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Letter to the Editor: Students Should Refuse Publix Until They Join The Fair Food Program

The USF Board of Trustees will be meeting at 4 p.m. today to vote on the on-campus grocery store project with Publix Supermarkets, the current frontrunner for getting this contract.

Growing up, there was not a better grocery store than Publix. Who did not enjoy being surprised by their parents with a Publix sub? However, in 2013 I was informed about a movement that drastically changed how I look at the produce that I consume, as well as my view of Publix. The movement that changed how I will forever look at my food was the worker-led human rights organization, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

Based only three hours south of Tampa in Immokalee, Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been working for over two decades to eliminate poverty wages and daily human rights violations faced by farm workers in Florida, including sexual harassment, wage theft, physical abuse and, in extreme cases, instances of forced labor, or modern-day slavery. After years of struggling to change these conditions, a new day of dignity has dawned in Florida’s fields, thanks to the CIW’s Fair Food Program (FFP), a historic partnership between farm workers, Florida tomato growers, and corporate buyers.

Participating retailers commit to 1) pay suppliers a “penny per pound” premium on their tomatoes, which is paid out to workers by the growers; 2) comply with a worker-designed code of conduct, including zero tolerance for forced labor; and 3) buy Florida tomatoes exclusively from participating farms where workers’ human rights are upheld.

Many well-known grocery stores, such as Trader Joes, Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and WalMart, have signed onto the program. Some of your favorite fast food chains such as Subway, Burger King, and McDonald’s have joined in this call for justice. Even Aramark, which provides produce for USF’s dining halls, has signed on.

Yet CIW and their allies have called on Publix for over six years to come to the table and join the Fair Food Program, with virtually no response from its corporate leadership. Given the overwhelming participation in this agreement from buyers throughout the industry, why then does Publix continue to refuse to get with the program?

To Publix, the injustices of the tomato fields are merely a labor dispute. To me, that sounds like Publix is apathetic to injustice. It accepts only shallow solutions to what it perceives as a public relations crisis, rather than acknowledging a proven solution of worker-led systemic change.

If there is anything that I have learned in my three years so far at USF, it is that USF students have a passion for social justice issues of all kinds, including the issue of farm workers’ rights. Students like myself are concerned with Publix’s consistent refusal to sign the agreement. Do we sell out for convenience? Absolutely not.

Does it make sense that the farm workers who picked the tomatoes for the Subway at Cooper Hall and the Subway in the Marshall Student Center or the tomatoes you find at the salad bar in USF’s dining halls have their basic human rights protected, but not the farm workers who picked the tomatoes for your campus Publix?

So while many of us will have graduated and moved on by the time the Publix is set to be built, we should continue USF students’ legacy of caring for something bigger than ourselves.

If you also agree that there should be #NoPublixAtUSF until Publix joins CIW’s Fair Food Program, then please join in making USF’s Board of Trustees aware of how you feel about our school doing business with a company that currently disregards human rights.

If you want more information on the Coalition, you can check out the excellent documentary, Food Chains, available on Netflix. Or look at the CIW’s website at Better yet, come to one of our lively and creative protests in support of farm workers!

Shelby Smith is a graduate student majoring in religious studies and is a member of Tampa Bay Fair Food.