Where did your strawberries come from? Find out with this new label.

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Flor and Maria, members of the EFI leadership team at Chrisalida Farms in Oxnard, CA, have embraced the opportunity to work with EFI, and to train other workers. Photo: Nicholas Way

Now we can celebrate Farmworker Awareness Week by looking for produce bearing the EFI certification label—and knowing how it got to us.

When Farmworker Awareness Week rolls around each year, it’s a chance to draw some attention to the millions of people who do the seldom-seen but back-breaking work of planting and harvesting our fruits and vegetables.

Oxfam America joins with our partner organizations and people around the country in recognizing farmworkers this week -- and every week. For years, we’ve been trying to find new solutions to the stubborn problems that plague farmworkers: arduous working conditions, low wages, grim housing, exposure to dangerous chemicals.

This year, we have more to celebrate. Oxfam was instrumental in conceiving of and nurturing an organization that holds great promise for farmworkers: the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI).

EFI is an innovative approach that brings together actors from all points of the food chain: farmworker groups, retailers, growers, and consumer advocates. To earn EFI certification, produce farms engage farmworkers in implementing the EFI Standards for improved working conditions, pesticide management, and food safety.  This certification benefits the entire food system, from farmworkers all the way to you, as a consumer.

Since it incorporated as an independent nonprofit organization last year, EFI has been making great strides. Just recently, Costco in California was selling strawberries and blueberries with the EFI label; and Whole Foods just signed on to carry certified produce. Soon you should be able to locate and purchase berries that have been: Responsibly Grown. Farmworker Assured.

When produce has been grown on a farm that has met EFI Standards, it will be packed in boxes that sport the green “trustmark” that indicates it’s been “Responsibly Grown. Farmworker Assured.”

Here’s a quick look back at the hard work and dedication that, finally, has brought certified fruit to the stores, and given consumers a real choice.

Disrupt, innovate, win-win

Farmworkers around the world have traditionally been stuck in rough conditions and persistent poverty. Farm labor is seasonal, demands great physical strength, often occurs in grueling weather conditions, and offers few rewards.

Of the roughly two million people in the agricultural labor force in the US, most are undocumented immigrants, largely from Mexico; many do not speak English, and some are illiterate; and most are denied basic legal protections that other workers take for granted.

Many groups, including Oxfam America, have struggled to improve the lives of farmworkers over the years, and important victories have been won. But the scale of the challenge overshadowed the successes and gnawed at advocates.

In the late 2000s, Oxfam and our partner organizations realized that the “classic divide” between farmworkers and growers (farm owners) was stuck at an impasse. As Minor Sinclair, director of Oxfam’s US Program, puts it, “we needed something to disrupt the polarization, something that would break through and bring the sides together.”

Oxfam gathered farmworker partners and looked for new ideas. “We asked ourselves: can we do something more transformative together than we can do on our own?” says Baldemar Velásquez, president of Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).

The result was the “Multi-Stakeholder Initiative”, a coalition which aimed to offer a “win-win” for all actors in the food chain – from workers and growers to retailers and consumers. This initiative grew into EFI.

Bringing together unlikely bedfellows

On many farms, training needs to happen well before dawn, so workers can get to the field during the cooler morning hours. The leadership team at the Pacific Agra farm in Walla Walla, WA gathered workers for training at 4am during the summer. Photo: Mary Babic / Oxfam America

When farmworker groups first reached out to businesses, “we found that there are issues in the produce industry that keep them up at night, especially food safety and accountability for working conditions in their supply chains. And we realized that all parties have interests in common,” says EFI Executive Director Peter O’Driscoll.

Over the past few decades, growers have watched their share of the “food dollar” (each dollar spent by the consumer at the store) decline dramatically. At the same time, they’ve been pressured to absorb more costs to provide assurances of food safety. O’Driscoll says that many growers are struggling to stay afloat, challenged by narrow margins, changing weather, and an unpredictable labor supply.

Retailers have vulnerabilities, too: they seek to guarantee that food is safe and reliable, and to avoid outbreaks of disease from contaminated produce. As one expert noted, “One small misstep can equal millions of dollars down the drain.”

O’Driscoll asserts that EFI certification “can achieve alchemy for all parties by improving conditions and wages for workers; providing higher prices for growers; and increasing assurance of food safety and decent practices for retailers.”

Bringing businesses into the tent

The first retailer to fully participate in EFI was Costco. The company has been instrumental in encouraging growers to participate, and in spreading the word about the program. As Arthur D. Jackson, Jr, vice president of general administration at Costco, notes, “Safe and wholesome produce begins with dedicated training of, respect for, and protection of farm workers.”

Bon Appétit Management Company, which operates 650 cafés in 33 states for dozens of clients, has been committed to EFI for years as well. Their vice president of strategy, Maisie Ganzler, notes that "America's food system depends on farmworkers, and yet values them so little.”

Just this month, Whole Foods joined as well. EFI certification will be recognized in Whole Foods Market’s Responsibly Grown program for fresh produce and flowers. “We designed Responsibly Grown specifically to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments our growers have already achieved,” said Robin Foster, team leader for Whole Foods Market’s Responsibly Grown.

Farm owners (growers, such as Andrew and Williamson) have been steadily joining the system, making adjustments to comply with standards. Currently, nine farms are certified, and 11 are in the pipeline. Produce grown on certified farms includes strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions, and leafy greens. Nearly 500 workers have been trained by EFI for Leadership Teams, and over 7,000 farmworkers have been engaged in the EFI process.

Most of these growers know how valuable skilled workers are in the fields. For example, they know when to trim apple trees, how to spot animal waste, and how to recognize disease.  “These people are our most important asset,” says Randy Hamada, one of the owners of Pacific Agra, an onion farm in Walla Walla, WA.

Onions are grown in hot, dry conditions; harvesting is tough work that involves speed and sharp tools. Workers need to carry large containers of water and food to the field; they worked with managers to find a way to keep it cool, and to keep the fields safe from contamination. Photo: Mary Babic / Oxfam America

Shifting the culture on the farm

While EFI provides some real quantifiable benefits to businesses, much of its success relies on improved communication among workers and farm managers. As the workers find their voices, they start to report problems, suggest improvements, and manage conflicts.

“Workers are trained so that everyone is responsible for looking for problems—not just the supervisors,” says trainer Lucy Boutte. “You have 300 eyes out there instead of just two.” Workers are assured they can sound the alarm without fear of retribution. She notes that workers are now more willing to point out problems,such as animal waste in the field, and to help devise solutions, such as moving strawberries into cold storage before a lunch break to extend the life of the fruit.

EFI helps workers and managers articulate the skills and insights they bring to their labor.  “For people who’ve never had a voice anywhere, that’s immense,” says Boutte.

Training the leadership team at Mango Pack involves not just newsprint and markers, but long hours and a commitment to changing the culture on farms: among workers, supervisors, and growers. Most participants recognize it as a fundamental “culture shift” to engaging and respecting farmworkers. Photo: Lilian Autler

Lilia, a compliance manager at Mango Pack, notes that the EFI certification trustmark “actually makes the employees be involved. That’s when you see the difference. When [the workers] feel like they kind of have ownership: this is my product and I’m proud of it.”

Flor, a member of the EFI leadership team at Chrisalida Farms in Oxnard, CA says, “Things have improved a lot here[with EFI]. They [the farm managers and grower] are very concerned about the workers. When there is a problem, they listen to us.” 

Fruits of success

After years of planning, organizing, training, and marketing, EFI-certified produce hit the shelves in 2015—and much more will be in stores this year. Consumers can now spot the “trustmark” that indicates the produce has been “Responsibly Grown. Farmworker Assured.”  When consumers make more informed decisions about the fruits and vegetables they buy, they choose to value the people who work so hard to nurture and harvest that produce.

Margaret Reeves, senior scientist with the Pesticide Action Network who has been part of EFI since 2010, notes, “It feels great to see it bear fruit! We saw the first produce with the EFI label hit shelves last spring… I’m eager to see the label at Whole Foods stores.”

Sinclair, who continues to serve as an EFI board member, reflects, “After Oxfam helped launch the Equitable Food Initiative, we watched it grow from impacting workers on a single farm in California to now engaging thousands of farmworkers in the US, Canada and Mexico.  Its core innovation has the potential to transform the whole industry.”

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