I just sent out the following press release about Rabbi Anna and her work. I am so proud of TvS, too!
Tomato Workers Justice
Last fall, on Yom Kippur, the solemn Jewish fast day, Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy of congregation Tzedek v’Shalom took what many would consider a bold risk. She held a tomato up in front of her congregants at services.
“Let us take a look at the humble tomato,” She began. “Do we know where it came from? … What hands touched these foods, how many steps were involved in bringing this one tomato all the way from the field to the market? When we think about making the best food choices for our family or ourselves, we usually focus on the nutritional content of our foods these days, eating organic and natural whenever possible. But still, we are largely divorced from a basic knowledge of where our food comes from — the process of food production. We don’t really consider the working conditions of the people who picked the fruit and vegetables we eat.”
The risk was not that Rabbi Boswell-Levy was tempting her congregants with food; it was that she dared to exhort her listeners to actually act to “Untie the ropes of the yoke!” as the traditional Yom Kippur reading from the prophet Isaiah urges.
Boswell-Levy explained that a few weeks earlier, with an interdenominational group of rabbis, she had visited the small town of Immokalee, Florida, to learn about and witness the conditions of the people who pick 30% of all tomatoes sold in the United States. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the CIW, hosted them.
“You can hear about these people, and you can read articles chronicling their stories, but it’s a wholly different experience to meet them, to see where they live, to see the vast farms and fields where they pick the tomatoes for 12 hours a day.… In the most extreme cases, farmworkers are held against their will and forced to work for little or no pay. Federal civil rights officials have successfully prosecuted seven slavery operations involving more 1000 workers in Florida’s fields since 1997, prompting one federal prosecutor to call Florida ‘ground zero’ for modern day slavery.”
The CIW has made amazing progress since it started, actively assisting the Department of Justice with ongoing cases and providing invaluable outreach and education to people who would not directly approach the US government. The workers also identified specific ways they want change, such as the establishment of an “enforceable Fair Food Code of Conduct.”
Although nine major buyers — including the biggest fast food chains such as McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, and Taco Bell, had signed on, Trader Joe’s, the popular local supermarket, had not. Trader Joe’s claimed to have endorsed the principles of Fair Food Code of Conduct, but conspicuously declined to actually sign them and had not taken action to uphold them.
Rabbi Boswell-Levy believed Trader Joe would be very responsive to consumer feedback. So she urged her congregants to take action.
Tzedek v’Shalom’s rabbi has no idea what actions her listeners took. But she herself, a board member of Rabbis for Human Rights — North America since 2005, continued her own efforts. During the Jewish fall harvest festival of Sukkot, for example, she stood with Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Hermann, the rabbi of Kol Tzedek in West Philly, at a Trader Joe’s demonstration in Center City. She spoke about her experiences and what she had witnessed in Florida. And she led the group in delivering a stack of letters to the manager there that customers entering the store had signed, asking them to honor worker’s rights and the CIW agreement.
And on Thursday, February 9, Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy exuberantly emailed Tzedek v’Shalom this news from her colleague at Rabbis for Human Rights — North America: “Mazal tov to Trader Joe’s on signing an agreement today with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to buy tomatoes only from companies that implement a set of labor standards including a zero tolerance policy for human trafficking, a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment, a penny more a pound for tomatoes, and basic safety protections.”
The rabbis had just hung a “mezuzah of justice” at the new Trader Joe’s store in Naples, Florida.