Pundit Interviews

Pundit Letters





Perishable Pundit
P.O. Box 810425
Boca Raton FL 33481

Ph: 561-994-1118
Fax: 561-994-1610


email:
info@PerishablePundit.com

a

Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



Redlands Christian Migrant Association Is An Organization Worth Replicating Nationwide

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 17, 2008

Our article, Florida Tomato Growers Reject Penny-A-Pound Initiative At The Industry’s Peril, brought some intense protest from many in the Florida industry. We ran a letter, Pundit’s Mailbag — Defending The Florida Tomato Industry, to give voice to some of the concerns industry members expressed on the issue.

We also heard from industry members about various organizations that they felt reflected positively on the industry. One is a charity that is supported by many of the growers, so we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Barbara Mainster
Executive Director
Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA)
Immokalee, Florida

Q: Tell us about RCMA. How did it get formed? What is its purpose?

A: We are a sixties organization and are unique. The older I get, the more I realize this. We started out taking care of farm worker children while their parents worked in the farms and groves. Yet we quickly realized the farmers and farm workers had a whole lot in common. So rather then spend time on things they couldn’t agree on, we became a group that had both farmers and farm workers on board. And they agreed right up front to work on things they could agree on; the need for childcare, healthcare, housing, education, field conditions, such as pesticide training, field sanitation, and so forth. They agreed they wouldn’t discuss wages and unionization; that’s off the table.

As a result, many good things have happened in this state for farm workers. In the case of RCMA, what we’ve accomplished can be seen in the number of families we’ve been able to help. We started out 42 years ago with three childcare centers serving 75 kids in one county. Now we are in 21 counties serving 7,800 children in childcare and have two charter schools.

Q: Do you get involved in other areas beyond childcare and education, such as housing and working conditions?

A: Part of a good quality childcare program includes health screening, developmental screening, individual lesson plans for children, social services for the families, taking them to appointments, showing them where the services are in the community and how to get what they need.

We also provide the children with two meals and a snack daily. If the parents don’t have legal status, they are not entitled to food stamps. Therefore in emergencies such as a freeze, we have to get involved with getting families basic food. Two years ago an anonymous donor gave $80,000 for emergency food and rent assistance and we used it in two months. If there’s a problem, we can’t say we don’t do that; we only do childcare.

We’re not involved in housing or working conditions.

Q: Your strategy to form an alliance between growers and workers to further your cause is quite different than the divisive tactics pursued by the Coalition of Immokolee Workers (CIW).

A: How does a non-profit social agency get results? We have chosen to be upfront and honest. If Republicans and Democrats can’t talk politics because they’ll never agree, they certainly can talk about their grandchildren and find common ground.

Q: Did you get backing from agricultural organizations?

A: The first ag group to help us was Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA). As the years went on, we gained support from the Florida Farm Bureau, Florida Strawberry Growers Association, the Florida Tomato Committee, and individual citrus and vegetable growers. The leader in supporting us is the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, a strong advocate in the Florida legislature. FFVA also has a scholarship fund to help migrant children go to college.

We don’t have a scrapbook of us picketing. The kids that have been through our program are now very successful adults; some are bankers, architects, and teachers. Eighty-five percent of our staff is former farm workers.

We get some attacks on us for bringing farmers and workers together. Some organizations are just anti-agriculture. In a world where most farm worker advocacy groups don’t work with growers, they act like growers are the enemy. We get criticized for being friends with the enemy.

Wendell Rollason, my husband, passed away 11 years ago. He’s the one who really got us all going in ‘68. He was the first executive director of RCMA, after the Mennonites founded us. Wendell always said that in every profession, there are good guys and bad guys, good doctors and bad doctors, good farmers and bad farmers. We work with the good farmers.

Q: What have growers done for RCMA?

A: They’ve gone to the legislature and lobbied. Growers and farmers have asked for more money for childcare, education and housing. They advocate. They also donate resources and money. For a $250 donation, we can draw down matching federal and state funds that can support a child in childcare for a year. Growers have helped us build a charter school. East Coast Brokers and Packers, Plant City, Florida, for example, has just given a facility, a building for us to use for childcare.

In terms of funding for childcare, our state is the only one in the country that actually contracts with us — 13 million dollars to serve farm worker kids. That would not have happened without the backing of Florida tomato growers and other agricultural organizations in the state. They are a force to be reckoned with. If I need to get in to see a legislator, the lobbyist from the Florida tomato growers will get me in. I can’t get in by myself.

For health clinics, the growers have always spoken up to the powers that be. At the local county government level, they have spoken for zoning for housing and childcare.

Six L’s, a big tomato company based in Immokalee, provides a building on their land for childcare. Six L’s also has supported us through our Christmas card project, Print Angels, where the kids draw pictures. This program was started in 1998 at the suggestion and under the leadership of A. Duda & Sons, Oviedo, Florida. This type of program is more oriented toward enhancing public relations than making money.

Q: Why is that important?

A: When you’re a child-caring organization, all of your money is in the staff to take care of the kids. It was only two years ago that we hired people for public relations. Many people will say we are the best kept secret in the state. When people get Christmas cards, it helps people know who we are. Six L’s also donated $15,000 to sponsor a panel of a landmark wall mural on our building.

Immokalee is a very diverse community. It has a negative reputation to people who don’t live there because it is a very low-income community. To have prominent art in a public place — this is literally on Main Street, curving around the wall, entering the building and traversing right out again — celebrating agriculture, people who work the land, and rural life, is uplifting. It tells migrant workers, ‘we are worth a piece of art, we are worth something beautiful, what we do is important.’

A. Duda & Sons provides health insurance for the families that work for them, and they have a childcare center on one of their farms. And after the hurricane, they replaced their housing trailers faster then anyone else in Florida. They’re unusual. It’s a family-owned business. Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of them left. A lot of these guys are struggling. A. Duda & Sons is very successful.

Wishnatzki Farms, a strawberry grower, is also very socially conscious and a good employer.

There have been so many others, such as Graves Brothers, Wabasso, Florida, citrus growers; The Burgoons, watercress farmers; Indian River Citrus League, Vero Beach, florida; Zellwin Farms, Zellwood, Florida; Brooks Tropicals, Homestead, Florida; the Krome family, avocado growers; Wheeler Farms, Lake Placid, Florida; DiMare Farms, Homestead, Florida; Pacific Tomato Growers, Palmetto, Florida; SanWa Growers, Tampa, Florida, oriental vegetables; and Lykes Brothers, Tampa, Florida. This is a sampling of individual companies taking meaningful actions on behalf of migrant workers and their families.

Q: What is your assessment of the housing, working conditions and wages of the workers?

A: I think that farm work is extremely hard work and there’s not enough of it, steady enough to make a good living. If people could work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, it would be a different story. When there’s a drought, or freeze, everyone suffers.

Of course, the workers are not paid enough. The problem is not with the grower; it’s the markup when the grower sells the product to the supermarket. The prices are phenomenal, the market value compared to the grocery store.

Jay Taylor of Taylor and Fulton, Palmetto, Florida, is one of the most socially accountable, and very interested in the Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE) program . He’s third generation but he struggles with a combination of labor and cost. I believe he is going out of farming in Immokolee.

Florida tomato growers by and large are business people who are willing to do the right thing. They’ve joined the SAFE program and want to be socially accountable employers. They care about the kids and their families. There are so many factors that can enter what happens. Their profits are a concern. Joining the SAFE program is more than a baby step. Anytime when someone opens the door to their operations and their records, it’s an important statement.

Q: What about housing?

A: Florida farmers are keenly aware of the housing problem, but the issue is that housing here is extremely expensive. It won’t get easier, it will get harder. The northern farmers do provide more housing; it’s much more common in northern states. Maybe inspections are easier, I don’t know. When workers leave here, they usually know where they are going to live, say Ohio, with the same grower in the same housing.

Housing remains an issue everywhere. Obviously housing in rural communities is not great. Guys like Jay Taylor or the people at Six L’s build housing for their workers.

We can’t pretend immigration issues don’t relate here.

Q: In what ways? Are you talking about the guest worker program?

A: Looking for housing for H2A workers is not a happy situation. In the H2A program, the worker gets a visa, and 90 percent will be male. His wife and kids won’t get visas. The farmer petitioning has to provide housing. He can have dormitory housing for single men.

More and more growers to stay in business have to look at the H2A program. The problem is that through this program you don’t necessarily get experienced pickers. If it’s their first time, they may have no clue what they’re getting into in terms of the work, or the knowledge of how to get things done. But if the farmer has no other way to get workers, they will have to make do.

To build housing for a family is very different. The same space housing a husband, wife and two kids could have eight working people in dorm-style living versus two. Wife and kids aren’t getting visas. I’m not worried there won’t be enough kids for our centers; I’m worried about the impact on the fabric of society.

What does this mean to a family? Daddy goes away six to eight months and then comes back. This is not good for kids. Ultimately everyone should care about the kids, the next generation and our future.

Q: In some ways, then, it is your hope through the work you do that you’ll provide the skills these children need to move beyond migrant labor? You mentioned earlier how many students of RCMA programs have later entered into more lucrative professions.

A: We provide more than childcare. It’s an education program. Teaching English is a huge part of it to prepare children for public school and create the building blocks for a better life. These kids absolutely represent everything we stand for in this country. They’re honest, respectful and want to help their families.

I went up to testify in front of Senator Tom Harkin when people were talking about the children working in the fields and the need for more money allocated to childcare. There was talk about growers leaving easy picking sections for them to pick after school. ‘Help your family’ — that’s what you do in a Mexican family. At younger ages, it exists if there is no childcare and a grower doesn’t see it. In the summers, the bigger kids go along to help, and it’s legal at a certain age. If they’re with their families and at the right age and feel good about helping, I don’t think that’s bad. Truly we don’t know the affect of pesticides on bodies that small, but that is another issue.

A grower said to me 30 years ago, it’s complicated. If you see two heads of cabbage, one with a worm hole, which one do you think the consumer will buy? We have to do pesticides; we have to invest in food safety. It all costs money.

I really like having produce grown in this country where we know what the laws are.

The American consumer pays the least for food than any consumer in the world. We want the lowest prices.

Construction is similar to field labor. It’s a profession for young people. Your back is only good for so many years. People work long hard days and weekends. When we face a freeze, it’s terrible for the migrant workers. They don’t get work. They live in fear of deportation and of being sent home. They all want to learn English and prove their worth. Comprehensive immigration reform is what migrant workers need.

Q: How are you dealing with the political firestorm around immigration issues? Does this affect your programs?

A: Thank God our funding hasn’t been affected. The immigration fight is painful and ugly. Look at these kids. Most of them are U.S. citizens. We are working with the families, doing everything from teaching them English to the importance of reading to their kids, and going to school with them on the first day. We have sinks where parents wash up before they pick up their babies so they don’t have residue from fields. We run high quality childcare. Fifty percent of our childcare centers are nationally accredited compared to a national average of seven percent. The parents are extremely supportive. They come to the centers, work on the playground. Any time we have meetings, there is 95 percent attendance.

RCMA serves infants six weeks to children 5 years. Our charter schools go from kindergarten through 6th grade. The schools are a relatively new adventure, eight years now, with about 400 students. We also serve other kids that are older with after school programs.

Q: With the irregular work and seasonality of the ag business, aren’t workers required to move around? How does that affect school attendance?

A: Florida has a long season; agriculture jobs start in October and go through June. We work with families and encourage families to get their children into school. Centers generally open November and close end of May. Some stay open till June depending on what’s picked.

Q: What do you think of the Penny a Pound schemes?

A: I’ve tried to get an idea of how much money it amounts to. How many tomatoes are sold to fast food places versus elsewhere? It’s a small percentage. Penny a Pound sounds great, but it won’t be on every pound they pick by a long shot. People hear Penny a Pound and don’t have the right impression. It needs to be on a much larger scale for it to make a difference. Really and truly they’ll just stop growing tomatoes here.

What we’ve achieved through RCMA has been phenomenal, the good things that have passed because of our relationships with agricultural organizations and growers. Other states should be trying to imitate what we’ve done. Our alliance with tomato growers, citrus growers and other farmers is a big part of our success. A huge coop insurance plan through industry organizations as was suggested in the Perishable Pundit would be a wonderful idea. Much more good can come if we work together in partnership.

That Redlands Christian Migrant Association is a wonderful organization doing wonderful work is beyond question. Barbara Mainster and her husband of blessed memory, Wendell Rollason, both elected to do God’s work on this earth. They deserve only praise.

The world will be a better place if the organization is duplicated in other states and countries and if people will support it. The Pundit just made a $500 donation from his own pocket and hopes that Pundit readers will donate generously right here.

It is terrific — and smart — for Florida growers to support the organization. From a practical perspective, it helps free up parents to work productively when they know their children are safe, well cared for and learning. From a PR standpoint, it helps to provide evidence that many Florida producers are trying to help their workers. From a moral standpoint, it is often difficult to make the world what we might like it to be, but we can do what we can, and supporting groups such as the Redlands Christian Migrant Association is a practical way to do the right thing.

The interview is filled with important points. Let us look at some of the intriguing things that Barbara Mainster said and look at them in a broader context:

“They agreed they wouldn’t discuss wages and unionization; that’s off the table….

How does a non-profit social agency get results? We have chosen to be upfront and honest. If Republicans and Democrats can’t talk politics because they’ll never agree, they certainly can talk about their grandchildren and find common ground. “

There is often a debate in the non-profit world about how best to get results. Engage or oppose? RCMA is a fantastic example of the good that can come from engagement, from trying to find common ground.

But it also speaks to its limitations. We have been writing a lot lately about social responsibility and, to many people, charity is inherently unacceptable as a way of assuring that people have things such as child care.

They would say that no matter the quality of the care — it detracts from human dignity that people are forced to depend on the kindness of strangers.

Some see the issue as a corporate one and want minimum wages and other factors set at a level and applied to all employees so that working people can afford day care.

Others blame the government for not offering it as a right. Just as we offer every child the right to go to first grade, why shouldn’t every child have the right to pre-K or preschool?

Wherever you come down on these issues, this much is certain: First that the industry will be spoken of in the context of the conditions of its workers — even if the workers are paid as much as possible. Second, that no amount of support for charitable groups will cause people to stop thinking about wages and working conditions.

I think that farm work is extremely hard work and there’s not enough of it, steady enough to make a good living. If people could work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, it would be a different story. When there’s a drought, or freeze, everyone suffers.

Of course, the workers are not paid enough. The problem is not with the grower; it’s the markup when the grower sells the product to the supermarket. The prices are phenomenal, the market value compared to the grocery store.

Everyone can certainly suspect other parts of the chain for taking “too much” — but a glance at retailer P&L statements make it clear that they don’t have it easy either. There may have to be more money in the system.

There has been a lot of writing lately about “cheap food,” and much of it focuses on whether it is actually cheap or whether it represents cost shifting to different places.

If we need federal grants and charity to support the workers we bring in to harvest our crops, then there is a cost to the food that is not being paid through the food but rather through charitable donations and federal funds.

We had a reader write us on immigration, and he claimed that the City of Salinas was paying in increased crime for the way we were bringing in farm labor.

Now this doesn’t mean growers are doing anything bad or immoral. They have to compete. A half century ago, the Pundit’s grandfather was selling Cuban tomatoes, and later, the Pundit Pop sold countless trailers of Puerto Rican tomatoes. Mexico is pretty close.

Yet we should be able to say that there is an issue to deal with without implying moral turpitude on the part of any particular party.

Ms. Mainster also focuses in on the practical point. The specific issue the industry needs to work on is not that the wage per hour is too low — it is that the work is often episodic, irregular or unavailable.

Maybe by working together, we can tie together geographies and make this less true.

Florida tomato growers by and large are business people who are willing to do the right thing. They’ve joined the SAFE program and want to be socially accountable employers. They care about the kids and their families. There are so many factors that can enter what happens. Their profits are a concern. Joining the SAFE program is more than a baby step. Anytime when someone opens the door to their operations and their records, it’s an important statement.

Look, there can always be a few bad eggs but, by and large, the major players we have encountered have looked for ways to do good, not evil. We will deal more with the SAFE program in future issues but, good as it is, it can’t change the fundamental economics of the business. And it is the economics of the business that drives what people get paid.

Florida farmers are keenly aware of the housing problem, but the issue is that housing here is extremely expensive. It won’t get easier; it will get harder. The northern farmers do provide more housing; it’s much more common in northern states. Maybe inspections are easier, I don’t know. When workers leave here, they usually know where they are going to live, say Ohio, with the same grower in the same housing.

Housing remains an issue everywhere. Obviously housing in rural communities is not great. Guys like Jay Taylor or the people at Six L’s build housing for their workers.

The cost of housing is a major issue all over the country. Many cities have enacted various ”affordable housing” ordinances to try to compel builders to build “workforce housing” — housing for policemen, school teachers, nurses, etc.

The problem leaps out: If policemen, school teachers and nurses — all of whom get paid much better than farm laborers — can’t afford decent housing, how will we pay farm laborers enough to do so?

Of course, farm laborers work in the least expensive rural areas but, on the other hand, the housing sits empty part of the year.

We can’t pretend immigration issues don’t relate here.

Looking for housing for H2A workers is not a happy situation. In the H2A program, the worker gets a visa, and 90 percent will be male. His wife and kids won’t get visas. The farmer petitioning has to provide housing. He can have dormitory housing for single men. …

To build housing for a family is very different. The same space housing a husband, wife and two kids could have eight working people in dorm-style living versus two. Wife and kids aren’t getting visas. I’m not worried there won’t be enough kids for our centers; I’m worried about the impact on the fabric of society.

Is this acceptable to Americans? To bring a laboring class in that can be housed cheaply? We don’t actually know. Ms. Mainster worries about the children left behind. What kind of homes will they grow up in while Dad is off in another country laboring hard?

I really like having produce grown in this country where we know what the laws are.

The American consumer pays the least for food than any consumer in the world. We want the lowest prices.

There is little doubt that consumers agree they like American-grown product. In life, though, we don’t just get things we want; we get what we want most. We just got Country of Origin Labeling, so we will find out soon enough — but available evidence is that consumers won’t change purchasing patterns in any significant way.

Could there be a FairTrade type scheme, as we see on some Starbucks Coffee where consumers would voluntarily pay more for a product — if the extra money went to the farm workers? Is there a way to compel higher standards — and protect growers against foreign competitors not required to meet those standards?

Will Americans accept the country becoming more and more dependent on non-US food producers?

Construction is similar to field labor. It’s a profession for young people. Your back is only good for so many years. People work long hard days and weekends. When we face a freeze, it’s terrible for the migrant workers. They don’t get work. They live in fear of deportation, of being sent home. They all want to learn English and prove their worth. Comprehensive immigration reform is what migrant workers need.

In other words, within the context of the current system, the future of illegal immigrants is certainly more determined by immigration policy than by their employers.

Yet the produce industry needs to be honest with itself about immigration reform. Most of the proposals that have been advanced would require farm workers to continue to work on farms for some number of years to gain legal status.

That the law is drafted that way is not an accident — in no small part, it reflects the industry’s concern that if these people were free to legally work anywhere, they might select someplace other than the produce industry.

The broader point here is that part of the cost of sustaining these people is not just paying them when they are young, healthy and strong — they also have to be sustained when they are sick or old or injured. How will that happen? Who will pay for it?

As society becomes more affluent, these kinds of questions will be asked more frequently.

I’ve tried to get an idea of how much money it amounts to. How many tomatoes are sold to fast food places versus elsewhere? It’s a small percentage. Penny a Pound sounds great, but it won’t be on every pound they pick by a long shot. People hear Penny a Pound and don’t have the right impression. It needs to be on a much larger scale for it to make a difference. Really and truly they’ll just stop growing tomatoes here.

Ms. Mainster is exactly correct. On the one hand, she critiques the Penny-a-Pound schemes because they are too insignificant — why in the world should some small fraction of workers get paid more by the quirk of who the ultimate buyer is? This would argue for a generally higher wage rate — not schemes.

On the other hand, she expresses the real concern that the Florida tomato industry is not inevitable — that if you push up wages, Florida won’t be able to compete, and the industry will cease in the state.

It is a real concern and a reasonable one. Which is why the industry finds itself in the midst of a dilemma.

Every time a television news magazine gets an interest, they will run through Florida and attack the industry for the conditions of migrant laborers. And remember the industry will probably be evaluated by the actions of the worst players, not the best.

Yet the situation is really not in control of Florida growers, who have to sell at competitive prices and don’t make all that much money. It is a broad social issue involving the quest for “cheap food”, the willingness to allow foreign competition, our mixed feelings toward immigration and much more.

What we’ve achieved through RCMA has been phenomenal, the good things that have passed because of our relationships with agricultural organizations and growers. Other states should be trying to imitate what we’ve done. Our alliance with tomato growers, citrus growers and other farmers is a big part of our success. A huge coop insurance plan through industry organizations as was suggested in the Perishable Pundit would be a wonderful idea. Much more good can come if we work together in partnership.

Of course, just because something is a big social problem, one that the government and society at large must wrestle with, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying.

We appreciate Ms. Mainster’s attention to our suggestion regarding an innovative insurance scheme. Here is what we wrote as point four of four issues we were discussing in this context:

4) One wonders if there isn’t a role in solving this problem for PMA or United.

Part of the problem is that migrant workers can work for many different employers over the course of only one year — and even more over several years. We need a mechanism whereby these people could participate in one health insurance plan, one 401-K plan, etc., regardless of where they are working that week or that year.

This is not really that difficult. Most unionized terminal markets, for example, have union-run plans in which the particular firm the employee is working for that week has no bearing on the employee’s benefits.

Well, why couldn’t PMA or United offer an industry-wide plan where seasonal or temporary field workers, working for anyone in the business, could keep the same pension and medical plan?

If the nationals aren’t interested, how hard would it be for WGA to extend its already substantial insurance operation to offer such a plan nationally, perhaps in conjunction with other regional associations?

What a great boost for the industry… and for AgJOBS… if we could announce a national initiative to provide health insurance and 401-Ks for our field and packing house labor.

Obviously the growers couldn’t all afford to buy the insurance for everyone, but we could start by offering it as an option that the workers themselves could pay for. At least it would be available to everyone. Over time, just as Wal-Mart wrestles with the issue, we would work on how we can make it affordable for workers.

Issues are often connected, and public opposition to immigrants — legal or illegal — is partly based on the assumption that even if a low-wage worker is gainfully employed, the minute he gets cancer or a heart attack, he’ll be dropped off at the nearest hospital and the public at large will pay for his care either through taxes or higher insurance premiums.

So it can behoove the industry to address these issues, as doing so will help the trade accomplish its pubic policy objectives — such as AgJOBS.

What certainly cannot be contested is that Barbara Mainster and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association has done, is doing and will do truly great things. It is an honor and a privilege for the produce industry to be involved with such an organization.

Press play to view the Redland’s video.


We commend and applaud the many industry participants who have parted with their hard earned money to support this cause. We pray for a future of deeper cooperation with the industry and continued success for Redlands Christian Migrant Association.

We thank Barbara Mainster and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association for sharing their good works with the industry and remind everyone that the organization can be supported here.

© 2017 Perishable Pundit | Subscribe | Print | Search | Archives | Feedback | Info | Sponsorship | About Jim | Request Speaking Engagement | Contact Us