Holiday health fair on Immokalee farm shows other side of Fair Food Program…

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Joyful holiday party on Pacific Tomato Growers Immokalee farm highlights remarkable twenty-year trajectory of the movement for Fair Food!

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Jon Esformes, Operating Partner of the fourth-generation, family-owned Pacific Tomato Growers, speaks at last weekend’s Holiday Health Fair on the Immokalee area farm. He is joined onstage by Pacific Tomato Growers executives (white t-shirts) and representatives of the CIW.

There’s no way around it.  The Fair Food movement was born in conflict.

Three general strikes rocked Immokalee between the years 1995 and 1999.  A 30-day hunger strike by six CIW members brought national attention to the then-unknown farmworker community atop the Everglades.   A 230-mile march on the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange offices in Orlando made the plight of Florida’s farmworkers — and their call for “dignity, dialogue, and a fair wage” — front page news in papers across the state. 

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CIW members block a bus from entering the central parking lot in town to pick up workers for the fields during 1995 general strike.

And, as fate would have it, those years of conflict began with a pay cut at Pacific Tomato Growers in 1995.

That cut sparked the very first general strike in 1995 (right), marking the debut of the CIW on the public stage.  What followed was a tense and protracted struggle, a fifteen year long stand-off with strong emotions and even stronger actions on both sides of a divide that seemed, at the time, too wide, and too deep, to ever heal. 

That was then…

But without conflict, there can be no reconciliation.  Without disrepute, no redemption.  And like all the best holiday tales — from “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “A Christmas Carol” — this story has a happy ending.

The pitched battles of the past have undergone a remarkable metamorphosis into a unique, and uniquely effective, partnership today.  The Fair Food Program — called “one of the great human rights success stories of our day” in a Washington Post op/ed and lauded by human rights observers from the White House to the United Nations — is setting new standards for ethical production and supply chain management based on worker participation and rigorous monitoring, all enforced by strict market consequences established in the CIW’s Fair Food Agreements with food industry leaders from Subway to Whole Foods.   The Fair Food Program taps the strengths of every major link in the food industry — from workers and growers in the fields all the way to retail food corporations and consumers at the table —  to ensure that workers are treated with dignity and respect when picking tomatoes in Florida’s fields.  

The Florida tomato industry’s trajectory since the launch of this partnership in 2010 has been nothing short of astonishing.  In the words of food writer Barry Estabrook (“Tomato School,” the Atlantic), the industry has gone from “being one of the most repressive employers in the country” to “one of the most progressive in the fruit and vegetable industry”.  And nowhere was that transformation more evident than on the grounds of Pacific Tomato Growers last weekend (yes, the self-same Pacific Tomato Growers of the 1995 pay cut), where a holiday health fair brought workers and their families together with farm supervisors and farm owners and their families for a day of fun, music, great food, and relaxation, with some much appreciated preventative health care thrown in for good measure!  

pac_party4Pacific was the first grower to sign a Fair Food Agreement with the CIW back in 2010.  It was a landmark moment (the CIW’s Oscar Otzoy and Pacific’s Jon Esformes shake hands following a press conference announcing the agreement, below), and the partnership that took shape in the talks leading to that agreement — and in the hard, day-to-day work of implementing the agreement ever since — became the rock upon which the Fair Food Program was founded.  From that base, the Fair Food Program has grown to cover over 90% of the Florida tomato industry today.

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And at last weekend’s health fair, the partnership extended well beyond the workplace into the lives of the men and women who pick and pack tomatoes at Pacific, beyond the farm gate and into the community of people who make Pacific Tomato Growers work.

From the team of 22 eye care professionals providing free eye health screenings: 

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 To the 6 full-length grills working overtime…:

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… to cook untold hundreds of delicious hamburgers and hotdogs:

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From the CIW booth, where workers learned not only about their rights and responsibilities under the Fair Food Program, but how they can participate to help expand the gains of the Program at Pacific and throughout the industry:

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To the games for kids and their parents alike, like this one, where workers got a free shot…:

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… at dropping their harvest supervisor in the dunk tank (for what was, truth be told, a welcome dip on an unseasonably warm day!):

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The Holiday Health Fair at Pacific Tomato Growers was a huge success, and not just for the hundreds of workers who turned out for the party:

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But for the company that threw it as well.  Things got a little emotional at times last weekend, and for good reason (below, Pacific’s Operating Partner Jon Esformes pauses during a particularly moving moment to gather his thoughts during his speech opening the day’s events):

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Pacific and the CIW have traveled a long road together, most of it uphill.  Progress was not only slow, it was almost as if relations between workers and growers in the Florida tomato industry were stuck in reverse for nearly fifteen years.  Only in the past three years has that road leveled out and have we — we, workers and growers together — been able to make real forward progress.  

The difference — the almost palpable whiplash — can be dizzying at times.  And last Saturday was one of those times.  

There’s no sense in whitewashing history, too many people lived through it and the events were too dramatic to deny.  Fifteen years ago, CIW members on Pacific property — not there to pick tomatoes — would have faced arrest.

But the progress being made today through the Fair Food Program is equally dramatic, and equally undeniable.  Today, CIW members visiting Pacific’s fields are received as partners, as are Pacific’s management when they drop by the CIW office in town for a visit.

We are, as the saying goes, making the road by walking, and every now and then, we get to stop for a moment to take a look around.

Last weekend’s Holiday Health Fair at Pacific was one of those moments.  To stop and look back down the hill at the road we have traveled.  To see the world around us that we are making our way through — together —  today.  And to take a glance at the road ahead which, for the first time in two decades, looks truly inviting.