Nineteen students affiliated with Ohio State Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA) and Real Food OSU fasted for seven days in March to urge the administration of Ohio State University (OSU) to cut their contract with Wendy’s. The fast was a response to Wendy’s decision not to adopt the Coalition for Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) Fair Food Program, instead sourcing from suppliers with unregulated farmworker labor standards.
Advocating for farmworker justice for almost 25 years, the CIW created the Fair Food Program as a landmark worker-driven workplace monitoring program. A unique partnership between farmworkers, farmers, and food companies that ensures basic human rights protections and fair wages, it has been proven to markedly improve labor conditions for farmworkers.
The Fair Food Program has received worldwide recognition from the White House to the United Nations, and is one of many important campaigns for worker justice across the food system. Fourteen major buyers, including WalMart, Trader Joe’s, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Subway, have committed to pay one more penny per pound of tomatoes to uphold the program.
The OSU students are backed by a coalition of community, labor, faith, and food justice groups and leaders from across the country, who gathered in support of the Return to Human Rights Tour spearheaded by the CIW and Alliance for Fair Food to amplify the Wendy’s boycott. The seven-day fast culminated with a 500-person Parade for Human Rights which took place amidst downpouring rain in Columbus—and the 19 fasting students broke bread together after seven days of only water and tea.
This week of action continues a long tradition of student involvement in the movement for the rights of farmworkers and tactics used by Chavez, who is formally commemorated on March 31, Cesar Chavez day.
University students have supported campaigns like “Boot the Braids”— another term for the campaign for OSU to end its contract with Wendy’s—to pressure companies to join the Fair Food Program. In the early 2000s, university students notched victories in CIW’s “Boot the Bell” campaign that prompted Taco Bell to become the first major food retailer enrolled in the program.
SFA and Real Food at OSU have been asking the university to cut their contract with the Wendy’s located in the Wexner Medical Center since 2014. In response, the administration added a clause to their contract, promising “a resolution of the concerns of the Student Farm Workers Alliance regarding the procurement of tomatoes for the operation of Tenant’s business at the Premise that is satisfactory to Landlord in its sole discretion.” In November 2016, OSU opted to extend the lease, rather than terminating it, and did not resolve student concerns.
Responding to this decision, the 19 students began to fast on March 20, 2017. “It was not only to deepen our personal commitment to the movement, but it was also to push the Boot the Braids campaign further and call attention to the fact that OSU administration is condoning human rights violations,” said Alex Hoey, an OSU student participating in the fast. “Wendy’s headquarters is also in Columbus, so that puts us on ground zero for the campaign.”
The fast caught the attention of Wendy’s, and a company spokesperson said they found it irresponsible for the CIW to support its “commercial agenda” by encouraging students to risk their health by not eating. An OSU spokesperson responded by stating they do not “condone or support behavior that threatens the health and safety of any member of our university community.”
According to another OSU student who chose to fast, senior Mara Momenee, this depiction is inaccurate. “It paints those who chose to fast as people without personal agency, but we made this decision as students who deeply care about where our food comes from.” Momenee said that she and her fellow students “chose to be uncomfortable and make a sacrifice, in solidarity with those who do not have a choice.”
If Ohio State were to cut the contract, organizers believe the symbolic and financial power of this action would pressure Wendy’s to make a decision. According to a spokesperson, OSU is “working actively with Wendy’s to achieve a satisfactory outcome related to the concerns of students and Coalition of Immokalee Workers that aligns with the university’s values and reinforces that commitment [to social responsibility].”
Students at the University of Michigan have the started the next phase of a nationwide rolling fast, demonstrating that bonds of solidarity can rise above campus rivalry. According to organizers, students at New College of Florida and Eckerd College in Florida are next in line for the rolling fast.
“Although Ohio State said no to cutting the contract, and Wendy’s still refuses to come to the table, this week put a big rock in Wendy’s shoes,” says Lucas Benitez, farmworker and co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. “The pressure is only going to build from here.”