This new MacArthur “genius” has changed the way Taco Bell and Burger King treat farmers


When you pick up a head of lettuce at the grocery store, you’re probably not thinking about the soil in which it’s grown. You’re probably not thinking about the pesticides used to keep harmful bugs at bay. And you’re also probably not thinking about the person who picked that lettuce — whether that person receives a fair wage, whether they get to take breaks or whether they’ve been threatened with physical or sexual violence.

On Thursday, the MacArthur Foundation bestowed a “genius grant” to Greg Asbed, an activist working toward improving labor conditions in the food industry, a problem not often prioritized by food activists focused on health or climate change. Asbed was one of 24 people named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow.

In 1993, Asbed cofounded the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, an organization working to protect workers’ rights and to end systemic injustices and modern forms of slavery. CIW’s early victories included raising industry-wide wages for farmworkers in the tomato industry — and its labor-organizing efforts led to negotiations with McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast-food giants who agreed to cease exploiting farmworkers.

“Women were routinely sexually assaulted in the field. People were held against their will, forced to work, and everyone faced wage theft,” Asbed said in an interview with MacArthur Foundation, referring to farming conditions in 1993, when CIW started.

“The food movement doesn’t take labor issues as seriously as it should. Yet you can’t have sustainable, delicious food without workers,” Raj Patel, a writer, food activist and research professor at University of Texas, Austin, said in an email. “[Coalition for Immokalee Workers] has found new ways to bring that concern to the mainstream.”

Now, Asbed and the CIW are working to expand its Fair Food Program, a model launched in 2011. The FFP facilitates worker-to-worker education, conducts audits and investigates complaints. It helps protect workers’ human rights — granting them fair wages and ensuring workers aren’t held against their will.

The program’s success is being used as a model throughout the food industry. Earlier in October, Ben and Jerry’s took steps to improve conditions for migrants working in dairy farms, a move that adopted several FFP concepts. Now dairy farms that supply Ben and Jerry’s will have to pay workers a minimum hourly wage of $10 and one day off a week.

Wilson Ring/AP

What’s taken so long for consumers to wake up to egregious violations of human rights? These violations are invisible. According to the New Food Economy, that’s why Asbed often conducts a thought experiment with people:

I’ll say: Imagine you’re driving down a country road on a beautiful summer day and there’s a farm field on either side. You come across this perfect, idyllic farm stand selling fruits and vegetables by the side of the road. You love that kind of stuff — I love that kind of stuff. So you pull in, you get out in that gravel parking lot and you see this array of the most colorful, freshest fruits and vegetables you can imagine. You fill your bag and you go to the cash register. And when you get there — you know, that cashier’s friendly, smiling, ringing up your stuff. But suddenly, before you get a chance to pay for it, you hear a scream from the field that’s behind the stand.
When you look over the cashier’s shoulder, you see a woman being sexually assaulted in the field. And then you realize, as you start to look around, that there’s another worker on his knees getting beaten by his supervisor. Now, how would that make you react as the cashier rings you up and says, “That’s $18.75”? Are you just going to go ahead and pay that money? Or would you stop, demand to know what’s going on and try to help the people getting beaten and assaulted?

“What we have to do, unfortunately, is overcome that collective willingness to turn a blind eye,” Asbed told the New Food Economy.

While the Ben and Jerry’s “Milk with Dignity” campaign represents a major victory for workers’ rights, there are other major brands who ignore the CIW’s demands for change.

For example, rather than participating in the FFP, Wendy’s began purchasing tomatoes from Mexico in 2016. From Oct. 21 to Oct. 28, activists will be calling on Wendy’s to join the FFP and help end violence against workers in its supply chain. Publix is another major food corporation that has refused to join the program.

“I’m hoping that [the CIW winning the MacArthur grant] brings shame to Wendy’s and Publix, the two firms that remain stubborn in the face of CIW’s entirely reasonable demands for dignity,” Patel said in an email.