By Elizabeth Grossman
“If we could get growers to comply with the law, that would revolutionize agriculture in this country,” said United Farm Workers (UFW) national vice president Erik Nicholson explaining the circumstances that led to the creation of the Equitable Food Initiative. As Nicholson describes it, despite Americans’ intense interest in food and concern for their families’ health, most don’t think much – if at all – about the people who grow, pick and bring this food to market. And while most people not closely involved with agriculture assume that food is grown here under fair and safe conditions and that we have regulations to ensure that this happens, reality doesn’t always match this assumption.
Agriculture has the worst safety record of all US industries, with fatality rates about seven times that of the county’s all-industry average and reported injury rates 3 to 4 times the all-industry figures. “Where are the alarm bells?” asks Nicholson, pointing out that US farm workers continue to die each year from heat, deaths that can been prevented with solutions as simple as shade and water. Average non-supervisory farm work wages are just above federal minimum wage, which means a great many farm workers are being paid the minimum of $7.25 an hour. (Under the Fair Labor Standards Act agricultural work is exempt from overtime, and some small farms don’t have to pay the minimum wage.) Between 2007 and 2009, an estimated 43% of US farm workers surveyed were receiving some form of public assistance. A scan of UFW recent “victories” highlights some of the issues farm workers are grappling with: lack of overtime pay or paid holidays, hazardous pesticide use, health insurance costs, rotation of workers on heavy-labor tasks, and the right to organize.
Nicholson notes the recent increase in food-borne illness and increasing concern about effects of pesticide use, along with the trend toward consolidation in food retailing and ongoing pressure to keep food prices down. “At the end of the day,” he says, “Farm workers are subsidizing this.”
The Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), of which UFW is a founding member, was started to address these issues in ways they typically haven’t been before. By connecting labor and management collaboratively throughout the fresh food supply chain, EFI’s goal, explains project director Peter O’Driscoll, is to ensure not only the safety of food itself but also the health, safety and respect of farm workers and their families. “It’s about changing the culture of compliance,” said O’Driscoll – moving it beyond a “check-list mentality” that focuses on tidying things up for auditors to one that it “ongoing and collaborative.”
When it comes to food safety programs, farm workers have typically not been engaged in any ongoing or substantive way, explained Nicholson. Rather, he said, farm workers have often been discouraged or prevented from sharing information that could jeopardize the outcome of a safety audit. “Our members, many of whom come from generations of farm workers, felt their knowledge and experience was being overlooked,” said Nicholson. (A 2011 survey found that US farm workers had an average of 13 years’ experience.) Many farm workers are still paid not by the hour, but by the piece or volume picked, which discourages anything that would interfere with those numbers. EFI aims to change this whole status quo.
EFI is now in a pilot phase, with one major California-based grower, Andrew and Williamson (A&W), and one major retailer, Costco, fully involved. Food service company Bon Appetit is also involved, as are Farmworker Justice, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, Oxfam America and Pesticide Action Network North America, among other organizations. Nicholson describes these groups as unlikely “bedfellows” and says that bringing them together through EFI is an “unprecedented opportunity.” O’Driscoll explained that EFI is currently in discussion with at least eight other companies and that he expects commitments will be forthcoming from companies beyond A&W as well as with other farm worker unions.
Based in Watsonville, California, A&W’s crops include strawberries, tomatoes, and cucumbers grown both in California and Mexico. They’re a major supplier to Costco. A&W manager Ernie Farley credits both UFW and Costco as instrumental in getting them involved in the program. A&W has experienced food safety issues and wants to, as Farley said, turn that experience “to good.”
Key to the program are worker-management teams that create what Farmworker Justice communications director Jessica Felix Romero calls “a safe environment” for workers and management to discuss concerns that can range from wages, to occupational and food safety issues. Program participants agree to uphold EFI standards that mean increasing existing benefits for workers, but there is no quid pro quo for doing so, explains O’Driscoll. The idea is that both workers and managers will monitor for ongoing compliance with standards set for labor conditions, pesticide use and food safety issues. This kind of dialogue is not typical at a farm level, she explains. Nor is the idea that farm workers would be engaged in ongoing monitoring of growing conditions that could affect food quality and safety. “Let’s be more diligent on a daily basis” and be willing to say when something is “less than 100%” so we can fix it, says Farley. O’Driscoll and A&W manager Ernie Farley call this a cultural change – change that Farley says isn’t easy.
Food safety isn’t the whole focus of EFI’s program, but it’s helped engage both A&W and Costco. “We don’t want to participate in a product that has gotten to us by the wrong practices,” says Jeffrey Lyons, Costco senior vice president for fresh food. “What’s good for the farm workers benefits the entire supply chain,” he says. Better conditions in the field, including higher pay and fully engaging farm workers in delivering a safer and better product, reduces waste and damage and adds value for everyone involved, he explains. “That everyone in the field understands food safety and safe pesticide use, benefits them and their families. These people deserve our respect and deserve to make a fair living. They’re a valuable asset to us,” he says. This may cost Costco a bit more but it pencils out in value, Lyons explains. “We benefit from the quality.” This, he says, more than pays for itself – taking shortcuts, doesn’t.
“We needed to flip the whole narrative,” says Nicholson. Instead of practices that drive prices down at the expense of workers and product safety and quality, we have to figure out “how to have upward price pressure” by increasing value.
EFI, explains O’Driscoll, is now in the process of finalizing a set of standards on labor rights, occupational health and safety (including pesticide management), and food safety that will be used to inform its work. The challenges are substantial, he acknowledges. As we talk, I wonder out loud if such a model of involving workers directly and substantively with their management and the retailers who buy and sell their products, might also help improve conditions in other industries. “Yes,” says O’Driscoll emphatically.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.