I’ll be the first to admit: I live a very comfortable existence. And though I work hard and spend wisely, I have much more than I need. As I started to watch the powerful 2014 film Food Chains for the first time, the plight of farmworkers felt very far from the couch I sat on. In reality, it couldn’t have been much closer: on my lap sat a plate filled with my dinner of fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs. And I watched from my home in North Carolina, a state in which agriculture plays a big role and in which 85% of fruits and vegetables (PDF) are harvested by hand.
Martin Luther King once said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Food Chains documents the hardships and indignities suffered by the people who pick America’s food and follows the efforts of an amazing group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has marshaled restaurant companies, retailers, and everyday people to support its Fair Food Campaign. As the credits rolled, what stuck with me most profoundly was how much time ticks by as that arc slowly bends. But I was also struck by how, despite a lifetime of abuse, neglect, poverty, and poor treatment, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ belief in a better future has given them the strength and willingness to sacrifice through marches and hunger strikes.
During last fall’s Penn Food Week, I had the pleasure of hosting an event with the Penn Student Action for Farmworkers chapter (now an official student group: Penn for Fair Food). Over a tomato-centric menu, we shared the CIW’s story and the work of JJ Tiziou, a Philadelphia-based photographer who joined the CIW on one of their hunger strikes and documented moments along the way. We showed hundreds of JJ’s images and heard from him about how he came to be involved with and photograph this group of incredible individuals. Students spoke to their peers about why this issue matters to them and how to help spread awareness so that things could someday change.
I was proud to share Bon Appétit’s efforts on farm labor issues broadly and on behalf of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in particular. Bon Appétit was the first food service provider to sign onto the CIW’s Fair Food agreement, back in 2009, and as a company, we continue to seek out ways to support the CIWs larger goal: to end abuse and exploitation in the fields.
Penn for Fair Food student leaders ended our event with a powerful demonstration. They asked for a volunteer from the audience who was feeling very “strong” and promptly presented him with a napkin. “Tear it,” they said. The student tore it quickly and effortlessly. Then they handed him a thick stack of napkins, and asked him to do it again. He tried, he strained, he tried again, and then he gave up.
Though my time working for Bon Appétit has left me believing that there is not just one enemy trying and straining to tear that metaphorical stack of napkins, I do believe wholeheartedly that we have to stick together to change the many harmful pieces of our industrial food system. Separately, we have little power to make a difference. Together, we can imagine something better and slowly bring it to life.
As this year’s Farmworker Awareness Week approaches (March 24 through 31, Cesar Chavez’s birthday), hundreds of Bon Appétit cafés around the country are preparing to host information tables and put out social media posts showing just how few pennies per pound farmworkers earn for commonly picked produce items. Twenty locations are hosting a screening of Food Chains, many of which are open to the public. (It’s also now available on Netflix and iTunes!) Students in the Penn for Fair Food group are traveling to support the CIW as they march once again. Here are other ways you can take action.
Thanks to these and many other actions of support and solidarity, the arc of our moral universe continues to inch forward, toward justice.