Fasting for Fair Food


This post is about the power of not eating.

A person fasting makes others squirm.  To not eat when everyone else is eating at the very least makes people really uncomfortable; at the most it has the power to make people act.  To join others in a fast unites and exponentially strengthens the emotion of a cause.

Fasting for a social purpose wasn’t born with Ghandi.  The British apparently loved a fast.  They fasted against the plague in the 16th century, and they fasted in 1605 to express gratitude that a plot to assassinate the King and members of Parliament had been exposed.  (I think the King ordered that fast, but the fact that 17th century aristocrats understood the unifying power of communally not eating is kind of amazing.)

That same Crown exported fasting methods to the New World –  In June of 1774, the Virginia House of Burgesses voted to fast in solidarity with the residents of Boston, whom Old England was punishing for their bad tea party behavior.  The fast caught on throughout the colonies, quickly building solidarity against Britain.  The rest was a revolution.  Imagine, emotionally uniting without a tweet?

Niaz Dorry, the director of NAMA, in an effort to align the struggle of fishermen, and people who work in the fishing industry, with the struggles of farm workers will be fasting from March 5th to March 10th.

Fishermen and farm-workers both produce foods we consume, and both do their jobs often in underpaid, miserable conditions.  The Coalition of Immolakee Workers, (CIW) a self described community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida, are initiating a “Fast for Fair Food.”  Dorry believes Fair Food means a local fisherman’s catch as well as a bushel of tomatoes.

The CIW started a community action they call “One Penny More,” based on the economics that, if corporations purchase produce only from farms who paid their workers just one penny more per pound, the workers’ living conditions would drastically improve.  The Coalition of Immolakee Workers began targeting brands, directing their campaign first at Taco Bell, then McDonald’s, Bon Apettit Management, Burger King, and Trader Joes, all of whom have now agreed to purchase produce only from farmers who will pay their workers one penny more per pound.

Dorry believes that if the fisherman were paid fifty cents more per pound they would be earning a sustainable living, and wouldn’t need to keep asking to catch more fish.

“In the absence of a fair price for fish you’ve got to focus on volume,” Dorry says.  Even fishing regulation rewards volume, not sustainability, Dorry says.

“Those responsible for managing our fisheries don’t take whether fishing is being done for the greater benefit to our food system in consideration. Department of Commerce praises those who catch the most amounts of fish with their annual reports naming the top 3 ports, but fails to address the fact that fair pay for smaller catches is probably better for the ocean.”

Dorry advocates sustainability should now mean paying attention to fish buyers who are willing to pay fishermen a fair price, and supporting businesses that do so.  Nourish Restaurant in Lexington, MA is an example of a business going out its way to ask these questions.  They now include how well the fishermen are being paid to determine the sustainability of the seafood they serve.

It just makes sense.

“We’ve assumed that if there are social and economic benefits – if the fishermen actually earn a sustainable living – it would be bad environmentally, but it’s the other way around,” Dorry says.  Pay them more, and the fishermen won’t need to catch every fish in the sea.

Dorry came to the fishing industry years ago through Greenpeace, which was the first organization to recognize the fishermen as part of the equation to save the oceans, an unpopular position in the late 1980’s.  Dorry had been working in Chester, West Virginia, fighting for a community that was being made sick – even dying – from the East Liverpool, Ohio WTI Incinerator, the world’s largest toxic waste incinerator, across the river.

“I remember hearing a small child walking with her mother down a sidewalk say, ‘Mommy, there’s not enough air for me to breathe today.’”

When Greenpeace asked Dorry to translate her community activist work to Gloucester, Massachusetts, and work with the fisheries, Dorry wanted no parts of it.

“At first I couldn’t do it.  I could only see ‘save the whales’ as frivolous after working with people dying from various forms of pollutants they never consented to experience.”

But she studied the issues, and saw that the oceans’ situation had nothing to do with saving fish, and everything to do with the global movement of capital – big factory fishing boats wanting more space to fish, bullying small countries with coastlines.  Dorry suddenly saw the ocean’s struggles about meeting the needs of the global appetite – meaning meeting the needs of investors – not hungry people.  That’s what was killing our oceans.

Dorry has fasted before, the longest was a fast for forty-four days supporting the people suffering from the impact of the WTI incinerator.  She says the first days are a challenge, but then your body gets accustomed to it.  Your tongue and mouth begin to feel funny after a while, with the absence of chewing.

I asked Niaz about the effectiveness of the incinerator fast.  She said it’s about taking steps toward the goal.  In acts of civil disobedience, you try to build up momentum, you never know what is finally going to break the damn.  In the case of the incinerator, after the fast, Dorry’s group built a mock incinerator in front of the White House.  The next day the EPA changed the policy on eliminating toxic waste.  That broke the damn.

Dorry believes treating fishermen well leads to treating the fish well.  Just as the industrialization of the farming industry has lead to poorer and poorer working conditions for farm workers, the industrialization of the fishing industry – factory boats that bring cheap fishing products to the grocery store – demoralize and degrade the fishing industry.  The real problem is corporate fishing that’s commodity based, not our small fishermen who leave their ports and come home a week later with a catch, and then go buy groceries, supplies, pay taxes, build schools, live in their communities.

Dorry will be joining the Coalition of Immolakee Workers in the Fast for Fair Food starting on Monday.   She invites anyone interested in uniting for Fair Food to join.



To read Niaz Dorry’s blog go to



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