Equitable Food Initiative Gets in the Weeds to Improve Labor Conditions

Filed under Social Justice

Emerson Collective’s Environment and Food Access Director Ariane Bertrand sat down with EFI’s Executive Director to talk about how better conditions for agriculture workers mean safer food for all of us.

The Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) is on a mission to improve the conditions of our food production systems. EFI’s proposition is straightforward and scalable: by working with industry stakeholders to improve labor conditions in agriculture, we can improve consumer health outcomes.

When contaminated produce lands on plates, not only do consumers suffer dangerous consequences, but retailers and farms ultimately experience serious hardship. EFI proposes solving this issue by starting at the root of the problem—addressing the workplace in which food production starts.

For example, on most farms, workers are incentivized to work as quickly as possible. So they may not stop to point out a diseased crop or deer droppings they see while picking produce, even though that contamination might lead to consumer health problems down the line. But EFI has shown that by improving working conditions and incentive structures on farms, they can prioritize food safety and quality labor standards and see profits go up.

Ariane Bertrand, Emerson Collective’s Environment and Food Access Director, sat down with Peter O’Driscoll, Executive Director of EFI, to discuss the impact of this unique solution and how the organization has successfully brought it to the mainstream.

Peter, I'm so excited to talk to you. Thank you so much for taking the time. Tell us a little bit about yourself and what EFI does.

I’m the executive director of EFI, and I have been working on food issues for over 30 years. The produce industry, where EFI operates, has long faced a couple of major

vulnerabilities. One of them has to do with food safety. From a retail and a producer perspective, recalls and pathogen outbreaks are disastrous. They affect the reputation of the growers and the retailers involved. They create significant legal exposure because people get sick from eating tainted produce, but they also hit the bottom line of the grower and retailer because of the millions of dollars in foregone sales.

The industry as a whole is considered a low-skill industry and has relied on low-wage labor, and that has created a wealth of challenges around establishing fair wages and decent working conditions. What is interesting about EFI is that we are able to create a space where the different players in the system can come together and agree to disagree, but try to identify areas where actually the status quo isn't working for any of them, and where there might be opportunities to do things differently.

The magic that makes EFI work is the realization that if farm workers are trained and incentivized to address and mitigate threats to food safety at the point of production, then they could solve the retail industry's problems with food safety and recall. At the same time, we’re helping farms create new value and new revenue opportunities that improve working conditions and wages for those workers. And that, in a nutshell, is what EFI is trying to do. We’re trying to raise the bar on labor and food safety standards in the industry, because that is to the benefit of all players.

Emerson Collective's Ariane Bertrand visits an EFI certified farm in Watsonville, CA, with EFI's Peter O'Dricoll to see their work firsthand.

Let me ask you a little bit more about that. The incentive to get workers trained on food safety issues is clear for the retailer and the producer, but how did the connection to actually improving labor conditions and standards get made? Because you could do one without the other.

And people have, consistently, done one without the other. EFI's quite unusual in this space. There are other certifications and programs in this space. Some of them are exclusively focused on the labor or social side. Many more of them are exclusively focused on the food safety side, and our position would be that's kind of where the point gets missed. So let's start with the worker, and what constitutes decent working conditions.

In a perfect world, people who are working hard would have access to, for example, sanitary facilities. They would have access to breaks that would allow them to use those facilities. They would be able to stay away from work when they were sick, when they might potentially be contagious. Those are minimum standards that surely everybody would agree with. But the question for the industry is, are those labor standards or are they food safety standards? Because when you think about what workers actually do, if there's no hygienic facility near the area where they're harvesting, then it's much, much more likely that there's going to be contamination from the workforce in the fields where they're harvesting.

So just use that as a very basic example of why improving those kinds of basic working conditions serves not only to address decent labor standards, it also serves, obviously, as a preventative measure around food safety.

We also want farms to have a better business relationship with their preferred customers. We want them to be able to distinguish themselves in the marketplace through our label, but what's really interesting is that the primary benefit, I think, to the produce grower, is this culture change process, this opportunity to engage the workforce in a fundamentally different way. And you've got to want that. You have to have the mindset that your workforce is really an asset, and not just a sort of disposable factor of production. Because that's not only going to attract the workers they need, it's going to retain them, and it's actually going to make their business more profitable.

Because many migrant farm workers are undocumented, they are particularly vulnerable to abuses in the workplace. EFI creates an environment where speaking up against such abuses, and addressing them, is encouraged and celebrated.

Can you paint us a picture of what it looks like for the farm worker and how an EFI farm is a different place to come to work?

EFI's basic methodology is to create what we call a leadership team, to train a group of workers and managers to collaborate together, to gain the problem solving, communication and conflict resolution skills that they need to bring the farm into compliance with our standards. And we understand that in any organization, any operation, things are going to go wrong. The question isn't “Did things go wrong?,” the question is, “Did the people around the problem recognize it and work together to solve it?”

Those are the core skills that we teach, and we expect that leadership team to work together on a continuous basis to make sure that the farm stays in compliance with the program. Everybody who participates in this process recognizes that the skills and tools in our training can be used outside of the farm. We find it really powerful how, when you sit down and talk to workers about the experience, they talk about the benefits that it has brought to them in their engagement with their families and their neighbors. Workers go home and they talk about how to resolve problems in their families and their communities. They talk about how they have become able to listen to their spouse and to their children, to be more patient and to suggest problem-solving alternatives when conflict arises at home or in their communities. That has been some of the most gratifying feedback we've got from workers.

From the supplier perspective, we hear from growers that the same problem solving skills that we apply to compliance and assurance issues and standards can be applied to solving basic problems. In Watsonville, given the prevalence in the farm worker community of sexual harassment and assault, the farm brought the leadership team together to focus on this issue, and ways in which the leadership team could promote a culture of zero tolerance for sexual harassment.

What was interesting from the farm client perspective was how relevant that was to recruiting and retaining a stable workforce. What they discovered over time is that as that culture began to shift—as the leadership team began to reinforce this zero-tolerance commitment against sexual harassment—workers were willing to recruit their wives, their sisters, and other family members to work on the the farm. They felt they would not be threatened by sexual harassment. In addition to being the right thing to do, that helped to solve the suppliers' challenge around building and retaining a stable labor force.

We believe that there are incalculable ancillary benefits from the skills we teach around collaboration and problem solving that not only ripple back into the community and the family, but also ripple forward into the productivity and profitability of the business.

Many varieties of produce are packed in the field that they are grown and picked in, making farm workers the primary safety measure between consumers and their produce. EFI creates a work environment in which farm workers are incentivized to call out contaminants in the field, like animal feces, to create safer produce and more profitable farms.

Given that you started with Costco and you're having so much success on farms, and that a lot of these farms are seeing the benefits of the program, how do you scale something like EFI?

Let me break that into three pieces. So Costco is the third largest retailer in the US, and Costco buys more than five billion dollars a year worth of produce, and it has tremendous influence and respect in the supplier community. So as EFI has worked over the last six years with Costco suppliers, and as word of mouth endorsement has spread in the grower community, we find that the retail connection to Costco is really helping to drive our pipeline and bringing more and more produce companies to talk to us about certification.

The second opportunity, and also challenge, in scaling is operational. How do you take a program that is so dependent on this facilitated interaction on each farm that seeks certification and expand that out to 100, 500, 1000 farms, across the Americas? We have now implemented a program we call “Train the Trainer,” where companies we partner with can identify their own HR or training staff and go through a five-day EFI workshop, followed by supported, joint training on their own operations, and eventually the formation of their own leadership team. So if you look at the produce industry and a company that might be sourcing from 100 different operations, we might work directly to certify the first ten of those with our own trainers. Maybe we also certify the next ten in joint facilitated sessions with one of our trainers and their staff, but then if that's worked well it's entirely conceivable that each of those companies could go on and train their leadership teams through the rest of their supply chain, allowing us to focus on other companies.

Thirdly, we are working with partners to turn some of our materials into video products that can be used much more expansively with other produce companies. That can also accelerate the process of engaging if and when those companies decide to move in the direction of EFI certification.

So operationally, scaling is going to be a challenge, but for all of that, I think there are strategies and ways to do it that do make it sustainable.