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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Book of Matthew: Aramark for justice? It’s more true than you think

Published: April 16, 2010
Section: Opinions

ILLUSTRATION BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

The next time you eat in one of Brandeis’ dining halls, be sure to buy tomatoes.

Believe it or not, you may be helping farm workers in Florida live better lives with every purchase, thanks to a deal struck between Aramark and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) April 1.

According to its web site, the CIW is “a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida.”  Based in the census-designated place of Immokalee in Collier County, Florida, the 4,000-member group has fought to stem the trend of falling wages in the tomato industry since its formation in 1993.  Harvesters make an average of about $10,000 per year, which is hardly enough for them to live (the 2009/2010 federal poverty level for one person is $10,830).

But this new deal could help alleviate the problem.  On top of mandating a code of conduct for growers, it requires Aramark to pay an extra 1.5-cent premium for every pound of tomatoes picked.  Harvesters who once earned 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket they filled will now earn 82 cents—a 60 percent increase that could translate into a yearly salary of about $16,000.

By agreeing to these terms, Aramark will join the ranks of industry behemoths who have made concrete pledges to improve the wages and working conditions of harvesters, such as Taco Bell, Burger King, McDonald’s, Subway, Whole Foods, Bon Appetit and Compass.  More importantly, Aramark’s move could help convince other food service providers to make similar deals.  For example, Sodexo, a corporation similar to Aramark that also provides food to many colleges and universities, has yet to respond to the pressure being put on them to change their ways.

Perhaps you are thinking, “This all sounds great, but what can I do to help?”  Well, my young idealistic college student, there are actually several ways.  First, you can eat dining hall tomatoes, especially during the winter when most of our produce will be coming from farther south.  Even better, you could become a vocal supporter of fair labor practices.  Encourage the Student Union and the Administration to voice their approval of Aramark’s move.  Or better yet, do so yourself.  Take the time to write a letter to someone in the company’s upper echelons.  I don’t know how much mail the CEO of Aramark gets from college students, but I imagine most of it isn’t very positive.  A letter of approval would probably stand out.

Remember, neither Aramark nor any other food service provider came to their decision lightly.  It was not the recent warm weather that softened the hearts of their CEOs and convinced them to share their enormous wealth.  They were pushed—hard—by the CIW, farmworkers, customers and even concerned students like us.  Only the threat of a massive public backlash forced their hands.

We are Aramark’s customers.  Ultimately, its business success is up to us, and it ought to be interested in what we have to say, if only for the sake of its collective wallet.  But we cannot expect them to remember that fact if we forget it ourselves.

In its April 5 editorial, the Fort Meyers News-Press wrote that most companies submitted to CIW demands because “the public dislikes injustice in its food.”  Let’s prove it.