A Tale of Two Roadside Farm Stands…


Or why Wendy’s is not like you.

And why you should join us for the Return to Human Rights Tour this March 16-29!

Join us, if you will, in a brief thought experiment: What would you do if you were in the market for some fresh tomatoes and you happened upon a roadside farm stand — an idyllic, pastoral produce stand, its shelves piled high with fruits and vegetables picked fresh in fields right next door — selling red, ripe tomatoes at a great price?

You’d stop in a heartbeat, right?  Who doesn’t love farm fresh produce?

But what if, while you’re standing at the cash register and a smiling attendant helps you with your purchase, you suddenly hear a commotion coming from the field behind the stand.  When you look around to see what’s the matter, you see a farm boss standing over a worker who has fallen to his knees on the ground, the boss repeatedly and violently punching and kicking the worker, who begs for him to stop, shouting, “But all I wanted was a drink of water!”

Stunned and concerned for the worker’s wellbeing, you ask the attendant to intervene, but he just looks at you, smiles again, and says, “Oh, that?  That happens all the time.  Nothing to worry about.  That’ll be $9.50!”

In this 1989 photo by Michael Kimble, who documented Immokalee’s abuses for the better part of a decade, a crewleader beats a worker who complained because he thought he was shorted on pay. This sort of violence was commonplace in Immokalee in the 1980s and was a principal reason for the emergence of the CIW in the early 1990s.

What would you do?  Would you complete your purchase and be on your way as if nothing had happened?

Or would you cut off your purchase immediately and try to stop the boss — intervening directly, or maybe calling the police — from hurting the worker further?

For most people, the answer is clear:  Stop buying anything from the stand immediately and, if possible, take action in some form or another to stop the abuse.  

Wendy’s, apparently, isn’t most people…

And thus we arrive at the reason for today’s thought experiment: Despite a steady stream of well-documented reports of violence, sexual abuse, and extreme exploitation in Mexico’s produce industry, Wendy’s continues to purchase tomatoes from our neighbor to the south.  Indeed, many readers of this site will remember that Harper’s Magazine exposed Wendy’s connection to a particularly notorious Mexican exporter, the Kaliroy Corporation, in an article published just last year.  Here’s an excerpt from that article:

In June, 2013, the Mexican army helped free workers from the Bioparques labor camp, a major Mexican tomato exporter. Two dozen of those freed in the government raid at Bioparques 4 were children. Many were malnourished, and the camp lacked a school, according to the Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare, state of Jalisco, Mexico. (LA Times)

… The Kaliroy Corporation, headquartered in Nogales, Arizona, with offices in McAllen, Texas, and Los Angeles, is the U.S. distribution arm of the major Mexican tomato grower, Bioparques de Occidente, which, according to the Los Angeles Times, produces up to 6 million boxes of the red fruit each year for the U.S. market—an enormous operation whose expansion has been fueled in part by a $17 million loan from the World Bank. As Kaliroy confirmed when I called, they are one of the suppliers to Wendy’s.

Bioparques workers who spoke to Times reporter Richard Marosi for an investigation published December 10, 2014, described subhuman conditions, with workers forced to work without pay, trapped for months at a time in scorpion-infested camps, often without beds, fed on scraps, and beaten when they tried to quit.

Although such reports raised eyebrows among some of the firm’s American customers, Wendy’s continues to buy some of its tomatoes from Mexican suppliers.

But that, of course, is not all.  Not only does Wendy’s buy some tomatoes from Mexico, and by all indications from some of the worst actors in Mexico, but the fast-food giant in fact abandoned its longtime Florida suppliers altogether when the Florida tomato industry implemented the award-winning Fair Food Program in partnership with the CIW (providing one of the principal reasons for the national boycott in the process).

Which brings us to the second half of our story… 

Let’s return to our bucolic little produce stand of horrors.  Imagine, now, that there is another stand right across the street from the first, identical in most ways except the prices are a few pennies higher, and the relationship between the farm and the workers is infinitely more humane.  As you look out at the field behind this second stand, you see workers provided with shade, bathrooms, and fresh water, you hear workers and supervisors conversing with mutual respect, and as you return to the stand to purchase your tomatoes, you pass by a committee of workers in a break room holding a meeting with the farmer about their health and safety concerns.  

Workers at a Fair Food Program Know Your Rights education session in Virginia in July of 2016
Workers gather under a mobile shade structure for a Fair Food Program Know Your Rights education session in Virginia in July of 2016

As you stand at the counter with your produce, the attendant rings up your tomatoes, smiles and says “That’ll be $9.60!”

Now what would you do?  Would you say “$9.60?!  I can get these same tomatoes across the street where they beat their workers and don’t even provide them water to drink for $9.50.  Take these back, I’m going across the street!”

Or would you buy those tomatoes, secure in the knowledge that the workers who picked them were treated with dignity and respect, and cognizant of the fact that pennies on a dollar is a reasonable price to pay for humane working conditions?

Again, you can imagine how most people answer this second question.  Yet Wendy’s, when faced with the choice between tomatoes from Florida picked under the Presidential Medal-winning Fair Food Program and slightly cheaper tomatoes picked in Mexico where human rights abuses are endemic and go largely unchecked, Wendy’s abandoned Florida, where it had bought tomatoes for years, and shifted its purchases to Mexico.

Here’s the bottom line:  Given the stark differences between the industry-leading human rights protections of the Fair Food Program in Florida and the appalling human rights crisis in Mexico, any company that considers itself serious about social responsibility should join the FFP and exercise a strong purchasing preference for Florida tomatoes.  No ifs, ands, or buts about it.  But Wendy’s not only doesn’t demonstrate a preference for Florida tomatoes, it stopped buying tomatoes from Florida altogether when its suppliers decided to take the lead on human rights. 

Return to Human Rights!

That decision is outrageous, it is indefensible, and it is why we are boycotting Wendy’s.  It is also why we hope you join us this coming March for the big Return to Human Rights Tour!
As we speak, CIW members and Alliance for Fair Food staff members are spreading out across the country to join the organizing efforts of local Fair Food committees.  For the next six weeks, the Fair Food Nation will be turning its energy to one goal:  On March 24-26 in Columbus, Ohio, we will show Wendy’s that we are thousands strong in this boycott, and we will not stop growing and building this boycott until they join the Fair Food Program.
You can find the full 14-city route here.  In the weeks ahead, keep an eye out for the official Tour website, share the brand-new graphic above on social media, and invite your friends and family to join us, too!