Amid Call for Boycott, Concerns Rise That Eating at Wendy's Supports Slave Labor

Students push Wendy's to join other fast-food retailers in supporting fair farming.

(Photo: Danny Choo)

Mar 23, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

College students are pledging to boycott fast-food giant Wendy's over the farming practices that bring fresh slabs of tomato to the purveyor's famously square burgers.

Students at Ohio State University in Columbus, about 15 minutes from Wendy's headquarters, announced their boycott this weekend, launching a national campaign that calls on the burger vendor to start buying its tomatoes exclusively from farms that are part of the Fair Food Program. The boycott comes after a two-year campaign that didn't bear fruit.

"Students are committed to not buying from Wendy's and building a consciousness" around where our food comes from and the people who grow it, said Joe Parker, a representative of the Student/Farmworker Alliance, a group allied with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which seeks to eliminate exploitation and farmworker poverty in agriculture. Their work has been lauded by the White House as one of the most impactful antislavery programs in the United States, curbing abusive farms that rely on slave and child labor and improving pay.

Wendy's is the latest target in the coalition's 15-year campaign calling on major companies to buy only from farms where workers are guaranteed basic rights such as rest breaks, fair pay, and water. It's also the biggest holdout—Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King, and Subway have all partnered with the Fair Food Program, which has 13 major retailers committed to buying fairly grown Florida tomatoes during the eight-month season.

Wendy's did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the boycott.

The fast-food chain isn't alone in facing pressure to improve its supply chain. In response to consumers who are increasingly picky about the health value and ethics of the food they eat, fast-food companies have been working to improve their foods—and, they hope, their public image.

There's McDonald's, which says it will improve its McNuggets by using chicken that wasn't treated with antibiotics, and Chipotle has struggled mightily to provide fairly raised pork carnitas.

But long before do-gooder public relations moves became trendy in food, groups like the coalition were working to hold chains accountable. Which is why those little cubes of tomato on your Doritos Locos Tacos—the chip-shelled favorites at Taco Bell—are proof of a fairly epic win for farmers and labor activists. Before launching the most recent "Boot the Braids" campaign, targeting the red braids of the Wendy's mascot, the Student/Farmworker Alliance had success with the "Boot the Bell" campaign.

A decade ago, students at 25 schools succeeded in ending, or preventing, Taco Bell contracts with their campuses until the tomatoes were fairly sourced, labor activists say. That, in part, pushed then–Taco Bell President Emil Brolick to agree to pay an extra penny for every pound of tomatoes the chain bought and to buy into the Fair Food Program.

Students are hoping to re-create the win with Wendy's CEO, whose name may be familiar: Emil Brolick.

UPDATED March 24—5:10 p.m.:

Headline changed to reflect broader concerns.