After spending my fall break in the unincorporated farmlands of Southern Florida, I realized just how harsh agricultural working conditions can be in the United States.
Two hours away from Miami and I was in a place decidedly rural. The mass graveyard of swamps are now occupied with miles of farmland. Quaint and “small-towney,” Immokalee, Fla. is the essence of its Seminole namesake, “my home” — despite these favorable aspects, I didn’t foresee myself spending time here in my collegiate career, let alone think I’d change my daily perspective on food.
The town is nestled next to Naples, one of the most well off communities in Florida — a stark contrast to its own community, which is largely made up of migrant workers and their families. The immigrant population and Immokalee has gained attention over the past few years, debuting in several documentaries and news commentary.
Why you may ask? Two, words: food insecurity.
Seeing the farmland, it was hard not to recognize the immense irony of the situation. The community that grows more than half of the United State’s winter tomatoes supply also has some of the highest rates of hunger.
With this in mind, I (along with the other alternative break participants) had a mission: help the people of Immokalee with the fundamental human right to food.
Since poverty, food insecurity and the threat of ICE knocking on your door doesn’t affect me personally, some of the information I learned on the trip came as a shock. On the second day of the trip, one moment in particular completely put the service trip into perspective. We had a meeting with members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) who shared that since 1993, they had been fighting for the rights of approximately 2.5 million farm workers in Immokalee and across the country. The organization’s efforts have led to the creation of the Farm Food Program, which helps ensure humane wages and working conditions for the workers.
As a result of the FFP, growers who agree to participate in the program pay an additional penny per pound that the farm workers collect in the fields, dramatically increasing wages for farm workers.
The second fundamental right that CIW fights for is the right to have a stable and safe workplace.
The ability to effectively communicate to the growers about worker conditions was a complete 180 from what workers experience before, where the system was completely closed off.
The third and most broadcasted right is that grocers, such as Walmart and Publix, will not buy produce from growers that have not signed the FFP initiative. By signing and publicly proclaiming that a corporation is against farm worker slavery and poor wages, fair working conditions and basic human rights are elevated.
The CIW has also established an Anti-Slavery Program which has assisted with the prosecution of abusive growers and liberated over 1,200 workers who we were being held against their will.
Even though the CIW has made great strides since its formation, its newest campaign against Wendy’s has reinvigorated its mission. Wendy’s, like many other restaurants, buys tomatoes from farmers. Wendy’s, however, unlike many popular fast-food places, such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell, has not signed the FFP initiative. As a result, the CIW has made stickers and posters to bring awareness and has most recently held protests in Miami to urge people to boycott Wendy’s.
In my own efforts, I was able to build a garden for a local organization, Cultivate Abundance, as well as provide a hot meal to 455 people in the Immokalee community. These acts of selflessness put the trip into perspective and reminded me that it “is more blessed to give than to receive.”
From seeing food workers come back from 12 hours in the field off old white and blue school buses, to feeding celebratory mouths after a payday, Immokalee changed my whole view about what it means to be a student and consumer of knowledge.
Before I had no idea where my food came from, let alone the effects of working conditions on the very people who were harvesting the food. I believe it is up to us to make our friends and families aware of social issues, to understand that the food we buy could very well be packaged by growers that have food insecurity and desire to be treated with respect.
Immokalee is home to farm workers and their families, but — most importantly — humans who have the same experiences as we do. They get up to go to work and support their families and deserve the same fundamental rights.
words & photos_abigail adeleke