From Farm to Fork: How Consumers Can Make a Difference for Farm Workers

By Maisie Greenawalt, Erik Nicholson, and Minor Sinclair


Imagine working on a strawberry farm: you are in a huge field, bending over to spot and pick only the ripest berries, collecting them carefully, packaging them. Working as fast as you can to maximize the number of boxes you harvest, you might not pause to rest or hydrate, or to think about the chemicals that were sprayed on the field, or the consumer who will take the berry out of the package and eat it. At the end of the day, you might head back to a labor camp, with crowded makeshift huts and common bathrooms.

This is life for the nation's farm workers, who daily face a host of abusive conditions and challenges, from low wages, poor housing, and exposure to dangerous working conditions to denial of the basic rights and protections afforded to employees in other sectors of our economy. On César Chávez Day in 2011, we released the groundbreaking Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States, detailing the weak laws and protections for crop farm workers in the U.S. By documenting these issues, we set out to catalyze lasting business, regulatory, and policy solutions to afford farm workers the dignity they deserve.

We also encouraged companies and consumers to start asking, “Who picked this food?”
Source: United Farm Workers

Today, we are working with ten other companies and organizations to build an exciting project designed to protect and empower farm workers while producing safer, healthier food for consumers—the Equitable Food Initiative. EFI is an innovative approach that holds the promise of finally transforming the nation's fields into safe and decent places to work. As workers and growers collaborate to comply with EFI standards for working conditions, pesticide management, and food safety, the initiative creates additional value and quality throughout the food system, with benefits extending all the way to consumers. California is a vital proving ground for this budding initiative.

There are an estimated three million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the U.S. An estimated 400,000 children work in our nation's fields. Farm work is one of the most hazardous occupations in the US. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10,000-20,000 farmworkers are poisoned on the job due to pesticide exposure.

California offers many protections for farm workers, including mandatory rest and meal periods, overtime wage rates and limits, employer-provided unemployment insurance and child labor laws. But enforcement of these provisions is inadequate, and will require more buy-in from growers and retailers to achieve significant impact.

EFI's approach is based on the idea that innovations in the produce system must create measurable benefits for all participants—farm workers, growers, food companies, and consumers. The initiative has been designed and improved through the participation of companies including Costco Wholesale and Andrew and Williamson, advocacy groups such as the Consumer Federation of America, and major farm worker unions. Each of our organizations understands that the status quo is not acceptable, and that there is real potential for mutual benefit through new ways of working together.

Source: Equitable Food Initiative

Why are growers and retailers supporting this project? Food companies are concerned about outbreaks of food-borne illness, which threaten their brands and negatively impact their ability to provide their customers with produce. They also want to assure their customers that they do not accept worker abuse in their supply chains. The connection? Empowered farm workers can improve food safety, and the rising power of socially conscious consumers is undeniable. Research published by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation last year suggests that 88 percent of consumers strongly or partly agree that they would be willing to spend $1.50 more per month on produce if it meant guaranteeing fair wages for those who picked it.

At the farm level, EFI trains a core team of workers and managers on how to apply our labor, pesticide, and food safety standards on site, and provides an overview for the entire workforce. Once a farm has been certified to be in compliance with EFI standards, the core team continues to meet and verify ongoing compliance, significantly reducing the risk of produce contamination, pesticide hazards, and labor violations.

There are other promising labeling and certification projects that offer consumers information about how their food was produced with respect to labor. Most are focused on smaller farms, while EFI is aimed at the larger operations that hire the majority of farm workers. No other initiative that we are aware of simultaneously addresses concerns about labor, pesticide management, and food safety, or provides training that creates cultural change. EFI creates a shared stake in the farm's success for workers and growers, and ensures that workers have a vital role in continuously ensuring compliance with our standards.

EFI builds on the success of other multi-stakeholder efforts such as the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council. These approaches to conservation in the timber and fisheries sectors show that the preference of socially responsible consumers for certified products can help drive major shifts, while generating financial and brand value benefits for companies that seek or require certification from their suppliers. In 2013, EFI aims to begin the training and certification process on a dozen farms, most of them in California, before expanding in 2014 to support hundreds of operations across the country.

The Equitable Food Initiative is a bold and ambitious idea. We know how much work lies ahead of us if we are to maximize the opportunity this initiative represents. But, as we reflect on the many dangers and injustices that farm workers suffer every day, we are inspired to be spearheading an important solution. EFI builds on the contributions of all players in the system to create safer produce for consumers and safer working conditions for the people who toil to put food on our tables.

Maisie Greenawalt is vice president of strategy for Bon Appétit Management Company. Erik Nicholson is the national vice president of the United Farm Workers. Minor Sinclair is the regional director for Oxfam's U.S. program and serves as co-chair of the Equitable Food Initiative.

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