The Fair Food Program: Worker-Driven Social Responsibility for the 21st Century

When the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) announced its historic agreement with Wal-Mart on January 16, 2014, Alexandra Guaqueta, the Chairwoman of the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights, traveled from Bogota, Colombia, to Immokalee, Florida, and read a statement on behalf of the UN.  She said, “We are here to support the Immokalee workers and the Fair Food Program, which offers such promise for us all.”  She went on to praise the Program as a “ground-breaking accountability arrangement” comprised of a “smart mix of tools” and “closely aligned with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”  Finally, she expressed the UN’s eagerness to see the Fair Food Program “serve as a model elsewhere in the world.”

Since its inception in 2011, the Fair Food Program has been in operation in more than 90% of Florida’s $650 million tomato industry, and the changes it has achieved in just three years – identifying and eliminating the bad actors and bad practices that plagued Florida’s fields for decades, and establishing new practices and policies that promote a safer, more humane workplace – have been astonishing.

In a recent front-page feature in the New York Times, Rutgers labor studies professor Janice Fine called the Fair Food Program “the best workplace monitoring program” in the U.S., while Susan Marquis, Dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, noted, “Now the tomato fields in Immokalee are probably the best working environment in American agriculture. In the past three years, they’ve gone from being the worst to the best.” The contrast between the Florida tomato industry and other sectors of U.S. agriculture is now stark, a fact that workers themselves are quick to note as they move from crop to crop throughout the year.

Prior to the launch of the Fair Food Program, labor conditions in the Florida tomato industry – including stolen wages, forced labor and slavery, sexual harassment and rape, and endemic violence – were among the most abusive found anywhere. In 2008, Senator Bernie Sanders stated, “I think those workers are more ruthlessly exploited and treated with more contempt than any group of workers that I’ve ever seen and I suspect exist in the U.S.” He added, “the norm is a disaster, the extreme is slavery.”  Senator Sanders was right.  In the fifteen years before the inception of the Fair Food Program, the U.S. Department of Justice prosecuted nine cases of modern slavery in Florida, involving more than 1,200 workers and resulting in prison terms of up to 30 years.  Seven of those prosecutions were done with the help of the CIW.  Conditions were so bad that, in 2003, one federal prosecutor described Florida’s fields as “ground zero for modern-slavery.”

But there have been no cases of modern-day slavery on Fair Food Program farms since the inception of the program, thanks to the severe market consequences for violators of its zero tolerance policy for forced labor.  And today, the Fair Food Program is poised to expand.  Demands on the Program to share its many lessons for the effective protection of human rights in corporate supply chains – as well as to scale up and expand its reach – are growing daily, as news of the model makes its way out of the fields of Florida to communities of workers and human rights organizations from California to Bangladesh.

What is the Fair Food Program?

How did a program born in the small, hardscrabble farmworker community of Immokalee, Florida become a leading model for the protection of human rights on the global level?

Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to ask another question: “What if workers designed a social responsibility program to protect their own human rights?”  What would such a worker-designed social responsibility program look like?

The Fair Food Program is the answer to that question.  Take a moment to think about workers in any labor-intensive industry – garment, assembly, agriculture – given the time and space to study past social responsibility efforts and to build their own from scratch; sitting together, arguing, agreeing, and ultimately constructing a program to protect their own rights from the bottom up.  Some of the elements that might emerge from such a process would likely include:

A Code of Conduct with real rights: With actual workers creating their own code of conduct, it would extend beyond requiring compliance with generic standards like those of the International Labor Organization or local laws and regulations. Workers would include concrete wage increases and identify industry-specific reforms that simply wouldn’t occur to outside architects of social accountability programs.  For example, requiring unpaid work – in agriculture, workers were forced to overfill buckets when paid by the piece – would be prohibited.  Only workers know the more subtle forms their exploitation has taken over the years – the schemes designed by their employers – which comprise the net that has trapped them in poverty for decades.

Enforcement as important as the standards themselves: Most corporate social responsibility programs pay lip service – at best – to the need to enforce their standards, but a worker-designed program would put the emphasis on enforcement, because the very reason for building the program is to end longstanding abuses, not just to elaborate an attractive set of new rights.  The enforcement system would feature an important, driving role for workers themselves, including: a grievance procedure with easy access for workers and an efficient and effective response to worker complaints; wall-to-wall worker education, so that workers themselves can be the 24-hour monitors needed to ensure compliance – if all workers are informed of their rights, abusers have nowhere to safely ply their trade; an audit process that gets behind closed doors, and into the records and policies that workers themselves can’t access, because there is always a percentage of abuses that are outside the sight of the workers, like systematic minimum wage theft through the doctoring of hours.

Enforcement with real teeth: Workers know that the most direct route to getting their employers’ attention is through their bottom line.  So workers would make sure there are real, measurable financial consequences for any human rights violations – market consequences – the ultimate hammer behind the enforcement of their rights.

These are some of the elements that a worker-developed social responsibility program would include, and those are the principal elements that comprise the Fair Food Program’s uniquely successful model.

Theory Meets Reality

Fortunately, we know that this theory of a worker-designed social responsibility program is not simply an idea – it’s now tested and proven to work. In the fields of Florida, a place once called “ground zero for modern-day slavery”, the Fair Food Program is now in its third season of operation, and the results are an unprecedented success.  To date:

  • The CIW has educated approximately 20,000 workers, face-to-face, on their rights within the program;
  • Workers have brought forth over 500 complaints under the Code of Conduct, resulting in the resolution of abuses ranging from sexual harassment and verbal abuse to wage violations;
  • The Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC) – the third-party created to monitor and enforce the Fair Food Program – has conducted over 100 comprehensive audits, visited 50 farm locations, and interviewed approximately 7,000 workers to assess Participating Growers’ implementation of the Fair Food Code of Conduct; and
  • Participating Buyers have paid over $14 million in Fair Food Premiums to boost workers’ sub-poverty wages.

Lastly, there have been no cases of slavery uncovered at Participating Growers’ operations. This absence of slavery cases has held despite the fact that the Fair Food Program has dramatically increased transparency at the farm level. FFSC investigators have significantly more access to workers than ever before, and workers now know their rights and have access to an effective complaint mechanism. In fact, it is precisely because of this significantly increased transparency – and because growers know they will lose the right to sell their tomatoes to twelve of the largest tomato buyers in the world if forced labor is found on their farm – that slavery is, finally, a thing of the past on Fair Food Program farms.

Wal-Mart’s entry into the Fair Food Program has set the stage for the Program’s expansion – both beyond the Florida border and into other crops – in the coming months and years.



Why Brown v Board Was Unsuccessful in Ensuring Equal Educational Outcomes

Sixty years ago, Brown v. Board of Education ended formal school segregation. Focusing attention on black subjugation, the ruling also sparked “freedom rides,” sit-ins, voter registration efforts, and other actions leading to civil rights legislation in the late 1950s and 1960s. But Brown was unsuccessful in its own mission—ensuring equal educational outcomes for blacks and whites.

There were initial integration gains following Brown, especially in the South, but these stalled after courts stopped enforcing desegregation in the 1980s. Low-income black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated now than then. Segregation persists as a central feature of American schooling.

Certainly, African American student achievement has improved dramatically in recent decades, although politically popular and conventional commentary ignores this. We don’t have reliable achievement measures from 1954, but have good recent data from the federal sampled test of math and reading, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It shows, for example, that on average, black fourth-graders now do math as well as or better than whites did only a generation ago. Yet because white achievement has also improved, the black-white gap remains, making the Brown litigants’ hopes for equal employment qualification a distant goal. Average black students still perform better than only about 25 percent of whites.

Schools for black children had enormous resource shortages in 1954, especially in the South. Inequalities still exist, there and nationwide, but are relatively small overall. We now understand, however, that equality is itself insufficient; disadvantaged students require many more resources than middle class whites to prepare for school success.

Children with less literate parents are read to less frequently. Compensation requires high-quality early childhood programs, from birth. Public discussion has barely acknowledged this, mostly supporting prekindergarten classes beginning only at ages 3 or 4. Early childhood programs, as well as nurse home-visiting services that support more effective maternal caregiving, are necessary, but expensive.

The most important predictor of later academic success is young children’s general background knowledge. Having visited a zoo predicts reading ability better than knowing how to sound-out letters that spell animal names. For older youth, participation is necessary in after-school and summer programs that don’t stop at academic remediation and homework help, but include organized athletics, field trips, club activity and music, art, and dance, comparable to what middle-class children take for granted. This, too, is costly.

For young minority children from lower-social-class backgrounds, smaller classes can boost achievement, because in them, children get more adult attention. Class size reduction is also costly. So is ensuring that disadvantaged children have teachers more skilled (and with different skills) than typical, well-qualified teachers of middle-class children.

Racially isolated communities typically have fewer primary care physicians, so children receive less routine and preventive health care (even with Medicaid or private health insurance), contributing to greater absenteeism. They also have unique health problems contributing to lower achievement—for example, iron-deficiency anemia and lead poisoning, or asthma from living in less healthy environments. They tend not to get corrective lenses for vision problems. Putting full-service health clinics, with pediatric nurse practitioners, optometrists, dentists and dental hygienists, in schools serving disadvantaged students is an added component of narrowed achievement gaps.

All these added resources – early childhood care and education, after school and summer programs, smaller classes, better teachers, full service clinics – are expensive, yet even in the unlikely event we were prepared to make these investments, students will rarely be successful in racially and economically isolated schools where learning is disrupted because families’ unstable housing leads to frequent moves, disrupting learning; where involvement of more-educated parents is absent; and where students lack adult and peer models of educational success. When a few children in a classroom come from homes with less literacy, a skilled teacher can give those children special attention. But when most children have these disadvantages, the average instructional level must decline. When most or even many children are sorely stressed, having endured life in a violent neighborhood, teachers must devote more time to discipline, less to learning.

Schools remain segregated today because neighborhoods in which they are located are segregated. Raising achievement of low-income black children requires residential integration, from which school integration can follow.

What few, even among sophisticated policymakers, realize is that the segregation of our major metropolitan areas was the product of explicit public policy. These housing policies were as unconstitutional as separate-but-equal education, yet have never been remedied. Congress adopted the 1949 Housing Act, subsidizing public housing construction nationwide, only after voting to permit racial segregation of the projects. As a result, projects for African Americans were placed only in neighborhoods where the black population could be concentrated, while projects for middle class whites were placed outside the ghetto. With the black population increasingly encircled in central cities, federal policy complemented public housing for blacks with suburban single family homes for whites. This was also explicit policy. When the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration guaranteed construction loans for mass production suburban builders, an explicit condition was attached that no homes be sold to black families. Iconic developments like the Levittowns on the East Coast, Daly City south of San Francisco, and Lakewood south of Los Angeles received federal guarantees on condition that they be white-only. Similar racially homogenous suburbs were created by federal policy in many, perhaps most other metropolitan areas between the two coasts.

This history is not easily undone. White working class families that moved to these suburbs in the late 1940s and 1950s subsequently benefited from equity appreciation and used that equity to send children to college and to secure their places in the middle class. Working class African Americans not only lost the opportunity to gain housing wealth in the postwar boom, but were also excluded from job opportunities as industry moved to the suburbs in this period.

It will require public policy as aggressive to integrate suburbs as it was aggressive to segregate them. But Federal requirements that communities pursue residential integration have been unenforced, and federal programs to subsidize movement of low-income families to middle-class communities have been weak and ineffective. In most states, landlords are permitted to refuse rentals to families with housing vouchers, ensuring that those families typically remain in high poverty neighborhoods. Many suburbs have zoning ordinances that prohibit apartment or moderate income housing, effectively barring all but the most affluent families. Inadequate transportation infrastructure reinforces racial isolation because low income families who could move to middle class communities would then be without access to jobs.

Education policy is housing policy. In some small cities, or in some racial borderline areas where mostly black and mostly white neighborhoods touch, school integration can be accomplished with attendance zone modifications, magnet schools, or controlled choice programs. But most disadvantaged black children now live too far from middle class suburbs for such programs to do the job on their own. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to substantially narrow the black-white achievement gap without mobility programs that permit disadvantaged families locked in urban ghettos to integrate with the broader suburban population.




The Politics of Poverty

Is poverty finally becoming a focal point of America’s political discourse?  There are encouraging signs here and there that we might be getting some traction on what many see as an intractable issue.

That’s great if it means that policy-makers are truly committed to eradicating poverty in our nation, but it’s worse than cynical if our most vulnerable citizens are being used as pawns in a high-stakes political chess match. Let’s hope that the 15 percent of Americans living in poverty are not part of a series of strategic moves being played out until the bell rings signaling the end of the mid-term elections.

Too often the issue of poverty devolves into a conversation about handouts, lack of will or parental responsibility. Instead of playing the blame game and assigning fault to the victims of an economic system and political structure that has done precious little to help lift them out of poverty, it is essential that politicians, activists, businesses, faith- and community-based organizations and concerned citizens take advantage of the marginal-but-better-than-usual media attention now being paid to issues surrounding poverty.  Now is the time for us to mount a coordinated, targeted and effective war on poverty.

To that end, two key issues are emerging this year as critical to battling poverty; jobs/wages and income disparity.

The minimum wage is shaping up to become a key issue in the upcoming midterm elections.  Some members of Congress are pushing to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.   Too little for me frankly, but we must stand behind these efforts. People need jobs with a living wage.  Period.  To do any less is to concede that we accept leaving the poor behind.

Pressure must also be applied to Congress and the business community to create more jobs.   According to CNBC, corporations are sitting on more than 1-trillion dollars in cash.  It’s time for that money to be reinvested in American jobs.

The other big issue is income disparity, which needs to be addressed through reforming the tax code.   We must find a way to tax investment income at a more equitable rate and corporations need to find a way to close the gap between the incomes of CEO’s and average workers.

There are many other issues that can be targeted in the battle to eliminate poverty.  We must identify those issues and work diligently to implement the best of the best strategies for success. In the poverty manifesto text which I co-wrote with Dr. Cornel West, The Rich and the Rest of Us, you can delve deeper into some of these ideas.

There is both a moral obligation and an economic imperative for public and private sectors to work side by side to build a bridge for the poor.  We must be willing to share responsibilities and resources to reach our shared objectives of achieving sustained results in reducing and preventing poverty. Each of us has the power to make a difference.

The Tavis Smiley Foundation has announced the launch of ENDING POVERTY: America’s Silent Spaces, a $3 million, four-year national initiative to examine barriers and identify solutions to alleviate poverty in the United States. The initiative will help advance action against poverty by engaging and mobilizing individuals, communities, and organizations to identify innovative and community-based solutions that will inform a meaningful path out of poverty for fellow citizens. For more information and to find out how you can help end the cycle of poverty, visit

We look forward to combining the efforts of our Foundation with others working in the fight to eradicate poverty in America. I salute the Center for American Progress for launching with my friend Greg Kaufmann, and believe this website will be a great resource for those who want to take action in the fight against poverty.  The future of our democracy depends on how seriously we take the plight of our nation’s poor.




Fighting Poverty Wages

We’re at a critical moment in our economic recovery that requires real leadership and people power to ensure true economic democracy in our country. There is incredible work being done to build a strong antipoverty movement, and spaces like these are fundamental to encourage an open dialogue about our strategies and tactics as well as our successes and failures.

As corporate profits keep soaring, workers’ wages continue to stagnate, creating the widest income inequality gap our nation has seen in modern times. At Jobs With Justice we still believe that in America, people who work hard should be paid enough to live with dignity and raise a family. Today, millions of people go to work every day and still don’t earn enough money to feed their families. If people can work full-time and still can’t afford groceries, rent and medication, then the entire model is flawed and unfair. We can’t continue down this path of creating bottom-of-the-barrel, low-wage jobs that condemn our friends and neighbors to poverty.

A critical first step toward regaining our country’s shared prosperity is to insist that lawmakers adopt a meaningful increase in the minimum wage. The Fair Minimum Wage Act would update the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour and give the law teeth by indexing it to inflation. According to the Congressional Budget Office, even this slight increase—which would be the first since 2009—would raise 900,000 Americans above the official poverty level. And it would boost pay for 30 million people, many of whom are teetering just above the poverty line.

Raising the minimum wage is essential to combating poverty in America. After all, of the 46.2 million Americans who live below the official threshold for poverty in the United States (less than $18,284 annually for a family of three), at least 10.4 million—or more than one in five—are “working poor.”  According to other studies, as many as half of all poor families—and more than 70 percent of nearly poor families—were working in 2011. In other words, for millions of Americans, poverty isn’t caused by the inability to work or find work, it’s caused by lousy pay.

The evidence of the “working poor” is everywhere. Food stamp participation since 1980 has grown the fastest among people who actually have jobs. Fifty-two percent of fast food industry workers, for example, rely on public assistance like food stamps because their jobs don’t pay well enough to make ends meet. The situation has only gotten worse as decent middle-class wage jobs lost during the recession have been disproportionately replaced by low-wage jobs, even as corporate profits have skyrocketed.

But a minimum wage increase isn’t a panacea. While $7.25 is not okay, $10.10 isn’t really enough for people to support themselves and their families. At Jobs With Justice, we are continuing to demand much more in order to counter decades of corporate-backed legislative policies that have driven down labor standards, burdened taxpayers and valued profits over people.

To achieve shared prosperity, all working people need to regain their bargaining power so that they have a real voice and opportunity in shaping their jobs and our economy. That means we need to continue fighting to ensure workers have the right to organize and bargain for better wages, standards and working conditions.

We also need to create more affordable housing for low-income families, improve our public education system and access to college and job training programs, and invest in public transportation and the growing caregiving industry so more Americans can afford to get to work and know their families are being cared for. We also need to fix fundamental structural problems—like skyrocketing executive pay, rampant income inequality, and regressive tax policies— that rig our economy to work for big business and the top one percent at the expense of everyone else.

We all deserve the chance to secure the quality of life we want for ourselves and our children. We can start turning the economy around by demanding higher wages and better jobs. Increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour is a crucial first step toward alleviating poverty in America and creating an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy and well-connected.




How We Measure Poverty: Catching up with Mollie Orshansky

Poverty—it’s a term we readily use, but don’t really understand very well, unless we’ve experienced it. It’s not enough to have just been down on your luck for a little while; you really understand poverty when you reach the point where you aren’t sure whether or how you will escape it.

We think we know what poverty is, but when pushed, it really isn’t easy to define. Poverty seems to be about not having enough, about deprivation. But sometimes it’s not easy to know how much is enough.

As it is, our measurement of poverty vastly understates the problem, allowing us to continue onward without effectively addressing it.

Poverty can be considered, and measured, as absolute—based on an agreed upon minimum level of resources that no one should be allowed to sink below, usually connected to a minimum level of basic needs. Or it can be considered as relative—based on some “standards of the community.” It can also be measured as “subjective”—based on levels of resources that individuals believe and report that they need in order to be healthy, satisfied, or happy.

In the US we use a “quasi-absolute” measure of poverty. It is historically based on an estimate of the cost of a minimally nutritious diet. So it is connected to a floor, or minimum level of resources that no one should be allowed to sink below, but a floor that supposedly supports a healthy life. This “official” poverty measurement emerged in the early 1960s based on the work and insights of Mollie Orshansky.

Working for the Social Security Administration , Orshansky was tasked with developing a response to a Congress member’s question about how much it costs a retired couple to live. Orshansky examined USDA data and found that in 1955 the average household of three or more people in the US spent about one-third of its annual income on food, which implied that it spent two-thirds on everything else it needed. So, if you knew how much a healthy diet cost, you could multiply that amount by 3 to arrive at the amount needed to meet basic needs, or the poverty threshold.

And it worked very well. Since she knew the cost of the USDA’s economy food plan (now known as the “Thrifty Food Plan”)—which was supposed to be the lowest cost, minimally nutritious diet—Orshansky multiplied its cost by 3, and she had the basic poverty threshold. Simple but elegant, and quite accurate in the 1960s.  It’s still the basis of the official poverty thresholds today.

But there is a problem with this approach: if the average proportion of income spent on food changes, then the multiplier would need to change, and so would the poverty threshold. And the proportion of income spent on food has indeed changed, as housing and health care costs have absorbed an ever-growing percentage of our annual incomes. In 2012, for example, the average share of expenditures spent on food for all consumer units was just 12.8%—far below the 33% in Orshansky’s day. Using her elegant logic, we would therefore need to multiply the cost of the minimally nutritious diet by 7.8—instead of 3—to accurately arrive at the basic 2012 poverty thresholds.

Using 2012 costs, if you multiply the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan for a family of four people by 3, you get $22,604—very close to the Census Bureau’s poverty threshold of $23,283 for a family of four. But if you instead multiply the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan by 7.8, the poverty threshold would be $58,771 per year for that same family.

While that may seem high, it is actually very close to the “Economic Self-Sufficiency Standard” that Diana Pearce estimated was $59,027 for a family of four in Albany County, NY in 2010. And it is a little more than the economic self-sufficiency income level of $54,636 for that same family in Allegheny County, PA in 2012. So Mollie Orshansky’s logic still seems to work reasonably well, it just hasn’t been adjusted to reflect the higher costs of basic necessities for contemporary families.

It is clear that if we accurately applied Mollie Orshansky’s approach to measuring poverty, much higher thresholds would result, and many more households and people would be categorized as living in poverty. In 2012, the median income level for all US households was $51,017.  If $58,771 (7.8 times the Thrifty Food Plan for a family of four in 2012) were the basic poverty threshold, more than half the households in the US would be classified as being in poverty. And that would probably be accurate in terms of the number of families that are unable to afford basic necessities.

Changing how we measure poverty would force a change in the narrative we tell ourselves as a nation.  When something affects half of the nation’s households, it becomes the problem of many more leaders, at all levels of government and society, forcing a recognition that poverty really was never about “them”, it is truly about “us”.  As it is, our measurement of poverty vastly understates the problem, allowing us to continue onward without effectively addressing it.

I frequently hear the argument that we can’t afford to reduce or eliminate poverty, and without doubt it would not be an inexpensive undertaking. But the unstated question this implies is “how much are we willing to pay not to eliminate poverty?” In 2007, four of the best poverty researchers in the country estimated that child poverty alone costs the US in excess of $500 billion per year. This estimate only includes costs arising from foregone earnings, crime, and health care, and is surely an underestimate of the actual total costs of poverty.

So the question we seem to be facing these days is this: “Do we value poverty more than not having poverty?” Are we as a country willing to pay more to have poverty than we are to eliminate poverty? It is an open question, but the answer is emerging rapidly.