“A Tale of Two Groceries”…

Publix, Whole Foods taking sharply different approaches to farm labor injustice in tomato supply chain

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times;… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair;…”

“Immokalee workers turn eye toward Publix,” Ft. Myers News-Press 6/5/09
“Editorial: Publix should back tomato workers’ fight,” News-Press 6/6/09

The oft-quoted opening paragraph of the Charles Dickens classic “A Tale of Two Cities” provides a remarkably apt frame for a reflection on the different responses by supermarket giants Whole Foods and Publix to the revelation of slavery and other forms of extreme exploitation in Florida’s tomato fields.

This past winter, headlines across Florida told of unimaginably brutal conditions on a labor camp in Immokalee where workers were forced to pick tomatoes against their will, had their pay stolen week after week, and were beaten, chained and locked inside box trucks so that they wouldn’t escape overnight. In late December, as most people gathered with friends and family for the holiday season, one of the workers, Mariano Lucas Diego, testified at the sentencing hearing in Ft. Myers’ federal court, saying these achingly simple words to Judge John E. Steele, “Bosses should not beat up the people who work with them.”

With the sentencing of his bosses to 12 years in federal prison, Mariano Lucas Diego’s “winter of despair” came to an end. And thanks to his suffering, farmworkers in Immokalee and throughout Florida saw, for the first time, signs of a “spring of hope.” That’s because this latest slavery case was the first slavery case involving tomatoes to have been prosecuted since the CIW had established supplier codes of conduct with five major food retailers, codes that included “zero tolerance” provisions for forced labor.

The same article on the farm bosses’ sentencing that quoted Mariano Lucas Diego also identified two farms that used the workers being held against their will — Six L’s and Pacific Tomato Growers. The identification of the growers where the enslaved workers picked tomatoes triggered responses by all five of the companies that had signed agreements with the CIW.

As a result, Whole Foods, the first grocery store chain to have reached an agreement with the CIW only months earlier, cut-off purchases from Six L’s and Pacific.

Also, Whole Foods began aggressively courting alternative suppliers, growers willing to go against the grain of Florida’s tightly-controlled tomato industry, growers willing to implement the terms of the CIW’s agreement with the organic supermarket leader. And just last week, news came of a breakthrough — Whole Foods had reached an agreement with two of Florida’s leading organic producers, Alderman Farms and Lady Moon Farms. As Tom Wilson of Alderman Farms told the produce industry journal The Packer:

“Whole Foods has a lot of excitement for this program, to do it right,” said Tom Wilson, an Alderman Farms salesman. “We listened to what they said and how they will support the program. In that light, we felt it was the right thing to do. More and more people will be doing this.” Read more

Meanwhile, at Publix (the country’s largest privately owned grocery chain, with revenues in 2008 of $23.9 billion) it seems that nothing has changed, despite last winter’s disturbing look behind the scenes at the brutal conditions facing Florida’s farmworkers.

In an article published in last Friday’s Ft. Myers News-Press, it was revealed that both Senator Dick Durbin and United Methodist Church Bishop Timothy Whitaker had asked Publix to join other food industry leaders in supporting the Campaign for Fair Food, to which Publix responded icily, “we respectfully decline the opportunity to participate in this program.

But not only that. The same article revealed that Publix continues to purchase tomatoes from Pacific Tomato Growers. And photos (right) taken just days ago at a Publix store in Ft. Myers leave no doubt that Six L’s also remains one of the grocery giant’s tomato suppliers (bottom right of label clearly shows the “Six L’s” logo).

That’s two for two.

Indeed, when asked about slavery in its supply chain, a Publix spokesperson appeared to take the position that the company has little or no role to play in policing its own suppliers. Shannon Patten of Publix told the News-Press, “We are confident that Governor Crist and Florida’s law enforcement agencies will work tirelessly to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from our great state.

As the CIW’s Lucas Benitez told the News-Press:

“In its commercials, Publix likes to cast itself as Florida’s community grocer – the good neighbor. But how can you be a good neighbor when people are … forced to work as slaves and robbed of their hard-earned pay in your own backyard, and you turn a blind eye?

“Instead they continue to buy their tomatoes from one of the farms where workers held against their will picked tomatoes.” Read more

Dickens wrote “A Tale of Two Cities” as a cautionary tale for the aristocracy of England, holding the brutality of the French Revolution up as an example of what might await the British upper classes if they remained blind to the social injustices of their times. In Book 3 of the serial novel he wrote:

“Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.”

In this Tale of Two Groceries, we will close with the words of a modern-day voice for social justice, the editorial writer at the Ft. Myers News-Press, who wrote this weekend:

“Farmworker mistreatment is an ancient sin against the hardworking people who put food on our tables. A concerted effort to end it, including farmworker advocacy groups, and religious, political and law enforcement leaders and now some retailers and agribusinesses has finally evolved.

Whole Foods joined the fight because it reflected the company’s “core values.” The same should be true of a leading company like Publix.” Read more