Jane Says: Your Groceries Can Make a Difference for Farmworkers

The choices you make at the store can help improve working conditions in the fields.

(Photo: Monashee Frantz/Getty Images)

Apr 16, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.
“How can consumers tell if the food they buy has been cultivated and harvested by workers who are treated humanely?”
—Tom Alvarez

As Participant Media’s film Cesar Chavez, directed by Diego Luna and released in late March, makes clear, broad-based support was key to the legitimacy and success of the farmworker movement Cesar Chavez began. That still holds true today. Allocating your dollars for foods grown and harvested by workers who are treated fairly and with dignity is as important as choosing vegetables and fruits grown organically or sustainably, or meat and eggs from producers who hew to high animal-welfare standards.

Here’s a rundown of national and international initiatives, campaigns, and programs that are improving the conditions of farmworkers. Make your voice heard by asking retailers to carry foods that are responsibly grown and farmworker assured. If you patronize a store or restaurant that already participates in some way, do take the time to say thanks to the manager or write a letter that he or she can pass up the corporate ladder.

Agricultural Justice Project

Project partners in the Agricultural Justice Project are Rural Advancement Foundation International–USA, Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas/Farmworker Support Committee, Northeast Organic Farming Association, Florida Organic Growers/Quality Certification Services, and Fundación RENACE—all leaders in sustainable ag policy, worker rights, community-based food systems, and organic certification. In 2007, AJP and regional partner Local Fair Trade Network launched AJP-certified products in the Upper Midwest whose products are being marketed as “Local Fair Trade” with the tag line “Meets the Standards of the Agricultural Justice Project.”

Coalition of Immokalee Workers—Fair Food Program

Early organizing by the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers ended more than 20 years of declining wages in the tomato industry. By 1998, farmworkers had garnered industry-wide increases of 13 to 25 percent, which brought the tomato-picking piece rate back to pre-1980 levels. While continuing to press for fairer wages, CIW was at the forefront of antitrafficking work in the United States. After an analysis of the corporate food industry—which buys vast amounts of fruits and vegetables and can demand the lowest prices from suppliers, thus suppressing wages—it also organized the first farmworker boycott of a major fast-food company, Taco Bell. Today the fast-food giants, food retailers, and food-service providers that belong to CIW’s Fair Food Program include Yum Brands (Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut), McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Bon Appétit Management Company, Compass Group, Aramark, Sodexo, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, Walmart, and Del Monte Fresh Produce.

Equal Exchange

Among the goals of Equal Exchange—established in 1986 and the world’s oldest “fair trade” coffee company—are raising and stabilizing the incomes of small-scale farmers, farmworkers, and artisans; increasing the organizational and commercial capacities of producer groups; supporting democratically owned and controlled producer organizations; and promoting safe and sustainable farming methods and working conditions. In addition to coffee, it also certifies chocolate, cocoa, tea, bananas, and “fair foods,” such as Palestinian olive oil and nuts, and dried fruits from El Salvador, India, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Pakistan, Chile, and the U.S.

Equitable Food Initiative

The making of the film Cesar Chavez triggered a partnership between the Equitable Food Initiative and Participant Media on a “Follow Your Food” campaign “aimed at keeping food safe and families healthy starting in the fields where the food is grown.” The launch of a new system and “trustmark” will assure consumers that American farms meet rigorous safety standards and treat workers with the same care they give to the produce they grow. EFI “involves farmworkers directly in the design and implementation of safety protocols and trains them to work with management to reduce pesticide and pathogen risks.”


The Canadian organization fairDeal was “created to make fair trade and organics simple: Always organic and always fair trade so consumers never have to choose between the two.” It is a not-for-profit association consisting of mission-based organic and fair-trade organizations, including the Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative, Agricultural Justice Project, Domestic Fair Trade Association, and National Cooperative Grocers Association.

Fairtrade International

Fairtrade International, based in Bonn, Germany, is the world’s largest and most recognized fair trade system. There are two sets of Fairtrade standards: One applies to small holders that are working together in cooperatives or other organizations with a democratic structure; the other applies to workers, whose employers pay decent wages, guarantee the right to join trade unions, ensure health and safety standards, and provide adequate housing where it is relevant. Child labor is completely prohibited. “Crops must also be grown, produced, and processed in a manner that supports social development, economic development, and environmental development.”

Fair Trade USA

After a long-simmering feud, the U.S. affiliate of Fairtrade International announced it was ending its affiliation with the parent body in 2012. “In fair trade circles, this was a high-level divorce, and it reverberated widely,” wrote Scott Sherman in The Nation. “FTUSA, which is based in Oakland, also declared that it would certify coffee produced on plantations and by independent smallholder farmers—a significant departure from a system that restricts accreditation to coffee grown on democratically run, farmer-owned cooperatives, of which there are 360, mostly in Latin America.” Today Fair Trade USA—which also certifies cocoa, tea, sugar, produce, grains, body care products, textiles, honey, flowers, spices, wine, and spirits—works with 740 companies, including Starbucks, Costco, Sam’s Club, Whole Foods, Ben & Jerry’s, and Green Mountain Coffee.

Sherman’s story continues:

The current controversy amounts to a “battle over the soul of the seal,” says [fair trade expert and WSU sociologist Daniel] Jaffee. Indeed, shoppers will soon be confronted with a plethora of labels. In the past, there was a single certification label for fair trade coffee in the United States, that of FTUSA. Soon there will be at least four labels (and possibly more): Fair Trade USA’s; a label that Fairtrade International has introduced into the U.S. marketplace; a label from the Institute for Marketecology in Switzerland; and a “small producer’s symbol” organized by the Mexico City–based nonprofit FUNDEPPO, which represents the old-line cooperatives in the fair trade system and which Equal Exchange and other progressive companies have agreed to use.

Food Alliance

Started in 1993 as a project of Oregon State University, Washington State University, and the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the Food Alliance is supported by agricultural leaders, wholesalers and retailers, the federal government, and various environmental, labor, and animal welfare organizations. “Today, there are over 330 certified farms and ranches in Canada, Mexico, and 23 U.S. states managing over 5 million acres of range and farmland,” its website reads. “The majority are mid-sized or smaller family owned and operated businesses. Food Alliance also certifies distribution centers and food processing facilities.”

Rainforest Alliance

The green frog seal of the Rainforest Alliance is “found on food and beverages in restaurants, supermarkets, airplanes, trains, and hotels around the world.” It assures consumers that “products come from farms that are managed to the rigorous standards of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), where workers and their families enjoy dignified, safe conditions, and where wildlife and habitats are protected. The Rainforest Alliance and SAN require that all businesses buying, trading, or mixing products from certified farms must achieve SAN/Rainforest Alliance Chain-of-Custody certification in order to call their product Rainforest Alliance Certified.” Products certified include bananas, citrus, coffee, cacao, and flowers.