Ways of Seeing: ‘Milk with Dignity’ a worthy goal

A flock of orange and black Monarchs clustered in the Old North End of Burlington on the first day of May. These were large butterflies, made of painted cardboard, and held aloft on wooden poles. Chasing the butterflies was a masked man with a butterfly net, marked with a sign that said “ICE,” (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
In addition to the butterflies and their humans holding them up, hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds gathered, holding signs that said “Milk with Dignity.” And “Ben and Jerry’s, Keep your Promises.” Yes, the iconic Vermont ice cream company was the focus of the demonstration, which wound its way through the streets of Burlington, from Migrant Justice headquarters to the flagship scoop shop on Church Street.
The rowdy crowd chanted, “Get Up! Get Down! Milk with Dignity’s coming to town!” And, “One, Two, Three, Four, Milk with Dignity at your door! Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Two Years Too Late!” But what is Milk with Dignity? Gentle reader, if you are anything like the dozens of people I’ve come across in my last few weeks of informal polling, you may not be familiar with this phrase. But I hope that one day soon we will all be enjoying this kind of milk and ice cream.
The Milk with Dignity program is a campaign that was launched by Vermont farmworkers in 2014. Milk with Dignity is based on the Immokalee tomato workers world-renowned Fair Food Program, which has transformed the lives of tens of thousands of Florida farmworkers. We all eat, and unless we grow 100% of our diet ourselves, at least some of our food is planted, tended, and harvested by immigrant labor. Tomato workers in Florida were underpaid and exploited in every way imaginable, including being victims of human trafficking — modern day slavery in the Sunshine State.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers worked hard to teach consumers about the realities of life in the tomato fields. Beginning in the mid 1990s, CIW launched major public protests and urged fast food retailers like Taco Bell to sign onto an agreement to pay more for their tomatoes. After ten years of sustained efforts, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Whole Foods Market, one by one, bowed to public pressure and agreed to pay more for their produce. This led to life-changing raises in wages for the people whose labor makes salsa, tomato sauce, and ketchup possible.
Now, if you have ever cracked open a delicious pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, you may have noticed that they take pride in using Fair Trade Certified ingredients, such as coffee from the Huatusco Coffee Cooperative in Mexico. But what about the Vermont milk and cream that fill those iconic pints? Because Ben and Jerry’s prides itself on being a socially responsible company, and because they purchase 100% of their cream from Vermont farms, they are perfectly positioned to take the lead in the dairy industry and respect the human rights of the 1,200 to 1,500 dairy workers in the state.
These dairy workers, most of them undocumented laborers from Mexico and other Central American countries, are subject to many of the same human rights abuses that were faced by the Florida tomato workers. While the average farmworker works 60 to 80 hours a week, 40% of these workers receive less than minimum wage, and 40% report that they regularly work seven or more hours without getting a break to eat. One solution to these problems is for industry leaders like Ben and Jerry’s to commit to paying a premium price for their milk and cream, so that farmers will be able to provide better working and living conditions to the people who milk the cows. In 2015, Ben and Jerry’s agreed to source their milk in compliance with Milk with Dignity, but they have yet to finalize their commitment.
Sadly, until Ben and Jerry’s makes good on its promises to farmworkers, I just don’t feel good about purchasing their products. But believe me, the moment they sign, I will turn my boycott into a “buycott” and invite all my friends over for a major ice cream festival. I hope you will join me in holding our homegrown Vermont corporation to a high standard. Come on, Ben and Jerry’s, sign onto Milk with Dignity, so I can taste the flavor of Social Justice!
Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works. Joanna lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys taking walks, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcomeat: [email protected]

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