Fasting with Farmworkers: Agriculture’s #MeToo moment
Earlier this month, all I consumed for 98 hours was water. This was a whole new level of Lenten fasting for me. After eating nothing from Sunday to Thursday, I was for once looking forward to a meatless Friday. I had joined a five-day hunger strike organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a Florida-based farmworker group. Dubbed the “Freedom Fast,” its goal was to draw attention to the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment of farmworker women and to the C.I.W.’s ongoing boycott of the fast-food chain Wendy’s.
Wendy’s is the only major fast-food company not to have signed the Fair Food Agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Partners include McDonalds, Walmart and Yum Brands, the parent company for Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. The legally binding agreement requires companies to only source their tomatoes from suppliers who meet standards like providing shade and clean drinking water for those working long days in the fields under the Florida sun. Under the agreement, work conditions for farmworkers in Florida have greatly improved. All the agreement demands from those who sign is that they pay 1 cent more per pound of tomato. Yet Wendy’s still refuses to sign.
For five days, sometimes in the rain, sometimes in the snow, those fasting gathered on the sidewalk of 280 Park Avenue, outside the offices of Train Partners in New York City.
For five days, sometimes in the rain, sometimes in the snow, those fasting gathered on the sidewalk of 280 Park Avenue, outside the offices of Train Partners in New York City. Train is the hedge fund owned by Nelson Peltz, the chairman of Wendy’s board and Wendy’s largest shareholder. Twenty of the fasters were farmworkers who had driven up from Immokalee. Dozens more farmworkers had come to support their fasting friends, and most had brought children, too. They were joined by around 30 allies, mostly university students from around the Northeast. Those of us ayunando, or “fasting,” were marked by yellow armbands. For many of the farmworkers, it was their first time in New York.
“When I saw the building and how huge and tall it was,” said one farmworker woman from Immokalee, “I was afraid because I realized just how powerful the man we are up against is. But I remembered all it took to bring down Goliath was one brave person. And I see a lot more than one brave person here today.”
Agriculture’s #MeToo moment
The #MeToo movement has reverberated across the country, calling attention to the long-running open-secret of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. But while much of the focus has been on politics and the media, agriculture has one of the worst rates of sexual violence of any industry. A lack of legal immigration status keeps some farmworkers in fear of reporting an assault, a reality many predators use to their advantage. In addition, extreme poverty and low wages leave workers dependent on their jobs for day-to-day survival. For a woman being harassed on the job, the choice is between coping with harassment or assault and being unable to feed her children.
Maria Martinez, a farmworker from Immokalee I met during the fast, knows the reality of sexual harassment in agriculture firsthand. “Women, and our dignity, have been exploited,” she told America. Originally an immigrant from Mexico, Ms. Martinez has worked in the tomato fields for 15 years. “The drivers [who would take the farmworkers to the fields], the supervisors, everyone feels free to touch us,” she said. “One time, a driver grabbed my butt as I walked by him. I wanted to yell at him, ‘What’s your problem?’ But if I say anything, they’d kick me out of the bus, and I’d lose the day’s work.”
The C.I.W.’s fair food program creates severe consequences for such harassment. If a farmworker reports being sexually harassed or assaulted, that workplace is deemed no longer to be Fair Food certified. And thanks to the companies that have signed the agreement, losing the certification packs a real economic punch.
"The drivers [who would take the farmworkers to the fields], the supervisors, everyone feels free to touch us."
For women like Ms. Martinez, the C.I.W. has given them the ability to stand up to assaults on their dignity. “The workers feel free now,” Ms. Martinez said. “Before we’d have workers in the fields when pesticides were sprayed, or when we were thirsty they’d tell us to drink in the ditch, and the drivers and foremen felt free to grope us whenever they wanted. Now it’s different.”
There are, however, gaps in C.I.W.’s system. Only big name brands like Wendy’s are vulnerable to consumer pressures and boycotts. Smaller, local suppliers can easily avoid accountability. But overall, the program has been a massive success in improving the day-to-day working conditions of farmworkers. And in the age of #MeToo, the C.I.W. also offers a meaningful way to level the playing field for women who face some of the most unequal power dynamics in the United States.
But Wendy’s has not budged. An official spokesperson for the company said in response to the five-day hunger strike: “There’s no new news here, aside from the CIW trying to exploit the positive momentum that has been generated by and for women in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement to advance their interests.” By Wendy’s logic, the #MeToo movement has nothing to do with women like Ms. Martinez having to choose between being groped and going hungry. But these women are exactly who the #MeToo movement should be about.
Fasting for a cause.
We began the fast on March 11, the day after the 50th anniversary of Cesar Chavez’s breaking his 25-day fast during the Delano Grape boycott. (I can report that after just over four days of not eating, 25 days seems incomprehensible.) For a week, every growl my stomach made reminded me that I owe every bite I have ever eaten to a farmworker somewhere in the world, whose hands sowed the seeds, raised the plants and harvested the crop.
Every morning and every night, volunteer doctors checked up on those of us participating in the fast. I made a mistake loading up on carbs the night before the fast began. I learned this was a bad idea, as it only makes the first two days without food harder.
When I was busy meeting people, I was distracted from the hunger by the stories I heard and even some of the jokes shared among us. Yet it was the walks home, past the smell of the street vendors carts, that were the hardest, when I was alone and could not rely on anyone but myself to hold me to my commitment. By the third day, the hunger passes. Your mouth begins to taste a bit strange. What I felt more than anything was a kind of constant headache, like I was being punched in the face but very slowly. As I reached the 72-hour mark since my last meal, I began to feel like the worst was over. By the end, I simply felt tired, a little less alert, a little more uncomfortable while standing, all of the symptoms of having a cold but without any of the congestion.
The faith community showed up as well. The coalition and their allies, especially most of those fasting, stayed at the Riverside Church in uptown Manhattan. Riverside Church has a long tradition of supporting activism; it was there that Martin Luther King Jr. announced his opposition to the Vietnam War. At night the fasters reflected upon the day; many would spread out with sleeping bags into the rooms and hallways of the church. A message of support came in from Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who wrote to the fasters, “All of us, as consumers, are called to walk with you; to become aware of the injustices in how our food reaches our table.”
The best inspiration throughout the days of fasting, however, came from the example of the children from Immokalee. When your body is beginning to burn its own stored up fat, you get colder easier. Halfway through the fast, we were hit with snow. It was the most miserable I felt throughout the fast. But the misery could not last as I watched the kids run around excitedly, sticking their tongues out to catch the falling flakes. “Don’t laugh, it’s their first time seeing it,” one of the organizers told us.
Mael Rodriguez-Cortez, 15, was the youngest of the hunger strikers. He journeyed to New York without his parents to participate in the fast with his community, citing the example of his aunt who was one of the early C.I.W. organizers. “I consider it a family legacy. My tía was a badass, and she did it for the next generation,” Mr. Rodriguez-Cortez told America. “And one day, I’m going to tell my kids that I fought for them, too.”
We finally broke fast on the night of March 15 at Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza outside of the United Nations. We marched to Nelson Peltz’s offices on Park Avenue and then back to the plaza. Around 2,000 people turned out, and in front of them we broke our fast, in a communion-like experience. One by one, those with yellow armbands were called up to the stage and given a loaf of bread. After five days, our fast was over, though our boycott will continue.
Since our fast has ended, there is no evidence that Wendy’s will buckle. Big questions remain: Can the still emerging #MeToo movement’s success expand its reach beyond the lives of the rich and famous? Can the largely immigrant women who work in agriculture benefit from this cultural and political moment to the same extent as women in media or politics? The example of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers suggests that #MeToo can reach all women in U.S. society but only if racial justice, labor justice and food justice are all taken into account.
The week of fasting followed by a feast very much mirrors the 40 days of Lent followed by Easter. New life is certainly what you feel when your stomach starts digesting again. The Ash Wednesday Gospel reading is Matthew 6:1-18: “Jesus said to his disciples: Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.”
It feels somewhat contradictory to then go about writing an article about my Lenten fast. But when I think of Jesus in the desert, I think of immigrants in the desert, many of whom may soon end up working in the fields and vineyards and orchards. And when I think of Jesus giving of his body so that others may eat, I think of farmworkers, wherever they come from, whose own bodies make our daily meal possible.