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Coalition of Immokalee Workers Brings Farmworker Movement to the Streets August 7, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Florida, Immigration, Labor.
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Published on Saturday, August 6, 2011 by In These Times

  by Michelle Chen

The hot summer has brought in a bumper crop of food activism from coast to coast. For the past few weeks, a group of Florida farm workers has embarked on a marketing coup that challenges the country’s food business giants by educating consumers about exploitation in the tomato industry.

(Image: Coalition of Immokalee Workers) The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has made a name for itself by using creative consumer-driven campaigns to promote fairer wages and working conditions for tomato harvesters, a workforce fueled by Latino migrant laborers. Though corporate resistance has been formidable, the group has scored a series of victories over the past few years over the likes of Taco Bell, Burger King and Subway. Partnering with consumer groups and fair-food activists, the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food seeks to educate people about the brutal labor that goes into each tomato.

Farmworkers’ backbreaking toil will be spotlighted on some of the trendiest sidewalks in Manhattan on Friday, with rallies at Trader Joe’s stores in the Village and Chelsea. The actions follow a similar campaign on the West Coast in which protesters in San Francisco and Berkeley wielded paper-bag picket signs and marched through the Mission District calling on drivers to “Honk for Farm Worker Justice.” The CIW now counts a number of religious leaders and gourmet food activist Barry Estabrook among its allies.

The Coalition says its multi-pronged struggle involves “all the elements of our country’s food industry,” from the folks hauling baskets all the way up to the florescent-lit supermarket aisle. Most importantly, the organization banks on the political leverage of consumers to push stores and suppliers to abide by ethical standards. With an active membership of several thousand, the workers themselves participate as well through organizing and educating people on “humanizing our farm labor system.”

The workers’ key demand, an additional penny per pound of tomatoes picked, seems a tiny cost for consumers and producers to absorb, given the workers’ long hours, arduous working conditions and their vulnerability to maltreatment and even slave labor. The pennies do add up for laborers, potentially boosting yearly earnings by several thousand dollars. (Typical wages amount to less than $12,000 annually, according to the Coalition, and after years of virtually stagnant wages, “a worker today must pick more than 2.25 tons of tomatoes to earn minimum wage in a typical 10-hour workday.”)

CIW’s summer Truth Tour demonstrations, which focus on big-name grocers, have been decried by the right-wing blogosphere as a “Prototypical Example of Alinsky Tactics and Smug Self-Immortalization.” Translation: an effective protest action.

The campaign puts Trader Joe’s hip, liberal brand in a bind: the company complained publicly in May that while it was willing to comply with CIW’s demands in general, specific provisions of the draft agreement were “overreaching” and “improper.” CIW responded with lengthy point-by-point rebuttals and declared, ‘It seems that the longer Trader Joe’s resists the Fair Food movement, the more its leadership — from the CEO to the public relations department — is determined to tarnish the company’s reputation as an ethical, progressive grocer.”

The organizing model evokes interesting historical comparisons with another wave of farm labor activist in the 1960s and 1970s led by United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez, which pioneered union organizing in agriculture. Yet the UFW has lost political salience over the years, as working conditions have deteriorated.

The younger, nimbler CIW is not a union, but in many ways neither needs nor desires the conventional union structure. The fluid, precarious nature of migrant labor is a barrier to movement building, yet at the same time, the tomato industry’s severe consolidation across the supply chain provide fertile ground for focused, visible campaigns that mobilize consumers and workers in tandem.

Last fall, Kari Lydersen reported that faced with pressure from consumers and workers, some of Florida’s big growers had finally agreed to the penny-per-pound wage subsidy. Soon after, the Coalition clinched a groundbreaking deal with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which bound major growers to a contract that includes “a strict code of conduct, a cooperative complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process.” The agreement, estimated to cover more than 90 percent of Florida’s tomato industry, helps close a crucial gap in the chain, since retailers and restaurants agreeing to the penny raise could guarantee that the benefit would trickle down to workers.

The enforcement mechanism within the binding agreement is designed to keep growers and suppliers in check, using an outside nonprofit group to monitor compliance, so that, at least in theory, any grower that violates the code won’t be able to sell to retailers also bound to the agreement. CIW organizer Lucas Benitez told Naples Daily News that employers have to answer to both their buyers and their workers:

With this agreement, we will be working with growers to identify and eliminate abuses through a cooperative complaint investigation and resolution system, with real consequences for violations, including zero tolerance for forced labor.

In the absence of strong government regulation, the Coalition’s strategy aims not just to force employers to obey labor laws but also strive for decent working standards overall, in order to turn Florida’s tomato industry from a bastion of poverty into, in Benitez’s words, “a model of social accountability for the 21st century.”

Whether such industrial change can be wrought by a motley alliance of some of the country’s poorest workers, the biggest food brands, and the savviest customers, has yet to be seen. But if a bunch of migrant farm workers can get Manhattan hipsters to think seriously about who picked their salad this summer, they’re on the road to victory.

© 2011 In These Times

Who Put McDonald’s in Charge of Kids’ Health? July 29, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Health.
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Published on Thursday, July 28, 2011 by Appetite for Profit

When McDonald’s sneezes, the media jumps. Such was the case yesterday when the company announced it was giving the Happy Meal a makeover. Well not really, but that’s how it got reported, because the media loves simple stories. But when it comes to marketing and PR by multinational corporations, nothing is ever that simple.

While my colleagues have done a great job of explaining why nutritionally, this move is little more than PR (see Marion Nestle and Andy Bellatti), missing from the analysis so far is this: what McDonald’s really wants is to remain in charge.

The fast food giant’s motivation beyond the obvious positive PR spin is to stave off more laws like the one passed in San Francisco to set nutrition standards for Happy Meals, not to mention lawsuits like the one filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest based on deceptive marketing.

No doubt McDonald’s is gearing up to challenge the San Francisco ordinance in court the minute it goes in effect later this year. A similar bill has been proposed New York City while other localities wait to see the legal outcome. Now, McDonald’s gets to claim to any lawmaker or judge who will listen: “We don’t need no stinking laws, we got it covered with our new and improved Happy Meals. We got the message loud and clear, so now we’re cleaning up act all on our own. Nothing to see here, move along.”

As I explained in my book, Big Food announcements of improved corporate behavior are for two reasons only: positive PR and staving off government regulation (and in this case, more litigation).

While the former is more obvious, the latter should cause you to ask: Who is in charge here? McDonald’s ultimate goal is to make as little change as possible to get media attention (and praise from the likes of the first lady), while distracting policymakers from doing its job setting the boundaries of corporate behavior.

One argument I often hear about why we should praise these sort of industry moves is that “it’s a step in the right direction.” But in what direction exactly? A direction in which McDonald’s and friends continue to get to call all the shots for how we eat and how our children are marketed to? What is the end game in a world where we accept “incremental change” from corporations who answer only to shareholders? Somehow I don’t see that in 200 more steps Happy Meal boxes will morph into CSA boxes full of fresh, local produce.

Rather than praise corporations like McDonald’s for such meaningless and most likely temporary “improvements” let’s call them out for the distractions they are. We can at least celebrate that years of advocacy efforts to curb marketing to children is causing McDonald’s to take notice, as lame as it is.

Then let’s get back to the much harder job of policy change: to convince our democratically-elected leaders (or judges if that’s what it takes) that McDonald’s should not be allowed to market to children, period. No matter how many ounces of French fries or apple slices Happy Meals contain.

© 2011 Michelle

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Michele Simon

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer specializing in food industry marketing and lobbying tactics and author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back. She is also on the advisory board for Corporate Accountability International’s Value [the] Meal campaign and lives across the bay from San Francisco in Oakland. You can follow her blog and find her on Twitter.

Jul272011

Let’s talk about McDonald’s Happy Meals changes

by Marion Nestle

McDonald’s sent out a press release yesterday to announce “healthier” changes to its Happy Meals.

Healthier?  Not quite.  The company is announcing a “Commitment to Offer Improved Nutrition Choices” [my emphasis].

The comprehensive plan aims to help customers — especially families and children — make nutrition-minded choices whether visiting McDonald’s or eating elsewhere.

Menu changes underway include the addition of more nutritionally-balanced choices that meet McDonald’s reputation for great taste and affordability, along with an increased focus on providing nutrition information that enable customers and employees to make simple, informed menu decisions.

McDonald’s says that by the end of this year it will automatically include produce or a low-fat dairy option in every Happy Meal.  It will:

  • Automatically include both produce (apple slices, a quarter cup or half serving)
  • Automatically include a new smaller size French fries (1.1 ounces)
  • Automatically reduce the sodium by 15% or more

I emphasize “automatically” because it means the default.  If you order a Happy Meal, that’s what you get.   Research shows that most people stick with the default.  If the default is a healthy meal, kids have a better chance of getting one.

Everything else is your choice:

  • Hamburger, Cheeseburger or Chicken McNuggets.
  • “Beverage, including new fat-free chocolate milk and 1% low fat white milk”

The press release says: “McDonald’s will automatically include produce or a low-fat dairy option in every Happy Meal.”

Doesn’t that sound like the Happy Meal will come with low-fat milk?

Wrong.

The meal comes with a choice of a soda or low-fat chocolate or white milk.   Soda remains an option.  And the meal still comes with a toy.

So all the fuss—and McDonald’s has gotten huge press over this—is about 3 or 4 small slices of apples, one ounce less of French fries, and less sodium.

The New York Times’ summary:

These may be steps in the right direction, but I’d call them tiny baby steps.

So what’s going on here?  Much of this is about responding to Michelle Obama’s call for action on childhood obesity.

But according to the Wall Street Journal, business matters may also be at stake.  Happy Meals account for less than 10% of McDonald’s U.S. sales, but sales have been declining since 2003 for a funny reason: “gadgets for children have become more sophisticated and the toys less desirable.”  Of course the only reason kids want Happy Meals is for the toys.

But kids have to eat.  Instead of Happy Meals, parents have been

ordering adult-size items off the ‘dollar menu’ and splitting them between two children rather than buying two kids’ meals.

Kids’ meal orders at fast-food restaurants have declined 15% since 2006 to just under a billion, while dollar-menu items ordered by or for kids have increased 29% in the last five years.

The Wall Street Journal quotes a restaurant consultant who comments that

Making [apples] a forced decision is a pretty unusual thing for a restaurant to do…If they can get to a place where parents associate them with healthy offerings in a world of increasing fast casual options that are perceived as healthier, that will be good for them.

But will it?  McDonald’s tested healthier meals with disappointing results.  So this has to be about McDonald’s trying to appear to do something to promote kids’ health.  In reality, it can’t.  McDonald’s is a business and its business interests come first.

If McDonald’s were serious, it could offer a truly healthier Happy Meal as the default and back it up with marketing dollars.  When the company does that, I’ll cheer.  Until then, as I told the Times, “I’m not impressed.”

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