Tipping Point, Vol. 7: Texas school teachers confront Kroger!



Letter delivery by local school teachers dismissed by Kroger managers…

So far in this past week’s “Tipping Point” series, we’ve heard from consumers speaking out against the final fast food hold-out, Wendy’s, and the stubborn Florida grocer, Publix.  But what about the second largest food retailer in the country after Walmart, Ohio-based Kroger?  

After Ahold USA became the first major U.S. grocer to join the Fair Food Program last month, inquiring minds began turning to Kroger, a company which, with over $100 billion in annual revenues, dwarfs Ahold and Publix and the rest of its supermarket competition.  Why would Kroger refuse to support U.S. agriculture’s leading human rights program — especially when consumers have been demanding it for years?

A group of dedicated elementary school teachers in Houston, Texas, had the same question.  This group of educators decided not only to sign a letter to Kroger, but to send two teachers to deliver it in person.  Shortly afterwards, we received a full report from one of the delegation members, Marina, including a blow-by-blow account of a thoroughly disappointing exchange with the local manager!

Today, we bring you some highlights from this attempted teaching moment, which surely is just the first of many that Kroger can expect from its customers going forward:

…The teachers’ reactions to the Ahold victory were wonderful.  One of the teachers was really moved when hearing about the Fair Food Program and all of the changes that were taking place.  He shared “I’m from Maryland and we have a lot of Giant supermarkets. I also grew up on a farm and know how hard farm labor can be. I hope Kroger signs (the Fair Food Agreement).” 

A Houston-based teacher said, “My daughter and I always go to Kroger to get donations for her school. I’m disappointed that Kroger is not a part of the Fair Food Program.  I want to accompany you when you deliver the manager letter to them.”

Over a dozen teachers from Houston and other parts of the country signed a Kroger manager letter.  One of the elementary teachers accompanied me to our neighborhood Kroger to deliver the letter.

Here is how our conversation went:

Manager: How can I help you?

Me: I wanted to talk to you about these tomatoes. I’m pretty concerned. Do you see the price on this receipt?

Manager: Yes.  $6.46.

Me: So that’s $6.46 for 2 pounds, $103.36 for 32 pounds but the workers who pick tomatoes for Kroger pick 32 pounds and only get about 50 cents. 

(I pulled out 2 quarters to show him and put them on the counter.)

So what’s happening is that workers in your supply chain are earning poverty wages. 

Manager: Uh huh.

Me: Kroger has known about this for many years. Yesterday, Ahold, which owns Giant and Stop and Shop supermarkets signed a Fair Food Agreement and I wanted to share this letter with you.

Manager (to another teacher): Are you videotaping me, ma’am?! 

Manager picks up phone.

Manager (on the loudspeaker): Security! You’re needed in customer service!

Me:  That’s really not necessary. I’m an educator, an elementary teacher and I wanted to share with you that many other elementary teachers who have been taking a training at Houston Montessori Center have signed this letter and we want to deliver it to you and ask you to give it to your corporate office.

Manager: Okay.

Me:  We believe that this is an urgent matter.  Wages have not gone up in about 30 years. Women are also continuously put down in the workplace.  Real protections are needed.  That’s why the Fair Food Program is so important.

Manager (to other managers): She’s taking pictures. She started some campaign here…

Me: Do you have a response to any of this?  What do you think about what I’ve shared?

Manager: I don’t have any response to that right now. I s there anything I can help you with related to groceries?

2nd Manager: Wait. What are you trying to do?

Me: We’re calling on Kroger to sign a Fair Food Agreement just like Ahold did yesterday. I bought these tomatoes this morning and shared with my fellow teachers that the workers who pick tomatoes for Kroger only receive about 50 cents per 32 pounds. Other companies are paying an additional premium that would nearly double wages for workers in addition to partnering with farmers to ensure that their human rights are not violated. 

Manager: You know there’s probably a better way to go about this.

Me:  Kroger has known about this for over 6 years so what we really want to you to share with corporate is that customers need this to happen. These tomatoes are organic and delicious but that’s not good enough anymore.

Manager (to 2nd Manager):  She’s not even a customer.  She’s just causing a ruckus.

Me: A bag of tomatoes is causing a ruckus?  I think it’s more of an educational opportunity for you because I don’t think you knew about the Fair Food Program until today.

Manager: You don’t have to go into a store and do this.  What has doing this ever done?

Me: It’s been effective in bringing McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and even Walmart on board to participate in the Fair Food Program. It’s also meant that many of the most common abuses are being eliminated because workers are exercising their right to report abuses and ensure that issues are resolved in a more humane way.

Manager: This is definitely the wrong way to go about it.

Me: We feel that we need to educate everyone along the way, including you and your staff. We are all connected to the food system. We all eat and we need food to be harvested before it ends up on our tables. We all benefit from the agriculture system of this country but it’s shifting to become more humane for the 21st century.

2nd Manager: You all are disturbing our customers.

Me: I am a customer. You’re supposed to be available to care about my concerns.

Manager: She’s not a customer.

Me: I paid for these tomatoes this morning. I have the receipt. Doesn’t that make me a customer? Am I not a customer because I’m a conscientious consumer?

2nd Manager: So all you want is for me to take your letter?

Me: Yes and please pass it along to your corporate office and let them know that we will be waiting for a response. We appreciate your time.

2nd Manager: Anything else?

Me: No. I just came to share with you my concern over these tomatoes. I have concerns about other produce, too but that will be for another time. We’ve been shopping here all summer. We’re all teachers who have been taking our training down the street. We’re actually putting together some curriculum to teach our children about this work and will encourage them to write you some letters, too. 

And with that, the school teachers left the supermarket.  Marina’s letter to those of us in Immokalee concluded:

I wanted to say that the organic label on my tomatoes wasn’t good enough anymore.  I wanted to say that I can’t wait for the day when I can buy a tomato with a fair food label on it…in their store!  I wanted to say how much we cared about creating a food system that is truly sustainable and honors the labor that makes it possible to continue to function.  I wanted to say that this felt like the work that Dr. Maria Montessori called on us as educators to be a part of – peace education in action.

I didn’t have that opportunity with those managers but customers gathered around while we shared and as my colleague said, “those seeds were planted”.  

Another Houston-based teacher who works across the street from that Kroger said, “I have a hard decision to make.  I have been shopping at Kroger since I was a child. It’s where I go to shop for my family.  I don’t believe that I can continue to shop there after their reaction to a letter that is asking them to do the right thing.  I think I need to write to them myself and tell them that.” 

Suffice to say, Kroger can expect to receive many more delegations and letters — and to lose many more customers — between now and the day they join the Fair Food Program.  

Don’t miss the grand finale of the “Tipping Point” series tomorrow!