In September, you’ll have some new assurances about the tomatoes you buy from the 780 Giant Foods and Stop & Shop stores that pepper cities in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
Ahold, the Dutch company that owns the grocery chains, has agreed to buy its Florida tomatoes only from farms certified for paying good wages and treating workers well. It’s among the biggest, but it's far from the first: Retailers from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart have joined the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Fair Food Program in the past seven years, often after the group held protests outside their stores.
That’s pretty quick progress — for tomatoes. But you won’t find the Fair Food Program’s label on anything else in the produce section. It’s a far cry from the pervasiveness of the organic label, which is present as an alternative for nearly everything a shopper might want to buy, having been adopted by industrial agribusiness as a way to satisfy consumer desires.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is very slowly taking the tomato program to other states, and just starting to contemplate getting into pepper cultivation as a next move.
“Because we take the enforcement so seriously, we take a deep and incremental approach towards expansion, so when we say the protections are in place, they really are,” says Greg Asbed, the Coalition’s co-founder. “You have to be careful, you really do.”
Strict enforcement standards shouldn’t preclude mass adoption, though — the organic certification is difficult to achieve, too. The Fair Trade label for imported goods has also gained widespread recognition. But while U.S. farmworkers have started winning victories in recent years, and Whole Foods has incorporated farmworker welfare into its "responsibly grown" label, mass-market retailers still have few ways to signal which producers prioritize their employees’ well-being. So why are worker rights so far behind environmental growing practices as far as making it onto grocery store shelves?
First of all, it’s important to note that organics have been propelled by widespread consumer perception that they’re better for health (despite evidence to the contrary). It’s hard to demonstrate that consumers care as much about the people who grow their food as they do about the prospect of consuming pesticide residue.
But there’s also a quirk of history at play: The “organic" label became a national, standardized, federally administered standard in the early 1990s, which allowed organic foods to go mainstream.
At the time, people who cared about the treatment of farmworkers advocated for labor standards to be a part of the organics label. According to Leah Cohen, director of the Agricultural Justice Project — which is designing and implementing its own labor standards certification system — they weren’t successful.
“The National Organics Program wasn’t interested in addressing the social aspects in the organic label,” Cohen says. “The people who were in the Agricultural Justice Program said, ‘Okay, if we’re not going to be able to address it through the National Organics Program, we’re going to do it as a private label.’ ”
That’s made for a much slower rollout period. The Agricultural Justice Project now has only a few certified producers that currently sell through Whole Foods. At the moment, Cohen sees labor rights being policed through private market-based programs, rather than a federal standard administered with taxpayer dollars. Their approach has been to maintain very high standards, rather than something that could gain mass adoption.
“We can make smaller improvements that have a wider base, and those change lives as well,” she says. “But our strategy has been to go for the very top.”
Greg Asbed sees the private approach as a better one, anyway, because of the worker education and enforcement resources they’re able to put into making sure that standards are upheld. The Fair Food Program has about 20 people on staff to help 25,000 farmworkers learn their rights and file complaints if anything goes wrong, which he doesn’t think the public sector could match.
“That would require them to have the kind of infrastructure necessary to verify the certification, and I can’t see that happening at the federal government, ever,” Asbed says. The federal Department of Labor is stretched very thin already, with funding often under pressure from Republican politicians. “The number of inspectors per worker is absolutely out of whack, and it’s a reflection of the political dynamic.”
That’s not the only way in which the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has chosen to not rely on government help. It first went in the direction of an independently policed program because enforcing rights through the courts — for sexual harassment cases, or wage theft claims — was painfully slow and didn’t force farms to change their practices.
Now, a decade after launching, about 90 percent of Florida’s tomatoes are grown under the Fair Food Program. That made it a relatively easy decision for Ahold to participate in the program, and the rest of the grocery industry may likely follow.
But there’s a whole produce section left to go.