Tag Archives: kindness

Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Four Freedoms, and Publix

(This essay has now been published by Civil Eats, available here: A Chef Speaks Out on Farm Labor)

On October CIWbig-150x14616, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers received the prestigious Four Freedoms Medal from the Roosevelt Institute. The CIW, a worker-based human rights organization recognized worldwide for its ground-breaking work to end modern-day slavery and other agriculture-based labor abuses, joins a truly remarkable list of laureates, including Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton.

Rising from the tomato fields near the Florida Everglades—identified by one US Justice Department official as “ground zero for modern slavery”—the Coalition has relentlessly waged David-and-Goliath battles against monolithic food corporations. And they are winning these battles.

As a professional chef, their fight is of central importance to me. Aesthetic factors of taste and quality are the most obvious reasons: most people will agree that workers who are fairly paid will deliver a better product. But more important to me are ethical principles behind the food I prepare: why should anyone feast at the sacrifice of another’s dignity?

And not just dignity, but wellness, sustenance, and personal security are being sacrificed in the fields. We reap a multitude of benefits from their labor, yet their labor brings them poverty-level wages, physical and sexual harassment, dilapidated shelter, exposure to hazardous chemicals, and exemption from many federal labor regulations, including overtime pay. It’s an enormous disparity, and at the center of it all lies a question: shouldn’t we honor those who provide us with our nourishment? As we celebrate amidst overabundance, shouldn’t we work for complete enfranchisement of all workers along the food supply chain?

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is doing just that. In 2010, they established the Fair Food Program to improve worker conditions by asking retailers for only one more penny per pound for tomatoes grown in the southern Florida fields.

The program contains other features, too, such as a human-rights-based Code of Conduct for growers to implement in their fields. This code mandates zero tolerance for forced labor and sexual harassment, provides educational sessions for workers to learn about their rights and responsibilities, and establishes an oversight committee to monitor safety and compliance to the program.

All together, it speaks of respect, dignity, and equality, allowing field workers more access to the basic rights we all enjoy.

However, as national retail chains come to Asheville, we are reminded that there are more battles to fight. Publix Supermarkets, Inc. has announced plans to open a store in Asheville in 2015. For four years, they have refused to participate in the Fair Food Program.

Florida-based Publix is not only the most profitable supermarket in the US, they are also the 8th largest privately owned corporation in the country. In 2012, their retail sales totaled $27.5 billion. Their refusal to improve conditions for the workers who grow their tomatoes, in their home state of Florida, indicates that they are not entirely neighborly.

Contrastingly, eleven major retail chains have signed on to the program: Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, Subway, Bon Apetit, Sodexo, Burger King, Aramark, and Compass Group. The benefit for the workers has been tremendous, as more than $10 million has been paid to them through the program. But it’s about more than just pay. It’s also about humane standards. And it hits close to home in North Carolina.

North Carolina is one of our country’s leading agricultural states. It is easy to see that the experience of tomato growers in Florida is the experience of tobacco workers in North Carolina. And just as civil rights have always been important in North Carolina, farm worker rights should be important—for they are civil rights.

For me professionally, ethics along the food supply chain have become increasingly important. As I become more aware of injustice in the system, I also learn about companies and organizations who are trying to set things aright. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and those that have joined its Campaign for Fair Food are making major strides towards fairness for all.

Congratulations to the Coalition for this latest honor bestowed upon them by the Roosevelt Institute. They have been commended and awarded by the White House, the State Department, numerous international human rights organizations, and agricultural organizations, and we should award them by purchasing food where their program has been embraced.

We can award them further by sending a strong message to Publix Supermarkets that Asheville citizens will not patron their stores until they join the other national retailers in the Fair Food Program. You will not miss the penny you spend elsewhere, but it will constitute a fortunate bonus for the workers in the field.

“Kind:” Extraordinary work from poet Gretchen Primack

Kind, poems by Gretchen Primack
Kind, poems by Gretchen Primack

Certain things are ineffable. There are moments when we cannot dig deep enough into our storehouse of words and grasp the proper one. We cannot attach enough inflection. We are unable to swaddle our message in sufficient emotion. Our attempts at expression clatter out of our mouths like Mason jars down a basement stairway.

And then there is Gretchen Primack.

In her present poetry collection, Kind, she tackles not only the things that are difficult for humans to express, but also those things that our fellow beings cannot express: the two-way horror of a killing floor; the nightmare of workers in a slaughter factory; the despair of a mother whose young are repeatedly taken from her: her children’s fate and hers are one and the same: to feed the appetites of another species, systematically, facelessly, in tangible daily scenarios that confound comprehension. Is this cruelty truly reality?

But she sees not only cruelty. As the title suggests, she sees quick visions of kindness. Her husband, working against fate and expected outcomes, tries to save two orphaned fledglings. He is unsuccessful, of course, as we all would be. But he succeeds in portraying the valiant kindness that we all must have, fighting against all expectations and naysayers and critics, pursuing that which we genetically know is right. Isn’t it what every sane, compassionate, kind individual should do?

We should all be thus, not letting anticipated outcomes limit our actions. We should be passionately, obstinately, vehemently kind, in matters simple and complex.

But her kindness doesn’t end with her engaging spin on a common homestead tale. She extends it to her canine companion, who, being a dog, must be a dog. Upon encountering the lifeless body of a fallen fawn, Gretchen allows her friend to follow her nature; Gretchen herself will continue up the trail alone. It is a visceral and beautiful moment when most of us would waver. But her kindness is vast, varied, and wise.

Scribing the continuous chain from holocaust to circus to sable to egg to human privilege, her insistence is also vast. These images, these actions, these feelings, this consciousness—they are all the same. Read her entry entitled “Chain;” then read Rilke’s “The Panther;” then read Neruda’s “Ode to the Black Panther.” How many voices are in this chorus? And why do we still hear disharmonious tones?

Graceful being that she is, Gretchen also shares bits of joy with us: her garden, wild berries, heroic roosters, the fleeting—if tainted—happiness found in a picnic. Weighing the percentages of joy’s presence, we have much work to do. Her deftly demanding poems show us that too much shared and sacred life is left in the balance. With a poet’s grace she takes leave, encouraging us to cipher the equations and calculate our responses.

Lorraine

Lorraine came to live with me 2 weeks ago, having been brought here by a mutual friend. She’d injured herself trying to start a fight, as she had done several times before, and it seemed like she just needed a safe place to convalesce. So I let her move in. Perhaps hanging out in a warm kitchen, with good food and mellow company would help her mend not only her bruises but also her fighting ways.

She’s been great company right from the start. We cohabitate well, and not once has she tried anything with me. I don’t expect her to: she doesn’t have issues with men. Her issues are all female-based. I know better than to get in to the middle of all that. She knows where the problem is. She doesn’t need me getting on her case about it.

Sure, I have encouraged her to be nice, but that’s all. I don’t make a big deal of it. She came here to heal, so my words to her are of that nature. The bellicosity in her blood needs serious therapy, not well-intentioned rambling from me.

We have greeted each other first thing every morning, politely, warmly, even affectionately. We have signed off each night the same way, as I pass her bed on the way to mine. I make sure she is comfortable, and that all her needs have been met, and then say goodnight. Half asleep already, she’ll mumble the same to me.

Between “good morning” and “good night” there is a lot of activity. As I work in the kitchen, she’ll be right there watching me, wanting to help, but not sure what to do. She follows me if I leave the room, and stays near the work island if she knows I am coming back. Her curiosity has taken her all around my work and life. Needless to say, we have bonded in just a matter of days.

We have talked a lot. She can chatter non-stop at times, getting things off her chest, needing me only to listen. I have chimed in with a word or two when she’s been open for it, but mostly I’ll just nod or gave quiet assent.

Trouble came a few days after she moved in. For some reason we still don’t understand, her right leg stopped functioning. I first noticed it when she was sitting awkwardly. She tried to cover it up, but there was no way she could control that leg, and it just splayed out so very un-lady-like. It looked a bit comical, but this wasn’t something one should laugh about. It was obvious there was a problem.

Our mutual friend Abbie, being more familiar with medical matters than I, took her to the doctor a time or two for tests and observation. At this point, we still don’t have an answer.

And as we’ve waited, her condition has worsened.

She was able to limp around with some agility the first few days. Her curiosity was still high, and she expressed the same interest in my work. But there was a sudden deterioration a few days later, and then another.

On a day or two, I’ve taken her to the garden with me while I worked there. How she has enjoyed that! Even with the pain of her debilitation, she would play and dig with gusto in the beds. As I watched her the first time, I saw what an extraordinary being she really is. Beneath all that domestication, underneath all that careful and targeted breeding which produced her line of fighting chickens, down in her heart and soul she longs to be back in the jungles of India. She scratched and flitted her way through one bed, then the next, then another, catching worms and bugs and nibbling on tomato leaves. With temporarily renewed vigor, she became a flaming streak of burnt orange, shooting across the path, through the drainage ditch, and over to the defunct potato tower. More crickets and mealworms!

Lorraine in Greenhouse
Lorraine in Greenhouse

She rested for a while there, then wandered back over to where I was working. The fresh air and natural foods gave her the ability to be her social self again, and we chatted as I finished clearing the beds. She napped again in some tall grass, then I tucked her under my arm for the walk back up to the house.

Today, I noticed another bothersome development: her left leg is now showing signs of dysfunction, and her overall strength is failing. Her chipper voice has given way to what can best be described as resigned sighs. I fear she might be gone soon. But I am happy, extremely happy, that we’ve had time together. She had a warm place to rest and heal, and as the weather turns colder I realize just how deep a blessing this must be for her.

Not to mention a blessing for me, too. I stated earlier that we bonded, and I wasn’t just saying that. We’ve truly enjoyed being around each other. She followed me around the house because she really wanted to be where I was. She really knew when I was leaving the room for a while—in which case she’d follow me—or if I were leaving for only a moment—in which case she’d wait for my return. She didn’t just casually watch me as I worked. She was attentive.

I learned her vocabulary pretty quickly, those unique sounds for “I’m hungry,” and “I need to get out of the pen now,” and “Can you put me back into the pen?” Lots of “Hey, watcha doin’?” and funny sounds that would equate to the human “Yikes!” And she has various ways of chirping her delight.

She has always said “hello” every time I’ve passed by, and I have done the same. And now, sadly, “hello” is more frequently replaced by “Can you help me?” The last few days, her requests have become more frequent, and convey such thoughts as, “Please move me. I’ve relieved myself but can’t get away from it.”

Her balance is gone now, and she flounders just moving across her pen to get a drink. I know she is saddened by her loss of elegance. Truly, she has been such a gorgeous and elegant bird. She still preens, trying to keep herself together the best that she can. She’s going with dignity and the closeness of concerned friends.

The last couple of evenings, I’ve made it a point to have dinner right next to her. I’ve talked to her and told her how beautiful she is, and what a great spirit she has. She’s chirped back as best she can. Her “hello” as I pass by has lost its strength, but not its depth.

As I put her to bed this evening, I told her once again that it’s been such a pleasure getting to know her. I thanked her for her trust in me. She replied in kind.

Lorraine is asleep now, and I will be soon.

I’ll listen for her soft “hello” in the morning, but I must be willing to accept silence.