The penny that proves a point about acting locally

Posted: March 01, 2012

Think globally, act locally is a widely recognized slogan, but is it an effective course of action?

Cary Beckwith of West Philadelphia says a recent change of policy by Trader Joe's stores offers proof positive that it can be.

Here's the long story, shortened.

Across the country and in Philadelphia, food and human-rights activists were poised to demonstrate last month outside 33 Trader Joe's stores, among them the Market Street location.

The demonstrators were demanding fair wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers organized under the banner of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of Latino, Haitian, and Mayan workers formed in 1993.

Maybe you've heard about their plight.

Their near-poverty wages and slavelike working conditions were documented in Barry Estabrook's June 2011 book Tomatoland, championed by New York Times columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman, which resulted in prosecutions by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Immokalee Workers managed to persuade tomato farm owners - about a dozen huge companies controlling virtually the entire Florida tomato crop - to sign a Fair Food agreement giving the pickers a penny-a-pound wage increase.

But the owners put a significant condition on the agreement: that their customers - supermarkets, fast-food chains, and food-service corporations - pay that penny.

After a series of of boycotts, demonstrations, petitions, and hunger strikes at large chain restaurants, some signed on. Taco Bell was the first, in 2005; then McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, and in June 2009, Whole Foods.

But not Trader Joe's.

Locally, the Philly Campaign for Fair Food, which Beckwith helped start in 2011, set its sights on Trader Joe's. The group demonstrated in April and was preparing for the Feb. 11 demonstration when the news came in.

Late in the day on Feb. 9, Trader Joe's announced it would sign a Fair Food agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

A joint statement posted on the company's website said the workers were "truly happy," but offered no explanation from Trader Joe's about its prior refusal.

So thinking globally and acting locally can work?

"Yes," Beckwith said. "We were really excited to hear that news. It give us optimism."

"The farmworkers in Florida have a very compelling story. And the coalition has run a fantastic strategic campaign. So I'm not surprised that the coalition has been successful."

But the campaign here and in the rest of the country is not over.

Beckwith says the Philly Campaign for Fair Food will continue working within the coalition's strategy, focusing on Ahold, a Dutch company that owns Giant (and some Genuardi's) stores in the Philadelphia area.

And in Florida, 50 members of the Immokalee coalition are poised to begin a "fast for fair food" outside the headquarters of Publix Super Markets on March 5.

"We are fasting today so that tomorrow none of our children are forced to surrender their dignity or to suffer hunger just to work," Darinel Sales, one of the workers who will be taking part, wrote in an e-mail posted on the coalition website (

Contact Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211,, or follow on Twitter @marderd. Read her recent work at

comments powered by Disqus