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Why Farmworker Awareness Week Means So Much to Me

Why Farmworker Awareness Week Means So Much to Me

By Paul Ruszat, Regional Executive Chef, St. Cloud Hospital

Growing up in south Central Florida, I witnessed first-hand the deplorable living conditions farmworkers experience. My mother taught English as a second language for 30 years in the local schools. Sometimes I accompanied her to deliver homework to students, many of whom were children of farmworkers. They were crammed into trailers, sometimes packed with 10 to 20 people per trailer, because of the exorbitant rent charged by their employers.

I know that farm life can be a hard way to make a living. I spent many middle school “summer vacations” working my grandfather’s farm in Minnesota. He raised cattle, chickens and a few crops. He grew sweet corn on a five-acre plot but instead of selling it, he would wake up early, pick the corn and leave it on the doorsteps of homes all around the town. Despite his generosity, making ends meet wasn’t easy, especially when prices for his crops dropped. In my opinion, no one has it tougher than the farmworkers who like the Immokalee workers and my grandfather, spend hours in the sun harvesting the food we eat.

People say we are the sum of our experiences. Mine, have cultivated a personal conviction to advocate for farmworkers and make this week, National Farmworker Awareness Week especially special.

Our parent company, Compass Group is the largest contract foodservice company in the world. Our size is impressive, but it’s the stance our company has taken to protect these workers that makes me most proud. Ten years ago, our company became one of the leaders in protecting farmworkers by joining the Fair Food program with the Coalition of Immokalee (CIW). CIW is a human rights organization that represents farmworkers based in Immokalee, Florida, which sits about 40 miles northeast of Naples on Florida’s West Coast.

As part of the agreement, we pay one additional penny per pound of tomatoes. That extra cent is passed on to workers as a line-item bonus on their regular paychecks. One penny may sound small, but since we reached the agreement in 2009, we have purchased approximately four million pounds of tomatoes through our partnership – which means $40,000 in aid for the workers. Between January 2011 and October 2018, over $30 million in Fair Food premiums were paid into the program.

Our commitment extends beyond the agreement to buy tomatoes. Chef Neff, Morrison Healthcare’s Vice President of Culinary, and I are CIW’s Morrison representatives. Recently, we traveled to Immokalee, FL and took a walking tour of the farms – for me, still an eye-opening experience. Even though it’s been 30 years since I grew up in the area, we were told stories and saw places where farm workers have been mistreated.

For example, we saw the parking lot in the middle of the city – years ago, it was a holding area: farmworkers were held captive until they were loaded into a truck to go pick tomatoes in the Florida sun with little shelter or protection from harassment. It seems incomprehensible that this could happen in our country – the truck, reserved for transporting farmworkers sat adjacent to houses, and apartment buildings. Children were walking to and from school. “Normal life” was happening in the epicenter of what some people call modern day slavery.

Beyond serving as a Morrison representative for the CIW, I try to help connect others with what I’ve experienced. In addition to purchasing tomatoes, I try to connect my local vendors with the program by promoting benefits buying tomatoes from farms that are part of the coalition.

During my last Florida visit for example, I met with a friend that runs the health food section for a local grocery store. I introduced her to my contact at the CIW to discuss buying more tomatoes grown in Florida and reducing those grown in Mexico, which has scant protection for farmworkers.

I also promote our commitment to the farmworkers in our cafés. Several times each year, including during Farmworker Awareness Week, I run a Fair Food Chef’s Table. I place tomatoes from Florida and Mexico side-by-side and ask people to taste them. Then, I explain we pay one penny more for the Florida tomato to help provide safe housing for the workers there. That usually gets a person’s attention.

Our support for the farmworkers means even more because it fits so well with the Compass and Morrison corporate goals. Like many associates, I’ve worked for companies that didn’t care about much more than turning a profit. But people at our companies are treated with respect and are given opportunities to advance their careers.

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