LAKELAND, Fla. — Ethel Kennedy said showing support for 61 farmworkers coming off a six-day fast was a matter of charity and justice.
The widow of Sen. Robert Kennedy broke a loaf of bread and began distributing it to the farmworkers and their nearly 1,000 supporters who were in Lakeland to urge officials of a supermarket chain based there to consider the needs of those who toil in the fields to pick the produce sold in their stores.
It was March 10, the 44th anniversary of Cesar Chavez's breaking his justice fast for the migrant workers of California. Kennedy, who was present at the 1968 event, now joined the farmworkers of Florida gathered at the headquarters of Publix Supermarkets Inc. in Lakeland.
"It's an honor to come here," Kennedy said in an interview. "We're supposed to lead lives of charity, but we're lacking in justice. The Jenkins family needs to know that there are people suffering and there are people willing to speak out."
She was referring to the family of George Jenkins, founder of Publix, an employee-owned supermarket chain.
Led by Lucas Benitez, founder and director of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the group had been fasting since March 5 to call attention to what organizers say is a refusal by officials of the Publix supermarket chain to discuss the need for fair wages and safe and humane conditions for workers in the fields.
The coalition, through its Campaign for Fair Food, is calling for more human wages a penny-per-pound increase in what farmworkers are paid for tomatoes and other crops they pick.
The campaign has successfully brought major restaurants, 90 percent of Florida tomato growers and retailers such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's to sign an agreement for a just wage and decent working conditions.
For Publix's part, the company — which describes itself as "the largest and fastest-growing employee-owned supermarket chain in the United States" — said the coalition's complaints should be addressed with the employers of the workers, not with retailers and their customers."
In a two-page statement posted on its website, the company did not address the charge that it won't discuss the issue with the protesting farmworkers, but it asserts that the chain is "unaware of a single instance of payment less than the required minimum wage" and also "does not support any human rights violations."
In an interview for Catholic News Service, Benitez thanked the bishops of Florida "who have been with us in our struggle." He said the support from priests and others during the six-day fast gave the group the energy to continue.
Father Richard Walsh, pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Winter Park, had joined the farmworkers on the fourth day of the fast and read a message from Orlando Bishop John G. Noonan, who said: "We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters today who fast for fair food. We pray for you and your efforts during this season of Lent that justice will be achieved through just wages and that the dignity and rights of those who work to bring food to our tables be respected."
Santiago Perez, who has worked the fields for the past seven years and was one of the fasters, said he participated in the many prayer vigils, Bible reflections and liturgies during the six days.
"Even though we are poor, we have a lot to give and a lot to offer," Perez said. "When I'm picking, I do not know the people the food is going to, but I know that it is nourishing for them and it is a way we can contribute."
John Dwyer, a 69-year-old from St. John the Evangelist Parish in Naples, was the oldest faster.
"I've fasted many times for justice," said the former Notre Dame professor, "but this time was best of all. The people I was with are very holy people. I had met Robert Kennedy when I was a graduate student at Notre Dame and when I received bread -- a sense of communion -- from Mrs. Kennedy, it was very moving."
The event began at a Publix supermarket three miles away where supporters gathered and then processed to Publix headquarters led by Kennedy whose wheelchair was alternately pushed by her daughter Kerry and son Robert.
"This is a serious and solemn procession because it's a serious moral matter," Robert Kennedy said. "This is a battle not for higher tomato prices but for the human dignity and rights of the American worker and the democratic ideal of a just and moral nation."