In New York City, farmworkers are hunger-striking to protest Wendy’s

Boycotters rally outside 280 Park Avenue in New York City

Kate Cox

Boycotters rally outside 280 Park Avenue in New York City

Kate Cox

Wendy's has continuously refused to sign on to the Fair Food Program, an agreement designed to protect farmworkers' safety in the fields.

If you walked through midtown Manhattan at any point over the last two days, you may have heard cheering, singing, and rallying cries. And if you turned the right corner, you may have seen where those sounds were coming from: a small crowd of protesters huddled outside 280 Park Avenue at 48th Street.

This address is home to the offices of Nelson Peltz, non-executive chairman of the board of Wendy’s, the fast-food chain known for its “fresh, never frozen,” square burger patties and snarky Twitter presence. But the protesters—more than 70 farmworkers and their allies—are in New York to draw attention to a lesser-known aspect of Wendy’s business, and they traveled over 24 hours by bus to do it.

Specifically, these farmworkers are tomato pickers from Immokalee, Florida. And they are part of the “Freedom Fast,” a five-day hunger fast in support of fair labor practices and in protest of sexual violence in the fields.

But let’s take a step back for a moment. To understand this particular civic action, you need to be familiar with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farmworkers’ rights group that was established in Immokalee in 1993.

You also need to know about the Fair Food Program (FFP). Established by CIW in 2005, the FFP is a supply-chain certification designed to combat exploitation in the fields. Here’s how it works: Tomato farms sign onto the FFP and promise to adhere to its labor standards. Tomato buyers sign on as a vow to purchase only from farms with approved labor standards. Additionally, signatories to the FFP—which includes multinational corporations like Walmart, McDonald’s, Subway, and Taco Bell—agree to pay a penny-per-pound premium to benefit workers.

Read more: Our coverage of the 2017 Wendy’s boycott.

Wendy’s has long been absent from the FFP. As I mentioned above, many similar fast-food restaurants and companies have signed on to the program. All of America’s largest fast food chains are partners. So, too, are food service giant Aramark and the grocery chain Trader Joe’s. This makes Wendy’s the most visible holdout to an agreement that would be both a huge win for workers, and a positive marketing message for Wendy’s.

But the Dublin, Ohio-based restaurant, which was founded in 1969 and now has more than 6,000 locations worldwide, says ethical purchasing and participation in the FFP aren’t mutually exclusive.

“The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is spreading false and misleading information about the Wendy’s brand and our business practices in their continuing effort to extract a financial commitment from us,” wrote Heidi Schauer, director of corporate communications for Wendy’s in an email on Monday. “We will not join their program and pay fees directly to them and we will certainly not compromise our commitment to our customers to deliver only the highest quality, ethically sourced products from Wendy’s every day.”

Noelle Damico of the Alliance for Fair Food disputed Wendy’s characterization of the Fair Food Program’s business structure.

“Not one single penny of the “penny per pound” goes to the CIW.  It all goes straight to the growers who pass it on to their workers as a bonus in their paycheck,” Damico said in an e-mail. “To imply CIW is trying to extort Wendy’s is not simply offensive it is libel.”

As Joe Fassler reported, Wendy’s in 2017 implemented some changes to its supplier code of conduct, expanding it to include additional oversight by a body called the Quality Supply Chain Cooperative. While it’s billed as an “independent, non-profit cooperative,” Quality is actually owned by, yep, Wendy’s.

Wendy’s is the most visible holdout to an agreement that would be a huge win for workers.

“We have no reason to doubt that the CIW’s work has improved conditions on tomato farms in Florida. However, linking this work with the idea that joining their program, and purchasing Florida tomatoes, is the only way to operate ethically is simply not true,” Schauer went on. “The CIW’s recent protests focus on our seasonal purchases of tomatoes from Mexico, yet other companies listed as Fair Food Program participants also purchase tomatoes outside of the United States but have not been subject to the type of criticism aimed at Wendy’s.”

It’s true that signatories to the FFP do purchase from suppliers that aren’t covered by the agreement. For example, this product listing on Walmart’s website advertises organic grape tomatoes from Mexico. The FFP only covers regions in the United States.

But that’s not the problem, says the Alliance for Fair Food. Buyers shouldn’t just pull out of states when their labor conditions become more stringent. Walmart didn’t do that, Wendy’s did.

Farmworkers are now on the third day of their five-day fast, but the push for universal adoption of the FFP has been an ongoing effort for more two decades. The fast will culminate on Thursday with a #TimesUpWendys rally in Manhattan’s Union Square to draw specific attention to sexual assault in the fields.

Update: After this story was published, the Alliance for Fair Food reached out to us to respond to the comments made by Wendy’s. Those have been amended to this piece.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.