The Food Supply Chain

by by Emma Whitford

Greg Asbed B’85, co-coordinator of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) Campaign for Fair Food, says that CIW is about to make labor history. “The standards and changes we have been trying to establish are on the verge of becoming the norm. We’re at the tipping point right now.” Immokalee is a labor reserve in Southwest Florida. It is home to the state’s largest farmworker community, composed mostly of Latino, Haitian and Mayan-Indian immigrants. Because Florida produces 90 percent of the tomatoes consumed in the US between October and May, it sets the standard for agricultural policy in the country. A shift towards humanitarian practices in the region, enforced by companies at the top of the food supply chain, could inspire policy change throughout the industry.

According to Asbed, CIW’s penny-a-pound policy, which calls on companies to pay an extra penny for every pound of tomatoes they buy to augment wages for farmworkers, “will become the industry standard. This will be a fundamental change in Florida that will move up the East Coast.”

CIW is led and organized by Florida farmworkers. The coalition appeals to fast-food companies, food distributors for corporate and university cafeterias, and supermarkets. Because these companies purchase produce in bulk, they can demand the lowest possible prices from their suppliers. This puts pressure on workers’ wages. In extreme cases, workers are subjected to forced labor. CIW has uncovered and brought to court eight instances of modern-day slavery in the past decade. The federal government defines slavery as using force, fraud, or coercion to keep individuals at work. Laura Germino B’84 is Asbed’s wife and coordinator of CIW’s anti-slavery campaign. She has faith in CIW’s top-down approach: “Corporate buyers can use their market power for good. The same way they can say, ‘We want a tomato that is X shade of red and Y shape.’ They can enforce human rights the same way.”


Farmworkers in most states have no right to organize, no overtime pay, and are excluded from state health and safety laws. The National Labor Relations Act, part of post-New Deal legislation, protects workers’ right to organize unions and strikes in the private sector. But the act excludes all domestic workers and farmworkers. California and Ohio are currently the only states that protect farmworkers’ right to unionize without threat of employer retaliation.

Tomato pickers are paid by the piece. Each picker receives 50 cents per 32 pounds of tomatoes picked, a rate that has only increased by ten cents since 1980. The most efficient workers can pick one ton of tomatoes on a good day, earning 50 dollars for approximately 10 hours of picking. However, a ten-hour day assumes ideal conditions—physical fitness, and no rain or dew on the tomatoes. In the most extreme cases, crew leaders have kept their pickers in perpetual debt by deducting fees from their meager earnings for housing, food, alcohol, and drugs.

Transparency in the food supply chain is hindered because consumers, distributors, and growers are well removed from the source of produce. Supermarkets often repackage the tomatoes they purchase, labeling them with the store’s name. Consumers have no way of knowing if the tomatoes they purchase are coming from a humane grower. On the supply end, each tomato grower hires pickers through a crew leader, eliminating the need for growers to interact with the workers who pick their produce.

Kate Hadley B’12 worked with the Student/Farmworker Alliance in Immokalee this spring, in direct collaboration with CIW. She stresses that slavery is an extension of an already degraded working environment. Germino agrees: “We [CIW] have set the bar at ending forced labor. The way to do this is to eradicate the sweatshop conditions that make it possible.”


CIW has forged agreements with the country’s four leading fast-food chains and three leading foodservice providers in the past five years—Taco Bell, Burger King, McDonalds, Subway, Compass Group, Aramark, and Sodexo.

In 2005 Yum! Brands, the parent company of Taco Bell, signed an agreement with CIW, bringing an end to a four-year national boycott. CIW held rallies across the country leading up to the agreement, and student groups started the “Boot the Bell” campaign to get Taco Bell eateries off college campuses. Evidence of consumer interest in humane buying practices encouraged other fast-food companies to forge agreements. Germino explains that from the perspective of these companies, “It’s not just profits that they are worried about, it’s their brand image.”

Asbed loves analogies. He compares CIW’s succession of victories to planetary accretion—the self-propelling and accelerating process that forms planets. “The first rock is Taco Bell, which starts growing and increasing in mass.” Over the course of the past decade it has taken less and less convincing to get companies onboard with the penny-a-pound campaign and new codes of conduct. The benefits of worker-company negotiation have proven to outweigh the costs.

Now the focus has shifted to supermarkets. According to Asbed, “Stop & Shop could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” An agreement with Stop & Shop could inspire other supermarkets to get on board with CIW and make CIW agreements the norm in the food industry. On August 6 CIW representatives visited the Quincy, MA corporate headquarters of Ahold USA, the Dutch parent company of Stop & Shop. Representatives attempted to deliver nearly 1,000 postcards urging Ahold to join with CIW. The CIW reps were asked to leave the stack of postcards on the sidewalk. The head of security came to collect the postcards, but had no comment on Stop & Shop’s stance.


Ahold lists responsible sourcing—the practice of seeking out and evaluating potential suppliers—as one of its key objectives. The company website states that “We take steps to insure that our suppliers respect the rights of their workers and provide safe working conditions.” Earlier this year, however, CIW discovered that Ahold was selling tomatoes in its grocery stores that had been purchased from Six L’s, one of the Immokalee growers associated with the most recent slavery prosecution in Florida.

Supermarkets are especially vulnerable to consumer pressure because they market themselves as trustworthy and responsible community businesses. Hadley explains, “It is customers and consumers who are asking Stop & Shop to do the right thing. People really want this supermarket that they know and love to make changes.”

Hadley draws a distinction between companies that simply cease to do business with inhumane growers and those that take active measures to develop codes of conduct with farmworkers. “Companies have to be in dialogue with workers if they want to know what’s happening in the supply chain,” Hadley insists. “Because they’re not working with farmworkers, none of their claims are verifiable in the first place.”

Ahold argues that it is currently conducting its own independent investigation of the growers with which it does business. The Ahold website explains that all contracts with produce suppliers contain the Ahold Standards of Engagement, which establish “clear minimum standards regarding issues such as working conditions.” Asbed just shrugs. “CIW doesn’t know anything about the [Ahold] independent reviews because they’re not transparent at all.”

Faith Weiner, the Public Affairs Director for Stop & Shop, pointed out in an email to the Independent that, “[We] have met and spoken with CIW representatives on several occasions.” On September 9, the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) published a public rebuke of Ahold, questioning the company’s claim that it is “committed to take part in discussions and join organizations that work toward improvements across the entire food industry.” NESRI argues that the two meetings between CIW and Ahold, one in Amsterdam and one in the US, have been unproductive. CIW agrees—the only step forward during the first meeting in Amesterdam was the promise of a second meeting in the States. According to Asbed, “At the [second] meeting all they did was ask to hear about our campaign.”

Cathy Albisa, executive director of NESRI, believes that Ahold is “dragging its feet on farmworker justice in its supply chain and attempting to co-opt the good name of CIW to cover its tracks.” The corporate term ‘slow melt’ refers to the practice of keeping an organization like CIW in negotiations for as long as possible before reaching an agreement, in order to minimize monetary losses. Weiner denies that Stop & Shop is stalling. She states, “We are deeply concerned about the claims that have been made regarding such workers, which is why [we] suspended all tomato purchases from the Immokalee region.”

Until the Florida tomato season is in full swing next month, there will be little evidence by which to measure the impact of Ahold’s efforts to investigate its supply chain. However, NESRI points out that Ahold’s purchasing suspension also applies to growers with reputations for being ethical. This negates the possibility of providing market incentive for ethical practices.

On August 24 Sodexo became the last of the nation’s big-three foodservice companies to come to an agreement with CIW, following Compass Group in September 2009 and Aramark this past April. The company has vowed that it will strive to purchase only from humane growers. According to Hadley, working with CIW is the only way to insure progress on the human rights front. A CIW-assisted code of conduct is superior to an independent one, says Hadley, because “Any sort of code won’t have teeth unless farmworkers are sitting at the table and are part of the dialogue. They are the ones on the ground.”

Meanwhile, Asbed wonders about Stop & Shop’s stubbornness. “Supermarkets are acting as if none of this stuff we have done with other companies has happened.” But he’s still hopeful, especially if CIW can rally local consumer support. “Eventually they will.”

A little bird told Emma Whitford B’12 that Brown University uses Stop & Shop’s Peapod Delivery Service. That’s all.