By Rabbi Joshua Lesser
It’s that time of year when I check the tomato plants on my small balcony garden to see if they are ripe. I cannot look at these plants without remembering the beginning of 2012 when I joined T’ruah, a Jewish human rights organization made up of rabbis, to meet the extraordinary farmworkers of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
The organization had formed in the early ’90s to respond to the abusive conditions in Florida’s fields, where workers harvest 90 percent of the tomatoes consumed in the United States between November and May.
On that trip, I learned how 20 years of farmworker-led, consumer-supported work has effectively eliminated human trafficking in Florida’s fields and ushered in a new chapter of never-before-seen human rights protections for farmworkers through the CIW partnering with consumers to persuade major food retailers to join the Fair Food Program (FFP). At the trip’s end, I joined my colleagues in becoming a “tomato rabbi.”
At the end of July, Ahold USA, the major supermarket of the Northeast, followed other grocers like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods — as well as retail giant Walmart — in joining the FFP. This landmark win will increase the number of grocery stores carrying FFP tomatoes by over 75 percent.
And this summer the FFP began its expansion into many of Georgia’s tomato fields for the first time. Hundreds of workers on these farms have already received worker-to-worker education on their new rights to shade and water, freedom from sexual harassment and slavery, and a robust, round-the-clock system to ensure compliance. As one worker said recently, “Our dignity is being restored.”
Unfortunately Publix, one of the places I shop, is not among these stores. In fact, despite innumerable letters, conversations with managers, vigils, fasts, even a 200-mile march undertaken by hundreds of workers and consumers, Publix has refused to join for almost six years.
Publix goes so far as to advertise purchasing their tomatoes from farms where the protections of the FFP have not yet arrived. On those fields, farmworkers still face subpoverty wages, wage theft and unchecked sexual harassment.
I cannot understand why Publix refuses to join the FFP. Publix’s mission states that it commits to be “involved as responsible citizens in our communities.” The farmworkers who supply the produce sold in their stores not only are part of their communities, but also are in their supply chain, responsible for significant profit enjoyed by Publix.
So why has Publix turned its back on them?
Outside Publix’s home state of Florida, Atlanta is the retail giant’s biggest hub. I want the stores available to me in Georgia and throughout the Southeast to uphold the human rights of the farmworkers. I do not want to be a silent bystander. That’s why, the past three years, I have joined the CIW in seeking out store leadership in delegations. My congregation has sent postcards to Publix to advocate joining the FFP. We have protested alongside workers and other Atlanta residents at the stores.
I urge Publix to drop its disingenuous arguments and join other companies to ensure the well-being of the workers from whose labor it profits.
As a spiritual leader who believes that we must pursue justice, I could not agree more with Publix founder George Jenkins, who warned the greedy by saying, “Don’t let making a profit get in the way of doing the right thing.”
The current leadership has offered excuses instead of living up to its core values. I believe that both my faith tradition and my human obligation require protecting the dignity of those most in need and to safeguard fairness, safety and freedom. We all profit when we do the right thing.
So I ask Publix, “Other than excuses, what is getting in the way?”
The time is ripe not just for tomatoes, but also for major grocers like Publix to join Ahold in doing right by the farmworkers in the supply chain and ceasing to benefit from their exploitation. Ahold has made history by signing on as the first major grocer; now it is time for Publix to join it in supporting justice, dignity and fairness.
Rabbi Joshua Lesser is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bet Haverim.