“Among the most important social impact success stories …”

We’ve all seen the beer commercial that begins, “I don’t normally drink beer, but when I do …” I feel the same way about fast food. When I do stop in for a quick bite at an airport or along an interstate, I choose my restaurants carefully. My first consideration is not with calories or nutrition labels, but with ethics.

It may be hard to imagine that farmworkers in the U.S. today are subjected to abuse and exploitation, but here, as around the world, farmworkers are among the least protected and most exploited workers. That is why deciding where to eat is about a lot more than burger versus salad. I make sure that I patronize the restaurants and food chains that participate in a growing international movement to help stop the abuses still rife in the hidden parts of the food supply chain. It’s an easy choice to make every time we wonder if we’d like “fries with that.”

At a time when corporations seem to wield more power than governments, and human rights seem to be under attack, the Fair Food Program (FFP) gives power back to the consumer. Its primary objective is to guarantee improved working conditions and pay for hidden workers on whom we all depend every single day. Its success is based in the powerful and unprecedented alliance it has built between farmworkers and consumers like us. This alliance has pressed retail food companies to use their enormous purchasing power to end abuses and require better labor standards for farmworkers who harvest the produce they buy. Developed by farmworkers, and operating in seven states along the Eastern seaboard, the FFP is providing basic protections for the tens of thousands of women and men who stoop in the hot sun to pluck strawberries, pick tomatoes, and pull bell peppers.

If growers do not meet and maintain certain work standards, they lose the ability to sell to major buyers like McDonalds, Burger King, Walmart and Trader Joe’s who have signed legally binding Fair Food Agreements. These agreements, in place with a dozen of the world’s largest food companies based in the U.S.,  assure fair pay and humane conditions for farmworkers, and give them  a trusted place to report problems like sexual harassment, abuse, wage theft, and lack of toilet facilities or drinkable water while in the field, knowing that complaints will be immediately investigated and resolved. The FFP also provides worker-to-worker education so farmworkers become the frontline monitors in protecting their own rights on FFP farms.

Traditional political action and community organizing remain vitally important, but in places where government is either corrupt, paralyzed or committed to inaction, the workers themselves give consumers a way to offer support with their wallets and avoid companies that leave their employees vulnerable to mistreatment. This effort has met such unparalleled success in ending and preventing sexual assault, forced labor and other serious human rights abuses that the Harvard Business Review has named it “among the most important social impact success stories of the past century.”

Now the program’s model is being translated to supply chains around the world and is a prime example of a whole new category of social action called Worker Driven Social Responsibility. From the apple orchards of New York and the tomato fields of Florida where I live to the clothing sweatshops of Bangladesh, workers are identifying basic standards to which companies should publicly commit. These commitments give consumers the power to spend our dollars with ethically accountable companies and avoid those that are not.

I think it’s a way for us to cast our vote — not just every two or four years — but every day. Every time we pull out our wallets, we are voting for a company and the way it treats its workers, and not only those on its payroll, but also those in its vast supply chain.

As an activist and public theologian committed to teaching, preaching and speaking out on the moral dimensions of contemporary issues, I have joined with other leaders to help advance human rights through the food we buy. I want my vote — and my dollars — to count for all the good they can.

If you live in the New York area, I’ll be speaking on this important subject with colleagues Gerardo Reyes Chaves, Obrey Hendricks, Hussein Rashid, Rachel Kahn-Troster, and Noelle Damico – Monday, January 28. You’ll find more information here: http://www.allianceforfairfood.org/on-common-ground/