The Funders Behind the Farm Workers

If you’ve read Erica Kohl-Arenas' new book, The Self-Help Myth, you’ll know that foundations have a long history with farm workershistorically among the poorest and most exploited workers in America. Kohl-Arenas picks up that history in the 1960s, with foundation support of Cesar Chavez, and also looks at funder-backed efforts within the past decade, focusing on California.

Kohl-Arenas tells an unsettling story of how this philanthropy has played out, which we’ll come back to another time. Meanwhile, her book got us wondering what’s going on right now with foundations and farm workers.

It’s a good time to ask this question because there’s been an upsurge of efforts to organize low-wage workers in recent years. As we reported, some fundersmost notably Fordare deeply involved in backing that work, with grants going to groups at the forefront of the new labor movement, like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, and the National Employment Law Project.


Yet we’ve heard less about grants and activities related to farm workers, who labor in nearly every part of the country, and are often undocumented immigrantsanother group that’s received a lot of attention from funders. Research and media reports suggest that farm workersthe people, remember, who keep food on the table for the rest of uscontinue to struggle in the face of low wages, wage theft, and a range of employer abuses. What are funders doing about that?

Florida offers a sense of what’s happening with philanthropy and farm workers right now. This year, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) extended its record of support for farm workers in that state with renewed grants to the Farmworker Association of Florida ($1,600,000) and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, also located in Florida ($800,000).

Those two groups have also drawn support from a number of other funders in recent years. The Public Welfare Foundation, which has a long history of backing workers groups, is one important backer of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The Foundation for a Just Society is another key backer, with support dating back to 2011. This relatively young foundation should definitely be on your radar screen if you work on activist causes. It’s led by Audrey Simons, the daughter of the hedge fund billionaire Jim Simons, and its grantmaking seeks “to strengthen the infrastructure of movements that advance the human rights of women, girls, and LGBTI people globally.” (We’ve reported often about how the huge Simons fortune backstops the foundations of two other Simons children, especially in the area of climate change. Not to mention Jim’s own Simons Foundation, a leading funder of science. This is definitely an interesting family to watch.)

Meanwhile, supporters of the Farmworker Association of Florida include the Marguerite Casey Foundation, another stalwart funder in the worker organizing space, as we’ve reported in the past.

Related: Movement Building: Marguerite Casey's Push to Empower Low-Income Families

All that said, Kellogg is far and away the most important funder of the struggle for justice by Florida’s farm workers.

Its recent grants to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Farmworker Association of Florida reflect a pattern of escalating support for the two organizations, which have received funds from Kellogg since 2008 and 2009 respectively. Back into the 1990s, Kellogg funded similar organizations throughout the country (such as the Farmworker Justice Fund, Farmworker Health and Safety Institute, and the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs) that aid, protect, and train agricultural laborers.

While Kellogg’s core issue is children’s welfare, the foundation funds broader community-building initiatives rather than programs that provide direct services. In an interview last year with Inside Philanthropy, Kellogg’s chief strategy officer Barbara Ferrer said, “[Providing direct services] really doesn't represent the way we think about supporting children, which is understanding the context within which they live their lives.” In this context, race and place matter: Much of Kellogg’s recent grantmaking centers on low-income communities in the American South.


Kellogg’s support for Florida farm workers predates the current prominence of immigration in Democratic and Republican presidential politics. Possibly reflecting the foundation’s origins and continued financial stake in the Kellogg Company, WKKF has a significant history of investment in Florida agricultural labor.

Kellogg’s relationship with the Farmworker Association of Florida began as part of a wider Kellogg initiative called Rural People, Rural Policy (later, the Rural Policy Action Partnership). That effort, extending several years from 2008, sought to develop a wide network of rural policy practitioners, service providers, and organizations in the field. Recent funding, including this year’s grant, supports effective community gardening, sound ecological practices and food sovereignty among farm workers of color. In addition to operations throughout Florida, the Farmworker Association grant also supports some work in Mississippi.

Kellogg’s work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has centered on upholding human rights agreements between farm workers, Florida growers, and national food services companies. Under the CIW Fair Foods Program, participating buyers agree to purchase tomatoes and other produce exclusively from growers in good standing with independent ethics monitors. The current CIW grant confers general operating support.

WKKF’s Florida funding reflects a willingness to engage directly with activist labor organizations to support stronger communities. The foundation is also a major backer of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and other groups involved in today’s surging new labor movement.