Pledge leverages stores’ buying power to protect farm workers

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) —West Michigan’s largest grocery store chains are joining migrant rights advocates to pledge that the food they sell comes from farms that do not mistreat their workers.

There are an estimated 50,000 migrant workers who work on Michigan farms that supply food to stores and restaurants.

The conditions at these farms are monitored by groups like West Michigan’s Migrant Legal Aid, which is now turning to the state’s largest retailers for help in the fight for fairness.

“We have found that the power of the purse can be much more economical than a lawsuit in a class-action, where you might have $90,000 in attorney hours just on one case,” said Teresa Hendricks-Pitsch, executive director of Migrant Legal Aid in Grand Rapids.

Migrant Legal Aid worked with grocery retailers to create the Fair Food Pledge. The way it works: if Migrant Legal Aid finds problems encountered by farm workers that they are unable to resolve with the farm owner, the advocacy group contacts retailers that buy from that farm.

The retailers then contact the farm owner, letting the owner know that if problems are not resolved, the retailer will stop buying from that farm.

The partnership is already getting results.

“We got a call from workers who were afraid because they were being held behind an armed guard,” Hendricks-Pitsch said. “Because I was a partner with a retailer that was buying from this farm, I was able to make a phone call and within a couple hours, we had the guard removed.”

Hendricks-Pitsch said the program helps workers, retailers and even farmers so they can avoid boycotts and lawsuits.

“We believe that the farms want to do the right thing, but that might not have the information because they’re not in touch with the workers, especially right now. Workers are very afraid to talk to anybody on the outside,” said Hendricks-Pitsch.

The fear of migrant workers is understandable. They are facing unprecedented pressure.

“This is an extremely frightening time for migrant workers because 50 percent of them are said to be undocumented in Michigan,” Hendricks-Pitsch said. “We have never given so much counsel and legal advice to so many scared people before, ever in our history of 45 years.”

Hendricks-Pitsch says a growing number of restaurants, markets and grocers are signing the Fair Food Pledge, including Amore Trattoria Italiana and West Michigan’s largest grocery chains.

“The big retailers that are benefiting from this are Meijer corporation, with its 200-and-some stores, SpartanNash, with its over 200 stores and 81 independent grocers,”” Hendricks-Pitsch said.

“SpartanNash was the first retailer and wholesale distributor in Michigan to sign the Fair Food Pledge,” said Meredith Gremel, vice president of corporate affairs for SpartanNash. “We know that we can lead by example and stand up for fair and equitable rights for our seasonal migrant workers.”

SpartanNash distributes produce from 250 Michigan farms to its more than 155 corporate-owned stores and 2,100 independent customers.

“We have hundreds and hundreds of local produce products in our stores, thousands up and down the aisles, so it’s important that those seasonal workers have the proper conditions,” said Gremel.

The pledge also benefits retailers that display the Fair Food stickers.

“We want to make sure certain that we’re standing for things that matter to the community,” said Gremel. “Social justice issues, which are very important to us, so that is why we came alongside and signed that pledge.”

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Online:
Fair Food Program

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