Commitment to equitable treatment of workers (the fairness principle) has been a core pillar of the organic movement since its early days. But while the USDA’s organic standards mandate practices that protect and conserve the environment, they say little about the treatment of farmworkers and others laboring along the supply chain. Labels like Fair Trade help ensure decent labor conditions for international imports, but no such third-party private label is in wide use for domestic food, leaving workers on organic farms often to face the same struggles like those in conventional architecture.
The Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) is looking to fill that gap with the “Food Justice Certified” program, an ambitious new social equity label guaranteeing fair treatment for the people bringing food to your table.
Agreeing on fairness
American consumers have come to expect and depend on food at a price far below what it would cost to provide a decent living for everyone along the supply chain. This leaves farmworkers, farm owners, wholesalers, distributors and retailers fighting for a slice of a pie that is too small to feed them all well.
“What we’re doing is addressing one of the central problems in the U.S. food system, which is that farmers are not being paid prices that cover the cost of production,” said Elizabeth Henderson, a founding member of AJP. “We can’t call it a sustainable food system if people can’t make a living.”
In devising the Food Justice Certification program, AJP consulted stakeholders from across the value chain, from farmworkers to consumers, to agree on a common set of principles and standards for fair and just business practices. This strategy distinguishes AJP from other social equity projects in the food system, which typically advocate for the rights of a particular segment of the food system, like farmworkers or small farm owners.
“The Equitable Food Initiative is working on improving the conditions for the farmworkers, but it doesn’t do anything for getting higher prices for the farmers,” said Henderson. “What the Immokalee farmworkers (referring to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has worked with large restaurants and retailers to improve working conditions on their supplier farms) have been able to do is to shame the big brands into putting pressure on the farms that supply them to pay more. AJP has standards for trading for the farmers, as well as standards for labor on the farm and in the other food businesses. Our involvement with stakeholders has been much greater than with any of the other initiatives.”
Jim Cochran, founder of Swanton Berry Farms — a Food Justice Certified organic farm — sees both the wisdom and the challenge in this approach.
“Addressing the problem is not easy because you have all levels of the food chain involved and each one of them has a different interest, and so it’s no easy task to think how you can make everybody happy in the current system, from farmworker to consumer, and everybody in between,” said Cochran. “So it just is a huge issue, and once you get further and further into the details, you see how people’s interests in some ways align with one another but in other ways conflict with one another. And the overall pie is smaller than you would hope.”
Food Justice Certification requires a deep level of transparency and documentation; an explicit conflict resolution policy is required, as is a living wage or an explanation as to why that wage cannot be met. Inspections involve in-depth interviews with individual farmworkers, conducted by a third-party farmworker’s rights organization — such as CATA or Líderes Campesinas — which fields AJP-trained representatives at inspections. The one-on-one interviews provide a safe space for workers to air grievances about everything from wage theft to sexual harassment and favoritism to living conditions, with someone who understands the struggles that farmworkers face.
These are hard conversations to have, and the businesses that have signed on to have them so far are those that were already deeply committed to social justice and fair labor conditions.
“AJP has tried to work with farms that are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, that believe in what they’re doing,” said Henderson. “It is a different population that we’re working with in a different way.”
Food justice pioneers
Pie Ranch, an educational organic farm in San Mateo County, California, is one such early adopter.
“Being an organization committed to social justice in the food system, it was just a no-brainer — of course we’re going to do this,” said Nancy Vail, co-founder of Pie Ranch, adding that they were enticed by a free initial certification as part of an AJP training grant. “We were able to look at all the systems we had in place, and we were able to improve where we needed to improve, whether it was safety training, conflict resolution policies, our rate of pay.”
Flor Revolorio, a farm manager at Pie Ranch, also saw benefits to the Food Justice Certification process.
“Where I do see it as beneficial is in holding ourselves accountable,” she said. “Like with our apprentices: How are we calculating their stipends? It forces us to have conversations, and be very transparent with our crew, about how we’re valuing things on the farm. We have to have that for food justice. It pushes us, so in some ways it’s accountability. It creates transparency. There is a benefit for the organization, as understanding the evolution of a place. As a manager, it’s transparency, and also I can go back and see, this incident happened at this time. I have a problem with this person for this particular behavior. I think it’s helpful.”
While Revolorio values the transparency and accountability mandated by Food Justice Certification, she doesn’t see the certification process as having fundamentally changed much at Pie Ranch.
“I think the culture of Pie Ranch is seeing individuals as whole, with or without certification,” she said.
Cristobal Cruz, another farm manager at Pie Ranch who started working there after over 20 years working on conventional farms, agrees.
“In terms of respect for the workers, there are a lot of differences,” said Cruz, comparing Pie Ranch with his previous employers. “Lunch breaks are very well-respected, workers are treated with a lot of respect as individuals. Vacation days, holidays — workers are respected as having their time to rest, or take time with their family or other reasons. Those are just some of the differences between Pie Ranch and other places I’ve worked.”
While preparation for the Food Justice inspection may tighten some loose screws in an operation, it ultimately puts a label on what is already happening. The hope is that this stamp of approval will translate into a price premium in the marketplace, to make the higher cost of social responsibility economically viable. Ultimately this price incentive may induce other farms to improve their practices to get the certification, as has happened with the organic label.
Getting the price right
Putting the burden of changing the food system on the spending habits of wealthy consumers is baked into the organic label, and the sustainable food movement as a whole. But the contradiction is more acute for AJP, because the ability of poor folks to realistically access ethically produced food is itself a justice issue. Flor Revolorio at Pie Ranch noted the irony in seeking social justice through expensive food, saying, “It’s putting too much responsibility on the consumer. If you’re out there hustling, and you can’t afford it, then you can’t afford it, even if you have good politics and you do want people to be treated well.”
But absent wider public policy interventions or a deeper overhaul of the economic structure of our food system, the money to provide a decent living to workers has to come from somewhere. A price premium creates a space for fair businesses in the food system to maintain viability. The organic label has had some undeniable successes over the last two decades, not only in market share gained but also in synthetic pesticides and fertilizers saved from waterways, and in consumer consciousness about where their food comes from. The AJP is experimenting with the notion that a Food Justice Certification could be similarly transformative for the lives of people working to stock grocery store shelves.
Jim Cochran at Swanton Berry Farm, which is also unionized under the UFW, sees the value in Food Justice Certification even if it does not currently translate into
a clear price premium.
“It takes years for these things to catch on, and AJP is even harder to understand than a union contract,” he said. “The union contract is a benefit to the workers, and it only takes one or two minutes to explain that to people. What AJP is trying to do is help everybody along the value chain. Well, that takes 10 minutes to explain, and it takes a while for people to grasp it. The progress is happening, but it’s slow-going.”