Florida tomato on the seder plate?

When I was a child, my maternal grandparents (Marien and Ray, may their memories be a blessing) now and again would take me out to Wendy’s restaurant after a movie or for a treat.

Sometimes I got a Frosty, a delicious chocolate-flavored frozen dessert, or I got a kid’s meal and delighted in salty French fries. Almost always, my grandparents would get a salad, and as they got older they ate half and took the other half home. Sometimes, when they wanted to host but didn’t have the stamina to cook, they would buy salads at Wendy’s and we would all eat around the white oval table in their kitchen.

Since they died, when I want to remember my grandparents, I go to Wendy’s. I buy some food that I hope meets my own kashrut standards (Frosty or fries), and I reminisce. I remember the Batman movie they took me to when I was in elementary school, and the trip to Wendy’s when I went back for a visit from college. I remember them and the good times we shared. Needless to say, for this reason, Wendy’s holds a soft spot in my heart.

But it’s been harder than usual these last three years to love the fast food giant that reminds me so much of family and home.

Of America’s top five fast food chains, Wendy’s is the only one that has not signed on to the Fair Food Program, a groundbreaking human rights initiative led by farmworkers with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has been addressing human rights abuses successfully in the Florida tomato industry. Fast food giants McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, and Yum! Brands (Taco Bell), all have joined the Fair Food Program, raising the wages of tomato pickers by one penny per pound of tomatoes picked and helping to ensure fair, regulated working conditions in the fields.

Food service companies and grocery stores such as Walmart, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s also have joined the FFP, committing themselves to source only from growers who have instituted a legally binding code of conduct in the fields. Today, thanks to implementation of the FFP in over 90 percent of Florida’s tomato fields, the Florida tomato industry is known as one of the best workplaces in modern agriculture. The industry has made profound progress to end the widespread labor trafficking, slavery, and unsafe working conditions that once dominated there, so badly that it was considered ground zero for human trafficking in the United States. The FFP has been recognized with the 2015 presidential medal for its “extraordinary efforts combating modern-day slavery,” as well as with the 2014 Clinton Global Citizen Award and the 2013 Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom from Want Medal, among other acknowledgements and awards.

Despite the program’s proven successes, Wendy’s has resisted joining FFP, and instead has issued its own code of conduct. It also recently chose to source its tomatoes from Mexico, instead of buying FFP tomatoes from Florida. The Wendy’s code of conduct calls on its suppliers to follow local, state, and federal laws as well as industry standards. However, at least one supplier it chose is known to have a history of serious human rights violations.

In a March 16, 2016 blog post for Harper’s Magazine, author Andrew Cockburn confirmed that the Kaliroy Corporation is providing Wendy’s with tomatoes. Kaliroy is the U.S. distribution arm of Bioparques de Occidente, a major Mexican tomato grower that produces about 6 million boxes of tomatoes for the U.S. market. Cockburn found an investigative article from December, 2014, in which Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Marosi interviewed workers for Bioparques de Occidente. The workers “described subhuman conditions, with workers forced to work without pay, trapped for months at a time in scorpion-infested camps, often without beds, fed on scraps, and beaten when they tried to quit.” Bioparques workers have no Fair Food Program, and if these are the “industry standards” that Wendy’s accepts in its supply chain, then, sadly, I think we can do better.

On March 3, following Wendy’s move to source tomatoes from Mexico, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers issued a call for a national boycott of Wendy’s, and on April 13 I received an email from T’ruah, a Jewish nonprofit organization that mobilizes rabbis and their communities to protect human rights in the United States, Canada, Israel, and the Occupied Territories. The email endorsed the CIW boycott. I joined with more than 150 rabbis and cantors in answering that call.

This weekend, when many Jews in our area and around the world celebrate Passover, the Jewish holiday of freedom, we will tell the story of yetziat Mitzrayim, our people’s miraculous exit from the physical and spiritual oppression of forced labor. If we are unaccustomed to or disquieted by miracles like the 10 plagues and the parting of the sea, we still may understand the subtle miracle of simply being free, able to move at will, to be compensated justly for our labors, to live a life free of physical and sexual violence. We may come to understand that a boycott, like the plagues, is an enactment of a truth: dramatic demonstrations of might and power and determination are often required before we can break free.

This year, I’ll struggle to understand why Wendy’s heart is hardened to the rights and dignity of the workers who grow its tomatoes, just as every year I struggle to understand why Pharaoh’s heart was hardened in his day. Maybe I’ll add a Florida tomato to my seder plate, or pass one out to each of my guests, and tell the story of how Taco Bell joined the Fair Food Program after a CIW boycott some years ago. After all, I may not understand how hearts become hardened, but I do know how to soften them.

About the Author
Rabbi Jacob M. Lieberman is a Reconstructionist rabbi, meaning maker, and social change agent. He believes that inspired [+ Jewish] living starts today with wonder, gratitude and curiosity. Jacob mixes wit, openness, vision, community building and social justice with spiritual growth then follows it up with hard work, one day at a time. Jacob is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and a biological and adoptive parent to two beautiful Ethiopian Jewish kids.