Letter of Conscience to Secretary Vilsack
On this 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation we remember our nation’s courageous ancestors who denounced slavery, resisted its practices and devoted themselves to creating structures of commerce that upheld the human rights and dignity of all people. Advances that had been unimaginable became possible because of the creativity and perseverance of slaves, abolitionists and key government leaders. The work of freedom takes all of us; and it is ongoing.
Though enormous strides were made, the scourge of slavery has persisted, despite its illegality, in different forms, including in the agricultural fields of the United States today. Since 1997, Florida agriculture itself has seen nine prosecutions of cases of forced labor, involving over 1,200 people.
Modern-day slavery in Florida agriculture cannot be understood in a vacuum. It is not separate from the past, rather its roots extend deep into the state’s history of farmworker poverty and powerlessness.
But a new day has dawned in the Florida fields, due to the unstinting work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and its allies from the faith, student, human rights, and sustainable food communities. Together, we have given birth to a comprehensive and verifiable new model of sustainable agriculture: the Fair Food Program.
Through this program, farmworkers, over ninety percent of Florida tomato growers, and eleven of the nation’s largest corporate buyers have come together to address modern slavery and eliminate the conditions in which it flourishes. Advances in wages and working conditions are rigorously monitored by the Fair Food Standards Council and the result has been nothing short of a sea-change in the industry.
For many people of faith, the story of liberation found in Exodus is foundational to our commitment to social justice. Just as God brought the Jewish people from slavery to freedom, we have dedicated ourselves over many years to continuing the work of freedom by changing the Florida agricultural industry through the Fair Food Program until it more closely upholds the dignity and rights God intends for all people.
In November, the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships lifted up the Fair Food Program as a powerful model for addressing human trafficking here in the US. Indeed, you have commended the Fair Food Program and has held it out as a model. Now is the time for the USDA to embrace this model and purchase tomatoes for school lunches and market stabilization through the Fair Food Program. As we celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, it is fitting to ask ourselves if we, 150 years ago, would have had the courage to embrace abolition. The US Department of Agriculture is a bellwether buyer, and as an agency of the federal government its purchasing practices should embody the highest standards for human rights. For the work of freedom takes all of us; and it is ongoing.
Therefore, we the undersigned, as people of faith, call upon the United States Department of Agriculture to support the highest standards for addressing modern slavery and ending the conditions in which it flourishes through participating in the Fair Food Program by:
a. paying at least an additional, net penny-per-pound premium for USDA tomatoes, with Florida growers passing on this increase to farmworkers in their paychecks and
b. purchasing only from those Florida tomato growers that uphold the Fair Food Code of Conduct.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter.
The Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director, T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America)
Gary Haugen, President and CEO, International Justice Mission
The Rev. David Beckmann, President, Bread for the World
Jim Wallis, President and CEO, Sojourners
Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and
Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, Executive Minister, Justice and Witness Ministries, United Church of Christ
James E. Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church
Sr. Patricia Chappell, SNDdeN, Executive Director of Pax Christi USA
Simone Campbell, SSS, Executive Director, NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby
Rabbi Joshua Lesser, Chair of the Tikkun Olam Commission, Jewish Reconstructionist Movement
Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, National Director of Interfaith & Community Alliances, Islamic Society of North America
Rev. Craig C. Roshaven, Witness Ministries Director, Unitarian Universalist Association
Virginia Nesmith, Executive Director, National Farm Worker Ministry
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Institute Justice Team