Rolling student fast of 2017 takes its place in storied annals of fight for Fair Food…

Weeklong fast at Ohio State University tapped into Dr. King’s “power in the universe that works for justice” and inspired a month-long movement on over a dozen college campuses;

Fast forges new leaders for the fight ahead, lays the groundwork for a student-led surge in the Wendy’s Boycott this fall! 

A little historical context…

Following the Montgomery Bus Boycott victory in 1956 — a year-long campaign that marked the first significant triumph of Dr. Martin Luther King’s methods of creative non-violence — Dr. King was invited to speak at the University of California at Berkeley.  The speech he delivered that day, June 4th, 1957, laid out the theological underpinnings of Dr. King’s new, and startlingly effective, philosophy of social change.  That philosophy would come to guide his life’s work over the next decade and help the Civil Rights Movement successfully mine a deeply-buried vein of enduring justice that laid below the layers of brutality and exploitation comprising America’s awful history of racial oppression.  Here is an excerpt from his speech, entitled “The Power of Non-Violence”:


I am quite aware of the fact that there are persons who believe firmly in nonviolence who do not believe in a personal God, but I think every person who believes in nonviolent resistance believes somehow that the universe in some form is on the side of justice. That there is something unfolding in the universe whether one speaks of it as a unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as some unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice and so in Montgomery we felt somehow that as we struggled we had cosmic companionship. And this was one of the things that kept the people together, the belief that the universe is on the side of justice. (emphasis added)

The bolded sentence in the excerpt above is the theme of today’s post.  The power to which Dr. King referred of non-violent protest to tap into a sort of universal instinct for justice — and, doing so, vastly multiply its impact beyond the immediate reach of the action itself —  is real.  It is the thread that ties the sacrifice and struggle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the many fasts undertaken by Mahatma Gandhi in his lifetime to challenge colonial rule and promote Hindu-Muslim unity in India decades before it, and to the remarkable rolling student fast in support of the Wendy’s Boycott that took place on over a dozen college campuses this past spring, decades after it.  

And it is the power that will propel that nascent student-led movement to new heights this coming fall, to the booting of Wendy’s restaurants off campus after campus in the school year ahead, and, ultimately, to a Fair Food agreement between Wendy’s and the farmworkers whose exploitation has fueled the fast-food giant’s profits for far too long. 

A fast begins…

OSU student fasters during the March 26th Parade for Human Rights in Columbus, Ohio

On March 20th, 19 students and community allies launched a weeklong fast to pressure Ohio State University administrators to honor their promise to students and cut the university’s ties with Wendy’s until Wendy’s joins the Fair Food Program.  Here’s an excerpt from our report on that first day of what would become a national, rolling student fast that lasted more than a month and spread to over a dozen campuses:

Earlier this month, we shared a breaking announcement of a major escalation in the Wendy’s Boycott:  Students from The Ohio State University and community members from across Columbus declared that they would launch a weeklong fast in the lead up to the Parade for Fair Food on March 26th.

Today, those dedicated students and allies are launching their fast, and in so doing they are launching perhaps the most powerful action to date in the national Wendy’s boycott.  These 19 fasters will be bringing the demand for farmworker justice both to the doorstep of OSU President Michael Drake and to the Wendy’s Headquarters itself, with the moral force of nonviolent action that has shaped movements for social change for over a century…

On their first day, the fasters visited the offices of President Michael Drake, leaving a message for the President (who the fasters reported was present but unwilling to meet) in the form of tomato seeds that, in the fasters’ words:

… represent the choice the administration has to make: OSU can nurture the growing respect for human rights in agriculture by aligning the university with the award-winning Fair Food Program, or the administration can ignore its responsibility to the students it represents and allow the potential fruits of justice to wither by continuing to do business with Wendy’s while Wendy’s continues to turn its back on human rights.  

The OSU students’ fast would continue until the following weekend, when they joined forces with hundreds of farmworkers from Immokalee and Fair Food activists from around the country in an unforgettable march through downtown Columbus, Ohio, to the OSU campus, where they broke their fast (below) in a moving ceremony:

The torch is passed, a movement is born…

Gandhi, in a reflection during his fast to end violence between India’s Hindu and Muslim communities in Calcutta in 1947, said of the power of his protest (from “Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr The power of nonviolent action” a UNESCO publication, pg 74):

‘The function of my fast’, Gandhi interpreted, ‘is not to paralyse us or render us inactive’, but ‘to release our energies.’

Though their fast ended without a commitment from the administration to cut Wendy’s lease, by the measure set forth in Gandhi’s reflection on his own efforts, the OSU fast was an undeniable success.  At the same ceremony where the OSU students broke their fast, students from the University of Michigan stepped up to be the first to take the torch and carry the OSU campaign forward.

OSU students pass the white armbands that symbolized their fast on to students from the University of Michigan at the conclusion of their weeklong fast.

From the University of Michigan, a national, rolling student fast took off on college campuses from Florida to Indiana, and the growing protest movement picked up several significant endorsements from leading religious organizations along the way, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM), and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.  

Students at New College in Sarasota, Florida, held their own 5-day fast, an action that would move fully 10% of their fellow students — and even New College President Donal O’Shea (below) — to join them:

When faced with this simple question from his students — will you align the institution you lead with a pioneering, Presidential Medal-winning human rights program and the farmworkers who built it — New College President Donal O’Shea responded with a resolute and resounding “Yes!”  

“I am very proud of the fast,” President O’Shea added, and committed himself to a day-long fast alongside his students (setting an example of leadership and empathy for the community that he leads that President Drake and his fellow administrators at Ohio State University would do well to follow…).

From there, the fast spread to three more colleges throughout the Tampa Bay region, as the cry for justice from the 19 OSU fasters sparked powerful actions — and profound reflections — among an ever-growing circle of students far from the Columbus, Ohio, campus.  Here’s an excerpt from our report on the Tampa area fast:

This week, the Tampa Bay student fast — a collaborative action among undergraduate and graduate students at the University of South Florida, the University of Tampa, and Eckerd College — hit the ground running after taking up the torch from students at New College of Sarasota and Valencia College (fasters pass on the symbolic white arm band below)

Having started the week with 8 committed fasters, the three universities now count 16 students taking part in the rolling fast, and over 30 more students who took part in 24-hour solidarity fasts throughout the week!

“Wendy’s refusal to join a proven solution to farmworker poverty and abuse is unacceptable,” USF student Sarah Zaharako said in a written statement. “We’re fasting to support the Wendy’s boycott and current student campaigns to cut Wendy’s contracts until the fast food holdout joins the Fair Food Program, because consumers have the power to bring Wendy’s to the table. In the end, the struggle for farmworker rights is part of the greater struggle for human rights.” (“Tampa Bay area college students are fasting to pressure Wendy’s into joining Fair Food Program,” Creative Loafing, 4/18/17)

Following a protest at a Tampa area Wendy’s, the student fasters, joined by the CIW’s Leonel Perez (in blue, top left), gathered on the sidewalk outside the restaurant for a final reflection.  Below is a sample of their thoughts on their role in the growing movement:

Sarah Zaharako: “This experience is so impactful, something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.  all the other people on campus committing to the 24-hour fast… we have a class together, Katie [another faster] and I. And almost the entire class is doing a 24 hour fast with us… they were all wearing their little buttons, I was so happy!  Being able to educate others on that and having them align with our views was very humbling.”

Suzanne Young: “I’m inspired and impressed that we were able to come together as this Tampa Bay coalition of universities.  I was happy to be a part of it and meet amazing USF students, and people from UT and Eckerd that I had never met before.  It keeps my spirits up to know that we have this community here and that we’re all coming together to support CIW.”

Samantha May: “When you’re hungry, it’s something you know and it’s not something you can really ignore. That’s been reflective as well, because every time you get that hunger pain, or every time you wake up in the middle of the night, you’re reminded of why this work matters, and why you’re doing it.  And, how important it is that corporations like Wendy’s actually take responsibility for the violations they’re responsible for.

Leonel Perez: “Our community in Immokalee knows about the fasts that are taking place.  In the past few weeks, when we go to the fields to educate workers about their rights as a part of the Fair Food Program, that’s one of the things we open with: We’re not alone.  There are students fasting, students protesting, students flyering and delivering letters.  With your support, tens of thousands of workers now live with respect in the workplace.  And in just a few weeks, workers will move to other states, and their rights will travel with them under the expanding Fair Food Program.” 

From Tampa, the fast spread like a wildfire across the Fair Food Nation, sparking solidarity fasts at Vanderbilt University (where the school, like OSU, has its own contract with Wendy’s) and Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, TN, at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, Barry University in Miami, and John Carroll University back in Wendy’s home state of Ohio.  

A Vanderbilt University faster is helped up steps to a meeting with administrators during the seven-day fast there.

The Vanderbilt Political Review published an op-ed by student faster Ania Szczesniewski (pictured below).  In her hard-hitting piece, Ania called out Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos for his unacceptable failure to heed students’ calls for justice and cut ties with a fast food company that has willfully evaded its responsibility to protect farmworkers’ human rights.  Here is an excerpt:

Vanderbilt students:  “Food without justice is no food at all…”

“Whereas the Fair Food Program has nearly ended modern day slavery in Florida and empowers workers to defend themselves from sexual assault, physical intimidation, the deleterious health effects of unprotected contact with pesticides, wage theft, and other human rights violations, Wendy’s continues to source from farms without such protections, fetching a lower price for produce. Their search has transported their sourcing  out of the US and into Mexico where there is no comparable program in existence or even forming on the horizon. In fact, egregious human rights violations, from child labor to slavery, have been widely reported on Mexican farms where Wendy’s is currently purchasing…

…As someone who has had hundreds of conversations with different students about the Wendy’s campaign, there’s no denying that a large share of the student body is disturbed by Chancellor Zeppos’ tolerance of Vanderbilt’s complicity to human exploitation.”  Read more

After more than a month of inspiring student action, one thing was clear beyond any shadow of a doubt: The OSU fasters had found the “cosmic companionship” that Dr. King spoke of in Berkeley; they had “released their energies,” in Gandhi’s words, and the power of their fast was felt across the Fair Food Nation.  

Where does the student movement go from here?…

Students in the Tampa area pose with a protest sign at a tabling event to show their support for the fasters.

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. King said:

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

The rolling student fast of 2017 was in no way defeated.  While it is true that the students at Ohio State University have yet to succeed in moving their administration to cut ties with Wendy’s, their courageous and loving action was an earthquake that not only shook the ground beneath their own Columbus, Ohio, campus, but caused tremors on campuses more than a thousand miles away.  Unlike an earthquake, however, the forces they unleashed were not destructive, but rather their fast released the constructive power of what Dr. King called “soul force,” the power that drives lasting social change by tapping into our shared and abiding belief in an ever more perfect justice.  

Though OSU and Wendy’s remain today in an uncomfortable embrace, that embrace was only ever possible under the cover of darkness, the darkness of ignorance.  The light cast by the students at OSU, and by their fellow students across the arc of the rolling fast, on the immoral labor conditions in Wendy’s supply chain and the company’s unconscionable refusal to support a more humane agricultural industry will ultimately break OSU, and other schools, from their support for the fast-food giant.  In Dr. King’s words, “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

In the meantime, the student fasters continue to deepen their own education on the unprecedented advances for human rights under the Fair Food Program and their commitment to its expansion.  Students from the OSU fast traveled to Immokalee earlier this month to visit fields where workers enjoy the Program’s benefits, and they are already leveraging their own experience to spread awareness and build resources for the urgent fight ahead:

The rolling student fast of 2017 has imbued the Wendy’s Boycott with a fierce new urgency.  The college year is over now, but countless students will spend this summer planning and organizing for the school year ahead.  Come the fall, students will redouble their efforts to uproot injustice on their campuses and do their part to reinforce and expand the remarkable new human rights protections under the CIW’s Fair Food Program.  Together with workers from Immokalee, those students will write the next chapter in the long history of the fight for Fair Food, and what comes next will surely be studied by, and inspire, future generations of students when it is their turn to grab the great arc that Dr. King so often evoked and bend it ever further toward justice.