The Fair Food Program adds corn to growing crop list, continues expansion in Colorado!

Sunrise at Tuxedo Corn, CO

Montrose Daily Press: “The [Fair Food Program] provides workers with a means of making complaints, which has led to people speaking out against abuses…”

CIW’s Leo Perez: “The basis of this program is that workers have the information and the tools they need to actually implement and apply their rights in the place of work.”

From its humble roots in the tomato fields of Florida, the Fair Food Program has grown to cover a dozen crops in ten states and three countries, and we are proud to share the news that the FFP now covers sweet corn in Colorado!

Our growing work in Colorado was featured in an in-depth report by the Colorado Sun last month, and most recently the Montrose Daily Press published a great new story that details the CIW’s roots as a farmworker-led community organization that arose out of a human rights crisis in Florida’s fields and that founded the Fair Food Program, a uniquely  successful, Presidential-medal winning program that today guarantees the human rights of farmworkers on farms across the nation.  We are including the story in its entirety for you to read and share with friends — enjoy and stay tuned for more updates on the FFP’s expansion in Colorado and beyond!

Food and fundamental fairness: Farmworker coalition visits Western Slope

Katharhynn Heidelberg – Aug 11, 2023 

A Florida-based coalition that protects farmworkers from exploitation and abuse is drumming up interest on the Western Slope as its fight for fair food spreads.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers grew out of the tomato fields of southwestern Florida and has steadily gained traction since its inception in the 1990s. The CIW educates and advocates for fieldworkers, so they can know their rights and also have someplace to turn for help.

Since the formation of its Campaign for Fair Food in 2001, the coalition has also taken workers’ rights to the top of the supply chain, by getting major buyers like McDonald’s and Whole Foods to only purchase from growers that have adopted the Fair Food Code of Conduct.

Rancho Durazno in Palisade was the first Colorado enterprise to adopt the Fair Food Program standards. Earlier this month, CIW representatives came to Tuxedo Corn Co. in Olathe to speak with workers and company growers about the program. The visits follow trips to the area last year to conduct key worker-to-worker education at farms and learn the lay of the land, said Lupe Gonzalo, a CIW staff member who formerly worked in Florida’s tomato fields.

“Something that we know immediately from all of the expansion that we’ve done is that no matter where you go, there are still issues that farmworkers face and problems that they face,” she said during an Aug. 1 interview with the Daily Press, through an interpreter, also from CIW. “We hope the Fair Food Program will be yet another resource for workers here to be able to protect their own rights and also to help be part of the enforcement mechanism.”

Gonzalo said state laws are important, but it is critical to make sure everyone on the ground has the information and that those laws can be enforced.

“We hope that the program can be a vehicle for workers to learn about those things and know who to refer to or call if they have questions or issues,” she said.

Tuxedo Corn is already considered a viable partner for migrant farmworkers, said Ricardo Perez, the executive director of the Hispanic Affairs Project in Montrose. Tuxedo Corn grower John Harold brings workers to Olathe each year under the H2A guest worker visa program.

“They are trying to support workers as we know. They have a very good connection with those workers coming with the H2A visa every year,” Perez said. “They are basically receiving the same people, so they have a very close relationship, given the work is happening for six, seven months a year.”

Harold referred the Daily Press to his son, David, who was not available for comment.

“The farmworkers is a very important community for the Western Slope and members of the Hispanic Affairs Project,” Perez said. HAP board president Tom Acker got in touch with CIW to explore ways of getting more producers in the area on board with the Fair Food program, he said.

The true cost of food

When consumers tally up the price of food, they might think of their own wallets and local tax rates. They might not always think of the human cost in fields and at operations where workers are not protected.

“Historically, Florida is one of the states where there is not a right for farmworkers to organize into unions,” Gonzalo said, in explaining how the CIW and Fair Food Program came to be.

“It was really important for us to kind of come up with our own way to make sure that we had a voice in the workplace. It was really important for us to find a way to address some of the issues that we’re facing because they were incredibly grave and serious issues,” she said.

“There was systemic wage theft, violence in the fields, issues like sexual harassment and assault faced by female workers on a regular basis. In very extreme cases, we also had instances of modern day slavery and forced labor along the East Coast and in Florida.”

The extreme cases underscore the need for protections — and how the purchasing power of large buyers can encourage those protections. “It was really important for workers to find a path forward for being able to not only uncover these abuses, but prevent them from happening,” she said.

The CIW grew out of necessity, Gonzalo’s fellow staff member, Léo Perez said. The industry in Florida had offered sub-poverty wages for decades. “The solution we ultimately arrived at was creating a program that had the power to actually prevent these types of abuses, that was a partnership, drawing on the power of consumers in partnership with major buyers, as well as growers,” Perez said.

Buyers pay a “penny-a-pound” premium that comes back to workers as bonuses (to-date, about $40 million in bonuses has been paid), in addition to pledging only to buy from growers who follow the Fair Food Code of Conduct under the Fair Food Standards Council.

“The power behind this program lies in the market, in these large buyers. The buyers that participate in the program have agreed to essentially base their purchases on whether or not a farm is respecting workers’ rights,” said Perez (no relation to Ricardo Perez of HAP).

CIW staff member Lupe Gonzalo provides an on-the-clock, worker-to-worker education session at Tuxedo Corn, CO.

The program also functions best when workers understand that they themselves are the primary monitors and watchdogs of their own rights, Léo Perez said, making the worker-to-worker component a vital piece.

“In addition to the education piece, we also created a system for workers to be able to report violations of their rights without fear of reprisal or consequences. The basis of this program is that workers have the information and the tools they need to actually implement and apply their rights in the place of work,” he said.

Is the program effective? Sylvia Sabanilla, who spent 16 years working the crops, thinks so. Now with CIW for five years, she told of how things have changed since initial dismissiveness.

“Speaking of my experience working in the fields, both before and after the program was implemented, for a long time, crew leaders or supervisors would say ‘Oh, the coalition. They talk a lot, but they’re not doing anything.’ … But when the program was implemented, we started seeing real changes,” she said.

After the program came into force, reports of crimes like sexual assaults resulted in real accountability for perpetrators, who were fired and banned from the industry, she said. “It was moments like that you could really see the power and change of the program.”

The program provides workers with a means of making complaints, which has led to people speaking out against abuses and, instead of being the ones to suffer for it, those responsible face the consequences, Gonzalo said. “That’s really where we saw and felt as workers that this program was really having an impact.”

“We don’t see a report as a bad thing,” Léo Perez later said. “It’s being able to flag something that needs a solution.”

Forging ahead

The CIW is pushing for the program to grow even more.

Léo Perez noted that it spread from just Immokalee, to the length of Florida, then to tomato farms on the East Coast, as well as to farms growing other crops. The coalition has partnered with other organizations wanting to build similar programs in other industries, which makes the Fair Food Program a model. Since inception, CIW and the program have gained international attention, including from the United Nations — and, said Perez, it has turned places like Florida into one of the best places to work in agriculture. Just this past year, the coalition began pilot programs in Chile and South Africa.

The program also spreads by word of mouth in the farm fields of America. “The other final ripple effect of the program is we’re providing worker-to-worker education for workers on Fair Food Program farms, but that also has a dissemination effect, that information about where you can report major abuses,” said Perez.

Ricardo Perez of HAP says Colorado has made strides in protecting farm and ranch workers through legislation such as 2021’s Agricultural Workers’ Rights Act, but there is more to be done. The act permitted farmworkers to unionize, barred employers from retaliating against workers who asserted protected rights, and established a minimum wage, among other provisions.

“That was very important, but also at the same time, we recognize that we are very behind the times in terms of protecting the labor rights. We believe for that reason, CIW is very important, because they are coming with a different perspective, with a long history of success and also change to improve the (conditions) of workers,” Ricardo Perez said.

“We are happy and very humbled they are visiting us.”

Growers and retailers on the Western Slope that are sourcing to buyers can reach out to CIW (239-657-8311) for information about the Fair Food Program. Gonzalo said there may also be opportunities for smaller retailers, co-ops and small restaurant chains to participate.

“Even though we are able to establish this program, we continue to campaign to bring in more buyers, because we know that the commitment of buyers is really an important piece of power behind the program,” she said.

Consumers also have a role in protecting workers: They can choose where they shop and reward with their own hard-earned cash the companies that support farmworkers’ rights.

“There’s always opportunities to do the right thing,” Léo Perez said.