Serving Justice – new food label certifies workers’ rights on U.S. farms

Pie Ranch in Pescadero, Calif. is one of two Northern California farms seeking Food Justice certification. (Photo: Katy Storch/ Peninsula Press)

In the early morning hours at Swanton Berry Farm in Pescadero, Calif, president Jim Cochran ensures each farm worker completes a half-hour of strength exercise before a day of strawberry picking. And just five minutes down the Camarillo Highway, apprentices at Pie Ranch reside in cool yurts and meet regularly with the owners for “honey millet,” where they share their good (honey) and bad (millet) experiences on the farm.

But it’s clear that not all farms care for their workers’ mental and physical health in this way. Reports of heat-related deaths in central California, sexual assault of female farm workers, inadequate payment and shelter serve as testament to the disparities in working conditions across farms. Abominable working conditions are not yet a thing of the past.

There is a constant push to produce more in the U.S. agricultural market, along with few laws protecting farm worker’s rights and a system which holds labor contractors, rather than the farmers themselves, responsible for workers’ conditions. Together, these factors help sustain farms that are often negligent in addressing workers’ rights.

But the movement toward food justice is growing. In the next two years, Swanton Berry Farm and Pie Ranch will be two of the first California farms to carry the Food Justice label. This label guarantees a farm’s commitment to fair living wages for workers, adequate living and working conditions, and fair contracts with buyers, among other things.

In some ways, the Food Justice label is similar to the Fair Trade label, which certifies that international farmers receive fair wages for their crops, like coffee and chocolate. But the Food Justice certification focuses on farm workers’ rights in North America, rather than on a global level. Wages are only one component of the fair labor practices Food Justice certifiers consider.

The Food Justice label sends a positive message to consumers and the people farms work with, said Sally Lee, who serves on the management committee of the Agricultural Justice Project, a partnership of four nonprofits that is pioneering the Food Justice Certification. “[The label] allows consumers to communicate farther up the chain, because you can’t necessarily see the farm, but you can see the label,” Lee said. By buying Food Justice certified foods, shoppers can vote with their dollars in support of fair worker treatment.

The Food Justice label is part of a larger movement towards a more socially just food system. This movement, called the food justice or domestic fair trade movement, advocates that all parties, from the farm worker to the corporate buyers, share equal risk and benefit in the domestic food system.

The Agricultural Justice Project has designed its Food Justice standards to be positive responses to the “miserable conditions some workers live with,” such as a lack of adequate on-site shade and shelter, said Elizabeth Henderson, a member of the organization’s management. The project is training other nonprofits that inspect farms across the country, such as CCOF in Santa Cruz, to adopt its standards. This will boost the label’s credibility and uniformity in the market place, Henderson said.

Five farms in the United States and a grower group of 70 farms in Canada are now Food Justice certified. Still, many farmers who have likely heard of the label are not seeking certification.

That may be because becoming certified is not easy. It is a costly and time-consuming process that varies based on the size and complexity of a farm. Acquiring the label requires a licensing fee and certification fee, and often a change in management practices as well. After investing in the fees and opportunity costs to acquire the label, it only lasts a year, and then farms have to pay for re-certification. Together, these costs and changes might be difficult to take on if a farm is already struggling.

Pie Ranch workers have a shady place to cool off on breaks and have regular meetings with owners to share what they like and don't like about working at the ranch. (Photo: Katy Storch/ Peninsula Press)

Though the cost can be great, the hope is that the label will pay itself off in a variety of ways, Lee said. Carrying the label might boost consumer loyalty at markets, or perhaps even give access to new markets.

Matt Rothe is the manager of Stanford University’s Sustainable Food Program, which facilitates collaboration among faculty, students, and researchers to help make dining at Stanford more sustainable. He said the Sustainable Food Program occupies one of those niche market openings that food justice certified farms are looking for.

“Stanford is interested in understanding how we can source food that has been grown fairly and justly,” Rothe said.

Rothe, who is responsible for evaluating the ecological and social impacts of Stanford’s food purchases, said he has a good sense of how environmentally sustainable the food is, but he admits uncertainty about its social sustainability.

Because the Food Justice label is still rare, Rothe is working directly with suppliers to identify the farmers that meet the Food Justice certification standards, but haven’t necessarily been certified yet. When in doubt, purchases from organic farms is a better option than conventional farms, he said. This is a sound assumption: the Food Justice label can only be applied to organic farms because workers are exposed to pesticides and herbicides on non-organic farms.

But the assumption that organic farms are also treating workers fairly can not be confirmed without the label, Rothe said. This is the gap the Food Justice label seeks to close.

This barely-sprouted Food Justice movement has a long road ahead. For one, most people haven’t even heard of Food Justice certification. Without customer demand for the label, fiscal payoff for farmers doesn’t exactly add up. Lee said this shortage of consumer demand for the label stems from an issue of lack of awareness.

The Agricultual Justice Project is working on combating this reality. In a few months, they will have completed a short film that features certified farms and farms considering certification in order to spread the word about food justice. Pie Ranch may make a cameo.

For Pie Ranch, promoting awareness is a primary motivation for seeking certification. Just 14 acres in size, this educational farm’s staff consists of seven full-time workers, three apprentices, a few summer interns and the occasional volunteer – worker’s rights are not exactly in peril. Becoming certified is more about the principle.

“Social justice is an integral part of what we think, eat, and breathe at Pie Ranch,” said owner Nancy Vail. “We want to be an example for other farms and organizations to get the conversation around food justice going more.”

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