section of Florida, one of the largest tomato growing regions in the country (workers currently receive 50 cents for every 32 pounds they pick.) More specifically, we were protesting the Massachusetts-based Ahold company, which owns Stop and Shop grocery stores, and has refused to sign on to the agreement.
To start off the rally, two local rabbis stood in front of the crowd to give an invocation and read a segment of an interfaith statement endorsing the CIW campaign: “In Judaism, food matters — from how our food is harvested to the act of eating itself… Ensuring fair wages and working conditions for the people who grow our food has its roots in Biblical law,” said Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Dorshei Tzedek.