Fair Food-inspired article from the Bitter Southerner wins 2019 James Beard Media Award!

An article in the online Southern news and culture hub, The Bitter Southerner, on the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food and the Fair Food Program has won a 2019 James Beard Award for Food Journalism.

CIW’s Nely Rodriguez:  “During the fast, I found myself reflecting on the things I’ve seen, like the mothers here who have to get up extremely early to drop their kids off at daycare or school, but under the Fair Food Program, that is no longer the case. If we can make this Program expand, those things will change…”

Late last month, the James Beard Foundation announced the winners of its annual James Beard Awards, which shine a spotlight on journalists, chefs, activists, and others, who are making waves in the food world.  For some context, the CIW’s Co-Founders Greg Asbed and Lucas Benitez were proud recipients of the James Beard Leadership Award in 2016, and Food Chains, the feature-length documentary highlighting the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food, was honored in 2015. 

This year, yet another Fair Food-inspired offering was selected among the nominees: “A Hunger for Tomatoes,” a feature-length narrative article in the online Southern news and culture hub, The Bitter Southerner, took the 2019 James Beard Media Award.  Weaving together stories of small farmers, farmworkers, and home seed breeders, writer Shane Mitchell paints a picture of the Southern landscape surrounding one of the region’s biggest crops – the tomato.

Today, we want to share just a few highlights from “A Hunger for Tomatoes,” which movingly depicts the community, economy, and culture surrounding the tomato throughout the South – an inextricable part of which, for the past seven years, has been the Fair Food Program.  The article explores not only the dark history of exploitation in Southern agriculture, including in the tomato industry, but also the 25-year history of struggle and transformational change brought about by the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food and, today, the Fair Food Program itself. 

Here below are some excerpts from “A Hunger for Tomatoes,” though we would strongly recommend sitting down with a good cup of coffee and taking the time to read the full, beautifully-written article, which more than earned its tip of the hat from the James Beard Foundation.

“Que es el trabajo?” asked Julia Perkins. “What’s the job?”

A group of women facing her at the bulletin board repeated the English lesson in unison. On a Sunday afternoon in late April at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) headquarters, female members gathered for their weekly coffee klatch to learn a few handy phrases, trade daycare schedules, and discuss the cost of groceries. Boxes of Polvorones and Canelitas cookies laid scattered on the folding table. A banda tune by Los Jefes de la Sierra Grande leaked from the sound booth of Radio Conciencia La Tuya next door. Murals depicting tomato workers in the field covered butter yellow walls. Hand-painted slogans “No Mas Abusos,” “Comida Justa” and “Justice for Farmworkers” hung above a cluster of desks.

“What kind of work is it?” said Perkins. “What do I need to apply?”

Perkins, a CIW education coordinator born in North Carolina, ended her lesson, and the women rose to rearrange the folding chairs and put away the snacks. All dressed neatly in jeans, cotton tops, clean sneakers. Gold necklaces, pierced ears. Long hair pulled back in sensible ponytails or braids. Cell phones tucked back into purses. Many still worked in the fields; others were field agents for the Coalition. Nice ladies, all.  

Bet you’d never guess they’re expert hunger strikers…

… Members of the CIW are fantastic at nonviolent resistance. One of their cornerstone initiatives is the Fair Food Program, a humane workplace monitoring collaboration with big ag companies including Gargiulo, Pacific Tomato, and Lipman Family Farms, and fast food giants McDonald’s, Subway, Chipotle, and Taco Bell. Walk through the produce aisle at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s and inspect the tiny green Fair Food seal on those packets of glossy grape tomatoes and genetically engineered slicers. It represents decades of toil and deprivation.

But the Fair Food seal can’t be found at Publix or Wendy’s.

Not yet.

The next day, Nely Rodriguez, a robust woman in her mid-50s, walked into the CIW offices and shook my hand. She wore a caramel-colored knit sweater over a tank top and capris. Rodriguez, originally from Tamaulipas, Mexico, spoke in a low alto.

“When I first came here, I picked apples and asparagus in Michigan,” she said. “Then in Florida, tomatoes, squash, and eggplant; and since 2007, my work at the Coalition is organizing in the community, with the Sunday women’s group, the radio, and labor-abuse investigations outside the Fair Food Program.”

She also takes part in hunger strikes. Her first fast was in 2012 — a weeklong protest at Publix headquarters in Lakeland, Florida…

…“During the fast, I found myself reflecting on the things I’ve seen, like the mothers here who have to get up extremely early to drop their kids off at daycare or school, but under the Fair Food Program, that is no longer the case. If we can make this Program expand, those things will change. Those things come into your mind and you can power through. After five or six days you want to continue. The feedback you get, the support from the community, that encouragement helps you get through the more difficult parts, urges you on.”…

…The Coalition of Immokalee Workers conducts field sessions at farms that have signed the Fair Food Program agreement, and during the season they travel north along the same route as the migrants. Saint Helena is a regular stop. The session addresses rights and responsibilities of both workers and farmers: standard safety practices, tracking hours, and how to report discrimination or abuse. It takes about an hour. That morning, the CIW activists worked through three sessions, with about 200 workers in all. As Reyes talked, Julia Perkins and Nely Rodriguez handed out brochures. Other staff held up murals painted on plastic tarps to illustrate key points. One had an outsize cartoon sun burning above a row of vines, and Reyes commented that on really hot days, all you see is that big yellow orb. The crews laughed.

The mood shifted when Nely Rodriguez took her turn to talk about sexual harassment, standing next to a mural of two workers commenting on a female picker’s appearance as she bent over in a field. Some men snickered, looking nervously at each other for support.

“What if this was your mother or sister?” she asked…

Make sure to head over to the Bitter Southerner website to read the James Beard Award-winning piece from Shane Mitchell!  We’d like to close with a hearty congratulations to the Bitter Southerner and Shane, whose creativity and hard work earned her this widely-lauded recognition from the James Beard Foundation.