Sunday, March 16, 2014

'Tomato Rabbis' Join in Campaign for Better Conditions for Florida Pickers

Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, one of the speakers at the recent spring colloquium sponsored by the Jewish-Christian Dialogue in Albuquerque, told participants that an expanded definition of kosher has emerged in Judaism. The traditional definition of kosher is no longer enough. One important consideration is the environmental conditions under which the food was produced . If harmful pesticides or other chemicals that damage the Earth were used in the production of food, then it is not truly kosher.

The other principle to remember is whether the rights and dignity of the workers involved in that production were respected.  Rabbi Min mentioned the tomato rabbis, who have partnered with  other faith-based groups and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to seek better conditions for tomato pickers in Florida. This effort  is one of several efforts sponsored by  T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights

Because of exemptions related to farm-workers in American labor law, farm-workers are paid by the pound, not by the hour: $0.50 for every 32 pound bucket of tomatoes they pick (We pay $75-80 in the store for the same 32-pounds of tomatoes). At these rates, most workers make well below the minimum wage, for an average annual salary of about $10,000. This holds true for workers who are here both legally and illegally. The farm-workers who pick tomatoes in Florida also face extreme pesticide exposure and unsafe working conditions. Meanwhile, cases of human trafficking and slavery are rampant. One federal prosecutor has called Florida "ground zero" for modern slavery. 
Read more about the partnership among the tomato rabbis, other faith groups and the CIW.

Rabbis, faith groups, tomato workers hold vigil at Publix Supermarket (photo: T'ruah)
Some progress has occurred since  the campaign was begun. The faith community and the CIW have convinced some fast food chains (Taco Bell and McDonald's), food service companies, and a handful of grocery (Walmart, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's) to sign Fair Food Agreements, which commit the companies to only source from growers who have instituted a legally binding code of conduct in the fields. The CIW and the faith community have also gained a commitment from the Florida Tomato Growers Exchangeto phase-in the Fair Food Code of Conduct and to pay their workers one penny more a pound for tomatoes.

But much work remains to be done. Many grocery stores and restaurant chains are still purchasing tomatoes under the old conditions.  The CIW and and the faith community believe the US Department of Agriculture should  set an example by changing its purchase practices for the school lunch program and for market-stabilization efforts. "The US Department of Agriculture is a bellwether buyer, and as an agency of the federal government its purchasing practices should embody the highest standards for human rights,' reads a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The letter is available for everyone to sign

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