Up with the Fair Food Nation, down with exploitation

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“J-U-S-T-I-C-E. Justice for Immokalee.”

These are the words roughly 20 UNF students chanted as they marched from Chipotle to Publix through the Town Center, Nov 16 from 6 -7 p.m., protesting with signs to raise awareness for better farm working conditions.

“A handful of us went to the Freedom March in Lakeland, Florida and we’re inspired to keep the movement going in Jacksonville,” said Elizabeth Bittel, senior sociology major and one of the leaders of the protest.

The three main companies the group aimed to target were Publix, Quiznos and Chipotle, all of which are in the Town Center.  These food companies sell tomatoes that may be harvested by Florida farm workers who are subjected to sub-poverty wages, modern-day slavery and are denied fundamental labor rights.

“Our goal is to put pressure on these major food companies to pay one more penny per pound for tomatoes,” Bittel said. “We want them to enter into an agreement with the CIW, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, to monitor safe and just working conditions for the farm workers.”

The Florida Modern Slavery Museum, which tours all over the U.S., was parked outside the Student Union from 10 a.m. – 4p.m. The museum is set up inside a truck, similar to a U-Haul, is an exact replica of a truck that was used in recent case of farm worker slavery.

“Workers were locked in the truck overnight for several nights,” said Bittel. “They were slaves and were forced to sleep and live in the truck. Eventually they escaped and went to the police.”

There were also five large boards displaying the history and evolution of slavery in Florida.  The Museum is on the second leg of its southeastern tour and made a stop on campus last year as well.

Bittel wants more students to become aware of the cause so they can get educated about the food they purchase, particularly the tomatoes they buy, that help support the exploitation of farm-workers.

Oct. 21 Bittel and four other UNF students protested outside the Publix in Arlington.  They were met by four police cars and were asked to leave.  As for Tuesday tonight’s march, the amount of protesters supporting the cause quadrupled.

“I was surprised at the turnout,” Bittel said. “I only knew a couple of the protesters.  Most of the students who marched with us tonight were new and saw us on campus today and wanted to join.”

My protest experience:

Half-way through the march, a Town Center security guard told us we weren’t allowed to protest on private property.  He followed us to our end destination – Publix, where two other cops and seven Publix managers, who said they knew we were coming, were waiting

“They spy on our website and our Facebook pages because they always know when we are coming,” Bittel said. “This protest was listed as a call to action on the website.”

One of the Publix managers who met with a student protester tonight said that it’s a labor dispute and that they can’t do anything about it.

“We just want them as a company to step up and take action,” Bittel said. “We don’t want to be enemies with them.”

Making headway:

Coincidentally, there was a breakthrough today in the case of the farm workers; the CIW signed an agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.

The press conference displayed on CIW’s website says the farm-workers will enjoy new protections in the field that will give them basic rights like shade and an outlet for health and safety concerns.

“This agreement is huge for the campaign,” Bittel said. “Today was a great day to be active for the cause.  It showed us that every little thing we’re doing is important and worth it.”

Although she is graduating this semester Bitell hopes to keep the action going in Jacksonville.

“The last thing I said to them was ‘see you soon.”