The Acid in the Citrus: Keeping them Hungry in Florida

Black and white photo of Black man on crutches in front of a wood home

Reynolds Russell

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 2 No. 1, "America's Best Music and More..." Find more from that issue here.

As each citrus season opens, Florida growers and politicans worry that they won’t get enough labor to pick the fruit. The president of the Citrus Industrial Council, looking enviously at the sugar interests who somehow bring in Jamaican cane cutters for each harvest, says that “without silly federal interference” the ranks of pickers could be swelled from across the border since the Department of Labor usually makes only pro forma certification of the need for foreign workers when agribusiness wants them. Conditions have not changed much for farmworkers since the 1930’s. As Pa said in Grapes of Wrath: “The more fellas he can get, an’ the hungrier, less he’s gonna pay. And he’ll get a fella with kids if he can. . . .”

The agribusiness-government conspiracy to perpetuate hunger among Florida’s farmworkers surfaced once again during the 1973-74 season. Following in the footsteps of his acknowledged mentor and predecessor, Spessard Holland, United States Senator Lawton Chiles responded on cue to the agribusiness pressure for willing, that is hungry, workers. Casting aside the populist image of his campaign in which he walked around the state talking to the common man, “Walkin’ Lawton” crusaded on the floor of the Senate and in meetings around Florida against “the fraud and abuse” in the food stamp program. “The problem,” he stated last year, “is that we are opening the program up so fast that [the Department of Agriculture] cannot keep up with it and get the regulations set. ... In my state right now we cannot get the fruit crop picked. It is as simple as that. We are going to leave twenty percent of the crop in the groves. . . . The ability is there to work seven days a week, but as long as they [the farmworkers] can draw food stamps, they do not want to work.”

There are only three errors in the Senator’s argument. First, according to Eugene Sanchez, director of food programs for Florida, only 51% of those eligible in the state for food stamps currently receive them. Perhaps the Senator should ask the 152,000 hungry, eligible families who don’t get food stamps whether the program has expanded too fast? After all, it was in 1939 when the Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace, began the commodity distribution program that he pledged: “The day is not far distant when all the people in the United States will be adequately nourished.” However, the 1973 report by the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Public Needs, entitled “Hunger—1973,” lists 45 counties out of the 64 studied in Florida as areas of especial concern. While 52% of the poor throughout the U.S. in 1970 received food assistance, 50 out of 64 counties studied in the “Sunshine State” fell below even this average.

Secondly, Senator Chiles was wrong about the twenty percent loss in the citrus crop due to a shortage of workers. After a record harvest the Florida Canners Association announced on December 8,1973, that the quantity of orange juice concentrate in storage at that time was 71% greater than a year earlier in spite of an increase in retail sales of 11%. Sufficient labor was available to harvest a record crop including an additional 4.7 million boxes of citrus in Polk County (a 10% increase) and an additional 3.4 million boxes in Lake County (an 11% increase) over the preceding season’s crop totals. In the Senate report, “Hunger—1973,” Polk and Lake Counties are singled out as “Failure-to-Feed" counties, with only 28% and 23% of their poverty populations, respectively, receiving federal food assistance. Since Senator Chiles was born in Polk County and represented this area in both houses of the state government, he should be aware of these extreme hunger problems so well documented.

Third, Senator Chiles speaks of “fraud and abuse” of the food stamp program in Florida. Whose facts is he using? Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Yeutter, testifying before the same Senate Select Committee (June, 1973) stated: “Each time a violation is prosecuted it makes big headlines. Many people assume that that means that everyone in food stamps is cheating and there is massive fraud and massive violative intent. That simply is not the case. In fact I am personally surprised to find the rate of violation to be so low. It think that it is encouraging that we have a situation where really most people are still basically honest.”

In support of his testimony Mr. Yeutter filed a document prepared by the United States Department of Agriculture which says in part: “The percentage of bonus coupons issued through fraudulent activity in relation to total bonus coupons issued during the first three quarters of fiscal year 1973 is eleven hundredths of one percent. . . . [and] the percentage of fraudulently participating households, as related to the total participating households, equalled 21 thousandths of one percent.” (For the purpose of comparison, the Internal Revenue Service estimates that ten percent of Americans cheat on their income tax returns.)

When asked by the authors at the “Food Stamp Abuse” rally at Tavares on December 10 whether he was assuming that Floridians were less honest than the averages presented above, Senator Chiles naturally denied any such intent. However, given the extreme assumptions that the incidence of food stamp abuse among farmworker households in Florida is five times the national average (or one tenth of one percent) and that all citrus workers are on food stamps, Senator Chiles would be out to catch fewer than ten possible farmworker households among Florida’s estimated 40,000 citrus harvesters. Of course the problem of the unfed, 152,000 families in Florida is still to be tackled. That many of these families will be found in the farmworker population is suggested by an April 1971 report by the Manpower Evaluation and Development Institute. Based on data from interviews with 4,000 migrant families, the institute reported that only nine percent had applied for any public assistance, including food stamps.

Undeterred by such reassurances, Senator Chiles continues to hold meetings with local businessmen, agricultural interests, and government officials to discuss “the progress of his anti-food stamp abuse program.” Flanked by officers of the Citrus Industrial Council and officials of Florida’s food stamp program, Senator Chiles met with 300 growers in Sebring in November and another 400 in Tavares on December 10. In the Tavares meeting, Senator Chiles sluffed aside the direct question of what he was planning to do to assist the unfed 152,000 households in Florida. When pressed on the extent of food stamp abuse, a state official admitted that only 71 violators out of 156,000 households certified for stamps had been prosecuted. This 0.045% violation rate for all users including non-farmworkers and retail food stores prompted the subdued admission that “the percent of fraud is very low in Florida.” However, the only firm policy change promised by Senator Chiles at this meeting was a federal appropriation to enable the state to establish a computer-programmed cross-check on food stamp recipients to catch abusers of this program. No funds were promised to help expand the program to the hungry in his state.

In order to grasp the extent of Chiles’ conspiracy against Florida’s farmworkers, an historical perspective is necessary. Seventeen counties in Florida refused free food programs in 1969 and, eventually, direct programs had to be instituted by the federal government in six counties. It is interesting to note that these programs, which were free from state and local control, were the only ones in Florida in which the supplemental feeding program for pregnant women and young children was in effect. The State of Florida steadfastly refused this program which provided extra nutrition during critical developmental periods just as it refused a $2 million gift from the United States Department of Agriculture to expand usage of the food programs into rural areas. When the federally administered programs were replaced by state-controlled food programs, the supplemental feeding program was discontinued in every case.

While Florida has traditionally been the stage for hunger exposes, some crises have gone unnoticed by the press. For example, in the summer of 1971 in rural Hardee County, the chairman of the county commission terminated the federal food program when he failed to find sufficient workers to move irrigation pipes in his citrus groves on one day. The result: approximately 2,000 recipients went without food for over six weeks. Since this period of cancellation occurred during the off-season in agricultural employment, suffering among farmworkers was extreme. To fully understand the discrimination against the farmworker community, it must be pointed out that the supervisor of the food program in Hardee County admitted, when interviewed, that they continued to dispense food to the “truly needy and deserving poor” who were full-time residents of the county.

The second example (which is no more shocking, but which has affected the welfare of a larger number of farmworkers) was that of the Agricultural Advisory Committee. This institution was staffed by the largest growers, cattlemen, and the county agricultural agent for the area covered. Its function was to ensure that farmworkers did not take advantage of the food program and stop working for the area’s farmers. There was no participation by farmworkers in the deliberations of this powerful body which so seriously affected their well being. In fact, at the Agricultural Advisory Committee meeting in Hendry County on April 17, 1970, an investigator for the Florida Rural Legal Services, an Office of Economic Opportunity funded organization, was excluded because he had not been invited to attend.

The power of this body was unlimited in the area of food distribution requirements for farmworkers. Quite simply, it met prior to the agricultural season to determine the exact amount of work which would be available during the planting and harvesting period. It determined, without checking with farmworkers, what the rate of pay would be in each crop in each month. The result was a schedule of future incomes per month for farmworkers in the area covered by the program which effectively excluded farmworkers from eligibility for food assistance.

Two agricultural disasters in South Florida proved the efficacy of this grower-controlled mechanism to ensure a supply of hungry workers. In 1970 torrential rains and floods severely damaged crops in Collier, Hendry, Lee and Palm Beach counties. In response, the federal government declared the area a disaster and provided emergency funds for farmers and wildlife in order to compensate and protect them. While the flood control district and the Fresh Water Fish Commission were given $20,000 to build feeding islands for deer during the floods, and while farmers were given millions of dollars in low-interest loans and other assistance, the plight of the farmworker was ignored. If crops are ruined by floods, there are few employment opportunities for farmworkers, but the government failed to see this causal relationship. Farmworkers were denied food assistance because the Agricultural Advisory Committee refused to revise its income estimates for farmworkers in light of the disaster. While the growers received their welfare, they effectively denied food to hungry farmworkers even though the agribusinesses knew that there were no opportunities for farm employment.

The following season brought another disaster for the farmworkers of this area and another clash with the Agricultural Advisory Committee over its income projections. This time the crisis was caused by a severe drought which, coupled with freezes in certain areas, greatly reduced the harvestable crops. Again the government responded with disaster relief funds for the farmers to drill wells for irrigation. Again there were no programs for the unemployed and hungry migrants whose jobs had been destroyed. It was only after a march to, and an all-night vigil at, the Florida residence of the President that any action was taken. At that time, long after the hunger crisis arose, the local officials were authorized to issue free food stamps to farmworkers. As a result, the estimated days of work set by the Agricultural Advisory Committee the previous October were changed to zero for March and April for 1971. The dramatic increase in the number of certifications reflects the unmet food needs. For example in Hendry bounty, the number of people (not families) being assisted by food stamps was only 1,815. In March, when the power of the Committee was temporarily suspended, the number rose to 3,557 people. When interviewed, the local administrator of the food stamp program in Hendry County stated that he was distressed that the government declared Hendry eligible for Disaster Relief Funds. He stated that he felt the migrants were out to cheat him. As a postscript to this case study, this supervisor revised the April estimate from zero days of projected work ordered by the State to ten days of estimated work. This act removed many farmworkers from the food stamp program which they had “enjoyed” a scant six weeks.

Why, it might still be asked, should agribusiness promote hunger among farmworkers to the extent of pressuring a U.S. Senator to attack such a straw man issue as food stamp abuse? The answer lies in identifying the agricultural interests which are being served. The following companies account for approximately 60% of the citrus products—concentrate, juice, fresh fruit—and an even higher proportion of the farm labor employment in Florida:

Ben Hill Griffin (owned by the citrus baron and finance director for Sen. Chiles’ campaign) Coca-Cola (through its Minute Maid subsidiary)

Lykes Corporation (Lykes Pasco and Youngstown Steel Corporation) 


Citrus World (the Donald Duck label)

Adams (owned by Royal Crown Cola)

H.P. Hood (Boston milk and ice cream firm)

Kraft (national food conglomerate)

General Foods (Bird’s Eye label)

Libby-McNeill-Libby (owned by Swiss-based Nestle)

Stokely VanCamp (national food conglomerate)

Gulf+Western (conglomerate which includes Paramount Pictures)

DiGiorgia (of California grape boycott fame)

Connecticut General Life Insurance Co.


These are the giant, diversified, and, in many cases, multi-national agribusinesses for which Senator Chiles is speaking. These are the recipients of the “welfare-writ-large” subsidies and price supports calculated by a Brookings Institution report to be equal to the total federal, state, and local cost of all public assistance programs for the poor including food stamps. The largest 7.1% of all farming units more than doubled their net income from farming as a result of such welfare, and they received 52.9% of the price support benefits. They’re doing well, yet they employ a U.S. Senator to hunt down the few suspect farmworkers who are alleged to have defrauded the taxpayer of what at most would amount to less than $0.28 a meal for a family of five.

Even the food stamp program was designed as welfare for the growers since its function was to increase the demand for surplus farm products, thereby maintaining higher prices for the crops. This is the rationale for leaving the program under the control of the Department of Agriculture and not the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. However, with the approximately twenty percent rise in the cost of food last year, agribusiness is now interested in diverting attention from high prices to “abuse” in the food programs. But the welfare continues at a record rate for Florida’s citrus industry. In 1971-72, prior to the record citrus crop and surplus production, the Department of Agriculture purchased no citrus products for “distribution to the needy.” Last season, however, more than $21.6 million of the citrus products produced in Florida by 12 corporations were purchased for the poor of America. Since there were no studies which showed a greater incidence of scurvy among the poor last year than in previous years, it is clear that the government was simply granting welfare to the corporate interests which control the citrus industry in the state. In order not to discriminate, large purchases were also made from agribusinesses in California and Texas. More purchases “for the poor” have been promised again this season since citrus production is expected to be only 4% less than last year’s record. For a clearer perspective of the size of this corporate dole, the 1972-73 purchase by the Department of Agriculture is the equivalent of $1,014 for each of the 21,350 citrus pickers recorded on the peak employment day by the Florida State Employment Service. Under current guidelines, no citrus picker would qualify for $1,014 in free food stamps during a 12-month period.

And the $21.6 million purchase is only a small part of the welfare received by the citrus industry in Florida. The University of Florida as a land-grant college operates a citrus research station at Lake Alfred which provides this small rural community with more graduate degree-holding residents per 1,000 population than Washington, D.C. or New York City. The citrus industry in cooperation with other producing areas is also legally permitted to control the supply of citrus products which are shipped to market. The Department of Agriculture routinely grants shipment limitation requests submitted by the grower pro-rate committees. As a result, the citrus growers have an important influence on the prices of their products which would be considered a violation of the anti-trust statutes in another industry.

But yet these corporations are escalating their attack on farmworkers. Its future intensity is seen in a memorandum written by L.E. Esch, Food Stamp Supervisor for the State of Florida in Region 9, to all food stamp certifiers and supervisors under his direction. This memo (dated June 15, 1973) discussed the statewide conference held only one week after Senator Chiles had launched the anti-food stamp abuse initiative on the floor of the Senate. Mr. Esch lists the following points as “. . .the meat of the conference discussions,” and the emphasis shown is in the original memo: 

1. Food Stamp Unit supervisors in each county will, in September, obtain their local Farm Bureau’s forecast (usually printed) of the number of days of work projected to be available for each of the approaching months of the farm season (which your local farmers will have already determined in their conferences with your local Farm Bureau). These are to be the MINIMUM number of days’ work acceptable for certification at the Food Stamp Office! The forecasts generally range from ten to fifteen available days of work monthly.

2. According to Category #3, revised Page #36 in your manual, we are permitted to deny food stamp certification to farm labor calendar recipients who are not working as much as 30 hours weekly, IF MORE THAN 30 HOURS’ WORK A WEEK WERE AVAILABLE. Pressure from the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association now bearing on us, is to get us to enforce this provision next farm season, in an effort to force the laborer who works only one or two days each week to work more days. All of you, I assume, have at least a nodding acquaintance with the type of client who prefers not to work any more than is absolutely necessary for basic survival.

3. Those who work at farm labor less than 30 hours weekly are to be registered for work.

4. The burden of proof of less than acceptable weekly hours worked lies on the shoulders of the CLIENT, through doctors’ statements, etc.— and you have some discretionary latitude here. If the County Health Clinic in your area (or some physician in private practice) hands out doctor’s statements wholesale, to whomever requests one, you may, if you wish, disregard those statements as invalid. On the other hand, you may accept them and place them in the client’s file folder if you wish—for the regulations merely require that a doctor’s statement BE there, not that it be proven to be an actual or acceptable disability.


When you ‘clamp down’ on the farm laborers who are not claiming minimum acceptable days of work monthly, have no fears. You are following U.S.D.A. and State of Florida regulations as set forth in our manual, and don’t let clients or organizations intimidate you! Merely calmly explain that you have no choice in the matter. The standards are nationally set, and your job is to see that they are met and that regulations are followed! Let them ‘holler’ all they want. You will be backed up by Region Office, State Office and U.S.D.A.,if they care to take it that far—EVEN if they write their congressmen who then demand an explanation! Just be sure to carefully document in the case record everything you examined or did, and your reasons for any action taken.


In short, apparently oblivious to the hunger which resulted from the Agricultural Advisory Committee in South Florida in 1970 and 1971, the local Farm Bureau sets the number of days of work available in the future, and the State of Florida cancels the farmworker’s food stamps if he fails to work the projected number of days. If there is an upward pressure on wages, it is a simple matter to increase the projected number of workdays required for farmworkers thereby depressing the wages which must be paid by the Farm Bureau’s membership to the farmworkers. When confronted with the Esch memo, the State Food Stamp Director stated that Mr. Esch had “misinterpreted” the substance of the meeting.

In a strident memorandum from the State Welfare Director (dated July 26, 1973) we read: 

Effective immediately, all able-bodied unemployed agricultural workers 18-65 shall be required to register for employment at the time of application [for food stamps] even though they state they plan to begin work the following day.

Under the new rules, the worker must accept any job offered and any piece-rate wage which can be expected to yield the minimum wage for agricultural workers of $1.30 an hour. In the citrus industry, the crew leader system prevails. The crew leader has a contract from the grower, and then proceeds to get the work done at the greatest profit (lowest cost) to himself. In this way they insure that their daily wage will not drop drastically, even though they expend as much effort in picking. According to the Food Stamp administrator for Florida, the farmworker cannot refuse to pick if the piece-rate is too low. He must accept the wage offered by the crew leader or lose his food stamps for the whole certification period. So under the guise of finding cheaters, farmworker wages can be depressed and agribusiness’ profits rise. If the farmworker exploited by this “welfare” quits, he loses not only his day’s wages, but also his food stamp allotment and certification. 

The farmworker must reapply for food stamps each month and show that he has worked the number of days projected as available for the preceding month. If he has not met the work quota, he is required to register for work and thereby enters into this forced labor mechanism automatically.

Why do the farmworkers need food stamps? Why should the taxpayers’ money through federal food programs and product purchases have to subsidize the corporate giants in the Florida citrus industry? Why can’t the industry pay the farm laborers a living wage so they can provide themselves with decent housing and support their families with self-respect? A hiring hall system which freed the farmworker from exploitation by the crew leader would at least secure for the worker what he is promised. Coca-Cola has a contract with the United Farm Workers (AFL-CIO) and always has a surplus of job applications from farmworkers who seek the protections and benefits of a union contract. For example, in Fort Pierce the United Farm Workers Union hiring hall had more than 300 workers registered for work at the same time that the Fort Pierce Growers’ Association received approval to build barracks for use by the Mexican nationals they will import into the area to reduce their labor costs. They claimed that this undermining of the local labor force was necessary because “these people [the American workers] are taught by the federal government that they shouldn’t work with their hands,” or perform manual labor. Incidentally, the Senate Report “Hunger—1973” identified this locale as a “Hunger County” with 27% of its population receiving food assistance. Wages for farmworkers in Florida are so low that even with the large increase gained by the union in 1972, a large percentage of hourly workers under union contract are still eligible for food stamps even though they work a 50 hour week. The food stamp program is clearly a two-fold subsidy for growers: it increases the demand for and the price of agricultural products and it underwrites the continuance of low wage levels in the food industry. Its efficacy in the latter role is being increased by the current initiative.

That wage levels and not a shortage of workers is the issue concerning the agrimonoliths in Florida is best proven by their cavalier treatment of farmworkers. Rather than attempt to generate a close relationship with a “scarce input,” last year Tropicana laid off approximately 2,000 workers. Tropicana will now make contracts not with the workers, but only with the labor contractors (crew leaders). Tropicana’s image cannot now be smirched by accusations of unfair treatment of workers. It has no farmworkers, so it says, since it pays none of them directly. It deals only with labor contractors and hopes to deny its workers a union by so doing. DiGiorgio, to escape a confrontation with workers who asked for a United Farm Workers Union contract, laid off its workers and leased company equipment to its supervisors, who now have agreements with DiGiorgio as labor contractors. Adams (Royal Crown Cola) hides behind the same fiction: it has no workers who might ask for a union contract and a decent way of life. It decided to deal only with contractors when over 80% of its farmworkers signed United Farm Workers Union authorization cards requesting a union election.

There are other examples from this season which provide ample evidence of the extent of misery which the new food stamp “work registration” will cause for farmworkers in other states this spring and summer. While cannery workers at the General Foods (Bird’s Eye) Florence Villa plant were on strike, the income estimates prepared by local agribusiness interests were not altered for the farmworkers who work for this company. In Orange County farmworkers who went to the food stamp offices when the plant closed were placed in a pending file, but not given stamps even when they showed paychecks which proved they met the income requirements of the Food Stamp Act. It turned out that “pending” meant “pending the resolution of the strike” since they went without food stamps all during the strike.

Other crises such as the truckers’ strike which all but stopped the harvesting of fresh fruits and vegetables in Florida, the Homestead Crewleader Strike for higher payments for crewleaders which stopped most hiring and transportation to the fields for farmworkers, and the “Citrus Holiday” granted by the U.S.D.A. to stop all shipments of fresh citrus during Christmas in order to up the prices for processors during the season probably resulted in the same hunger crisis for agricultural workers. At least, Mr. Sanchez, the state administrator for food stamps, doesn’t know whether or not income constraints were eased to reflect the reality of unemployment for the workers. The authors requested information on his office’s reaction to these crises and he replied on February 22, 1974, as follows: “The information requested . . . will have to be gathered on a manual basis. Therefore, it will be forwarded to you at a much later date.” Who knows how many will go hungry by then!

In conclusion, the “abuses” are the failure-to-feed the hungry of our nation and the perversion of the food stamp program into a mechanism to provide agribusinesses with forced labor. The Farm Bureau-State of Florida-Senator Chiles outcry of “farmworker abuse” is merely another agribusiness initiative to depress the wages and working conditions of the agricultural workers while increasing the corporations’ profits. The propaganda also supports current attempts to import foreign workers into Florida, to increase the supply of hungry workers even further. Foreign grower viewpoint, of easy deportation should they organize to demand better wages and conditions.

In spite of the facts concerning the absence of abuse, Senator Chiles has decided to maintain his conviction that the food stamp program is a rain of gold that, Circe-like, corrupts man’s soul, and renders him unwilling to toil for his living. In a letter to the authors, he concludes:

I can certainly share the thought you expressed [at the Tavares rally] that at the present time there are many needy families in Florida not participating in the food stamp program. I think we do need to reach these families so that they can benefit from the program. However, based on all the information that has come to me since I’ve been in the Senate, it’s clear that there are persons who are seriously abusing the program, and frankly I’m concerned that if the abuses are not eliminated, it may become increasingly difficult to continue or expand benefits for the many families that legitimately deserve them.