It was the [Coalition of Immokalee Workers] that, after a 15-year impasse, signed an unprecedented pact with the state’s largest tomato growers group in 2010. The goal: to fundamentally change the nature of the state’s $402 million tomato industry, shadowed for decades by low wages and labor abuses, including high-profile slavery cases.
The Fair Food agreement gives workers a penny-per-pound raise that comes not from growers, but from the growers’ customers: corporate tomato buyers. Those include the world’s major fast-food companies, institutional food services and specialty grocers Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, who report collectively paying out $7 million in premiums this season.
The program also improves working conditions for the people who pick tomatoes in Florida, where much of the nation’s fresh tomato crop grows. Those harvesters have long been excluded from workplace rights others take for granted because of New Deal-era laws that shut out farmworkers and servants. The Fair Food Program seeks to finally level things out. It calls for a cooperative complaint resolution system, a health and safety program, and worker-to-worker education in addition to the raise, which could mean an increase from about $10,000 to about $17,000 a year.
Though it was the coalition that forged and fought for the agreement, an outside group enforces it: the Fair Food Standards Council that opened in November with its own board, its own staff and its own space — 110 miles northwest of Immokalee in Sarasota.
“Strategically, it’s a central location in terms of where tomatoes are grown,” explained Laura Safer Espinoza, the 58-year-old former New York State Supreme Court Justice who gave up a Fort Myers retirement to become the council’s director for $80,000 a year.
Also strategic was the coalition’s decision to not become the program’s eyes, ears and teeth.
“There’s an independent organization to stand in its stead,” Espinoza said. “(The coalition) chose to distance themselves from the monitoring so they could focus on the campaign and worker education.”
This arrangement wasn’t foisted on the growers, said Jon Esformes, operating partner of Palmetto-based Pacific Tomato Growers, the first Florida grower to sign on. Since then, 31 others have joined — more than 90 percent of those in the state.
“Doing it this way made perfect sense to us. It’s no different than having an outside audit of our food safety. We encourage that because it helps us improve our accountability — in this case, our social accountability,” Esformes said. “It was a participatory process. (The coalition) asked us what we thought, and we think it’s terrific.”
The council is funded with about $900,000 in multiyear grants (the Kresge and Kellogg foundations were major contributors) for which it will reapply when they run out.
Important to note, Espinoza said, is that none of its budget comes from Fair Food premium payments.
“Those funds come from corporate buyers and are absolutely never touched by anyone outside of the supply chain of the buyers,” Espinoza said. “That money goes from the buyers to the growers to the workers.”
Since November, an accountant, five auditors and Espinoza, who’s looking to make three more hires soon, have overseen the distribution of the Fair Food payments. Plus, they’ve worked to remake an entire workplace culture, a daunting task requiring varying measures of diplomacy, reeducation and firmness. With a weary chuckle, Espinoza said, “It would be a mistake to believe that the signing of the agreements solved all the underlying problems that have existed too long in agriculture — that it was the end of all that.”
But it was a beginning.
“Now, when problems arise, they have a much better chance of becoming known and dealt with,” Espinoza says.