Not everyone knows that harvesting juicy beefsteak tomatoes for your burger or ruby strawberries for your shortcake often violates human rights right here on American soil, but that’s the unfortunate truth. Agricultural workers often spend hours picking fruits and digging up vegetables without shade or water just to bring in skimpy paychecks that can’t feed or house their families.
But Jon Esformes, a former drunk who wound up in rehab with nothing to his name but a stash of booze, is fighting on the frontlines of the agricultural labor movement.
Paying it Forward
It’s bad enough to be homeless and pushing a shopping cart, but it’s even worse when that cart is loaded up with a hodgepodge of liquor bottles instead of blankets, clothes and food. This is how Esformes rolled up to Beit T’Shuvah rehab in Venice, CA—broke, drunk and ready to obliterate himself.
“At the time I was suicidal,” Esformes said of the day he walked into the rehab 12 years ago. “If it wasn’t for what this community did, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Beit T’Shuvah is a full-service and yet highly affordable rehab—not only do they offer group therapy, 12-step and psychological support but also use Jewish spirituality and the creative arts to help addicts. Beit T’Shuvah founder Rabbi Mark Borovitz, an ex-con who served time in prison and had a “white light” experience by reading various Jewish texts, pulled Esformes under his spiritual wing and helped him do a 180.
Sober Jobs for the Newly Sober
Just a few years out of rehab Enformes opened a small restaurant in Westwood where, in addition to cooking high-quality food and fostering a community, he chose to employ newly sober workers who otherwise may not have been given a shot. Esformes knew all too well the challenges of reentering into the workforce after bottoming out, and he was determined to grant newly sober people a stable and supportive work environment.
Pushing for Change
Esformes is now an operating partner of Pacific Tomato Growers in Palmetto, Florida, one of the largest tomato growers in the nation with 15,000 acres in both the US and Mexico. While manning the helm, he saw firsthand the harsh life that farm workers face, and instead of sitting around and whining about the injustice, he got up and took action.
Reaching out to the Coalition of Immokalee of Workers CIW, a human rights group created to protect workers, Esformes signed a groundbreaking agreement in 2010—the Fair Food Standards Council, which hiked up workers’ salaries by 70% and implemented several regulations like giving workers protective equipment in the fields, clean drinking water to ward off dehydration and education so workers know their rights and how to file complaints.
“What we’re after is to create a safe, fair, work environment for people to come to work, do their jobs, and be treated with the dignity that all human beings are entitled to, and then go home to their families,” he says.
Obviously, immigration reform plays a big role in farm workers labor reform, and Esformes is advocating for change there too.
“The bottom line is that if the US is going to produce its own fruits and vegetables, we need labor,” Esformes says. “We need comprehensive immigration reform that acknowledges these people that are already in the country.”
Bill Clinton called the Fair Foods Standards “the most astonishing thing politically happening in the world we’re living in today.”
A Vision for You
Jon Esformes is a pretty exceptional dude. It’s hard enough to put down the bottle and go out and learn how to navigate the world without the help of Jack Daniels, but to tirelessly work on behalf of others is an even greater feat. Beit T’Shuvah agrees. On January 18th they threw a big gala dinner at the Hyatt Regency in Century City in Esformes’ honor.
Good thing Rabbi Borovitz found the light in that jail cell. Without it, agricultural workers wouldn’t be reaping the rewards.
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