Nearly 27 Years After Initial Trip to Florida Tomato Fields, Students and Staff Work Alongside Fair Food Movement

Immokalee is a quiet town in southwest Florida with a long history of unjust wages, unsafe working conditions and, in extreme instances, prosecuted cases of modern-day slavery for the migrant farmworkers who harvest 90 percent of the United States’ winter tomatoes.

Immokalee is also the birthplace of the awe-inspiring Fair Food Movement, which seeks to better the wages and working conditions of farmworkers. As part of my work in Spiritan Campus Ministry at Duquesne University, I help to facilitate the spring Cross-Cultural Mission Experience to Immokalee each year for students. This trip includes working with local social service agencies. However, the most important part of the experience is our advocacy with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to advance the Fair Food Movement. Advocacy frames the heart of the experience, but it was not always that way.

Duquesne University facilitates a relationship that has existed for nearly 27 years. As former director of Spiritan campus ministry, the Rev. Don McEachin, C.S.Sp, began taking students to Immokalee during spring break 1988. His involvement in Immokalee began four years before, when a friend of his, John Witchger, was living in Immokalee and working with migrant farmworkers. He invited Fr. Don to visit.

“I went out into the fields at sunrise with John and some Mexican crew leaders that he knew,” Fr. Don said. “We picked mostly tomatoes. I became enthralled with the whole farmworker story.”

Fr. Don’s passion for working with this population began a relationship that continues today. The early years of this mission experience were about working with newly established social services to support area farmworkers. The Guadalupe Social Services, now a staple of assistance, Fr. Don reflected, “was nothing more than a large mobile home parked in the rear of the church, stuffed with used clothes, meds and food donated mostly to newly arrived farmworkers.”

During the early trips, students stayed in farmworkers’ homes and worked in the fields for a day or two. “There was a natural evolution over the years of the trips,” Fr. Don recalled. “Slowly the growers began to block us out of their fields, in part because undercover reporters were publicizing negative stories of the farmworker life and in part because of the adversarial relationship that arose with the coalition. They always invited us with big smiles for tours and interviews, and said, ‘We would love to have you in our fields, but our insurance company won’t permit it,’ etc.”

Fast-forward to 2009, my first trip to Immokalee. It was a huge lesson in encountering “the other”—people and a lifestyle so different from mine. Before the trip, we learned about migrant farmworkers’ struggles, from poor housing conditions to the realities shared by many who travel toward the elusive American Dream. We learned about the Fair Food Movement and how a group of farmworkers had successfully targeted corporations, such as McDonalds, Taco Bell and Burger King, to pay a premium on the tomatoes picked. We learned how this group of brave men and women came together to negotiate with the agricultural industry to ensure safe working conditions for those in the fields.

Then, we met the farmworkers. Something about seeing the face of “the other” struck me. These people were quiet, humble, inviting. They were simply asking for changes. Solidarity was the word that captured me then and continues to define my work in Immokalee. We walk shoulder-to-shoulder with the coalition and add our voices to theirs as we continue to ask for change in how those who harvest our food are treated. This work is the definition of living a radical Gospel life: being different and changing the status quo for the betterment of brothers and sisters in the fields.

The real story is about relationships. Fr. Don recalled when 35 Duquesne students were invited to a wedding of a Mexican crew boss, simply because the group was in town. “No one from Duquesne University would ever be a stranger in Immokalee,” the crew boss said.

“It was an incredible, wonderful experience—one that still fills me with wonder,” said Fr. Don, now a missionary in the Dominican Republic.

This sentiment of hospitality and a committed relationship rings true today as students go each year to Immokalee, encounter “the other” and walk in solidarity with a people of incredible warmth and faith.