On Sunday, March 3, members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and faith allies from Florida and across the nation gathered at Jesus the Worker Roman Catholic Church in Ft. Myers, Fla. and embarked on a 200 mile March for Rights, Respect and Fair Food that will culminate at the Lakeland, Fla.- based headquarters of Publix Supermarkets on Sunday, March 17.

Marchers are calling on the Florida-based grocery giant to honor the breakthrough social responsibility partnership for farm labor reform known as the Fair Food Program (FFP).

Presbyterians have joined the march from across Florida and from other parts of the nation.

Cheryl Queen, a member of Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C. and vice-president of the Compass Group food service, one of the eleven corporations participating in the FFP, explained why she is marching, saying, “I’m very proud to join this year’s March for Rights, Respect and Fair Food. Since 2007 Compass Group has enjoyed a partnership with the Coalition and the Fair Food Standards Council that reflects the highest levels of ethical behavior, transparency and authenticity. The Coalition embodies passion and integrity coupled with humility, and that’s what brings about lasting change in a way that honors and recognizes everyone.”

She continued, “On a personal level it is always feels like a homecoming to return to Immokalee and visit friends and partners. Sharing this March together, particularly during the Lenten season, feels like a walk of faith, transformation and celebration.”

The Fair Food Program is a collaborative effort among the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, corporate food buyers and the vast majority of Florida tomato growers.

Participating corporate buyers agree both to help increase workers’ pay by paying a penny-per-pound price premium and having the growers that supply them pass this onto workers in their paychecks, and to purchase Florida tomatoes only from those growers who are in compliance with the Fair Food Code of Conduct.

While eleven major food buyers in fast food, food service and the grocery industries are participating (such as McDonald’s, Subway, Aramark, and Trader Joes), Publix has refused.

“For more than three years, farmworkers and their supporters have been inviting Publix to participate in a proven program to improve wages and conditions in the fields that is supported by eleven other corporations and the vast majority of Florida growers” said Susan Sampson, a member of Seffner Presbyterian Church near Lakeland, who fasted for six days with the CIW outside Publix headquarters last year.

“Leaders of Publix, however have refused even to meet with the farmworkers,” she said. “Instead of loving their neighbors, they’ve turned their back on their neighbors. But their customers and farmworkers are hoping to ‘turn them around’ by this stunning and sacrificial march.”

Meanwhile Presbyterian Women have joined marchers and PW issued a statement while leadership was meeting at the Commission on the Status of Women at the U.N., lauding the march and calling on Publix Supermarket to join the Fair Food Program.

Local congregations are serving as the backbone of support for the two-week march.

“Our congregation is honored to support this profound witness by providing a meal for the marchers,” said the Rev. Victoria ByRoade, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dunedin, Fla. “To do so is a Lenten practice, where we reflect on the way our systemic and personal relationships have been marred by sin and recommit ourselves to follow Jesus proclaiming ‘good news to the poor’ in word and deed.”

“Presbyterian congregations in Peace River and Tampa Bay Presbyteries have opened their doors and their hearts,” explained the Rev. Noelle Damico, associate for Fair Food with the Presbyterian Hunger Program, who has been on the march since it began.  “Every day we’ve had an array of Presbyterian support that has literally made this march possible ― from serving as rest stops to preparing meals, from doing laundry to offering medical assistance and providing overnight accommodations. Presbyterians are making Christ’s compassion and justice concrete.”

Presbyterian congregations and ministries involved in providing food and lodging for marchers include

  • Faith Cape Coral Presbyterian Church, Ft. Myers
  • Covenant Presbyterian Church, Ft. Myers
  • Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, Sarasota
  • First Presbyterian Church, Sarasota
  • Peace Presbyterian Church, Lakewood Ranch
  • Peace River Presbytery, Northport
  • Beth-El Farmworker Ministry
  • Cedarkirk Camp and Conference Center
  • First Presbyterian Church, Dunedin
  • Seffner Presbyterian Church, Seffner
  • Westminster Presbyterian Church, Lakeland

All along the march route, regional and national faith leaders will lead services of prayer and offer words of encouragement.  Many pastors have come out to bless the marchers including the Rev. Chuck Wiggins of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Venice and the Rev. Glen Bell of First Presbyterian in Sarasota. 

Other pastors have greeted and blessed workers while their congregations have served meals or offered accommodations including the Rev. Timothy Halverson and the Rev. Susan Rice of Faith-Cape Coral as well as the Rev. Elizabeth Deibert of Peace Presbyterian Church.

The march is an interfaith and ecumenical undertaking.  On March 14 Pastor Miguel Estrada of Mision Peniel/Beth-El in Immokalee, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troester of T’ruah (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America), and the Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson of United Church of Tampa will lead a candlelight vigil outside Publix in Temple Terrace, Fla., to mark the distance the fair food movement has traveled and the gains that have been made in farmworkers human rights and corporate responsibility.

Also on March 14, Bishop Edward R. Benoway of the Florida-Bahama Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will bless the marchers. On March 16 Bishop Lynch of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg will bless the marchers as they set off on the last leg to Publix headquarters in Lakeland.  That evening Bishop Noonan of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orlando will join marchers at the Publix Produce Distribution Center in Lakeland and offer a blessing. 

Bishop Noonan’s blessing comes a year after his powerful address at last year’s six-day Fast for Fair Food, when he said, “We urge the Publix corporate leaders to support this initiative that promotes dignity and justice ... We pray that God will inspire them to work in collaboration with the Immokalee Workers to advance the rights of agricultural workers.”

Best-selling Christian author Shane Claiborne will also join the march for the final weekend and speak at the celebration at 4:00pm on Sunday March 17, when the marchers arrive at Publix headquarters in Lakeland.

The CIW and the Campaign for Fair Food have been supported for years by many major faith bodies including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church (U.S.A.), Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Unitarian Universalist Association, Pax Christi, Sojourners and more recently by T’ruah (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America) and International Justice Mission.

“For over a decade the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has walked together with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers” said Damico. “The Fair Food Program is a thriving, covenantal partnership among farmworkers, growers, corporations, and consumers that is creating a more humane industry. We urge Publix to build this new day with us.”

The march’s progress is documented on the Presbyterian Hunger Program’s Facebook Page and the CIW’s march website http://ciw-online.org/march.

 “The faith community has been an irreplaceable and loving force within the Campaign for Fair Food since its earliest days,” said CIW member Santiago Perez. “This march would not have been possible without their support, generosity, and faith in the essential work of affirming the dignity and worth of every human being.”

“The National Farm Worker Ministry has supported the CIW since their beginning days of self-determination for farm workersI walked on the CIW’s first march back in 2000, which awakened people of faith and local congregations to the exploitation in the tomato fields in Florida,” said Roberta Perry, a native of DeLand, Fla. and a member of New Hope United Church of Christ there.

The National Farmworker Ministry representative added,  “I’m walking this year to celebrate the distance we’ve come in addressing abuses in the fields, the concrete advances the Fair Food Program has made, and to urge Publix to walk with us into a new, humane tomato industry that’s underway.”

Information for this story furnished by the Rev. Noelle Damico.