Connecting Agricultural Labor Issues with Environmental Sustainability

This is the 8th post in a series on the business of sustainable agriculture by the folks at Bon Appétit Management Company, a company that provides café and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities. To read past posts, click here.

By: Maisie Greenawalt, Bon Appetit Management Company

The more I learn, the less I know. Despite my fifteen years creating policies and watching the execution of sustainable sourcing by 10,000 culinarians working in a food business that puts ethics first, that’s how I feel about our exploration of how to improve farmworking conditions in the United States.

In 2009, I spent an eye-opening two days immersed in the problems of tomato pickers in South Florida with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, toured the Salinas Valley with a community organizer from California Rural Legal Assistance who detailed the sexual harassment and disrespect many workers endured in order to keep their jobs. With representatives of a health clinic outside San Diego, this organizer also saw migrant work camps that were literally make-shift rooms dug into hillsides. I attended the Domestic Fair Trade Association annual meeting where I heard optimistic, but maybe unattainable, goals being set by well-meaning activists.

I’ve talked with the folks at Food Alliance, the California Institute of Rural Studies, the United Farm Workers, Transfair USA, and Scientific Certification Systems. I’ve talked with small farmers with whom we have long term relationships. I asked our largest produce house that buys from a variety of sources including single-commodity farms. I’ve tried to ask intelligent questions and listen carefully. Still, I don’t have a clear answer to the question “what role can Bon Appétit Management Company play in improving the lives of farm workers?” In a decade, I’ve tackled tough supply chain problems–from being the first national restaurant company to implement a cage-free egg policy to reducing the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry. Usually at this point in the learning curve, nine months in, I’d have sufficient clarity to begin formulating a policy, and the remaining challenge was the logistics of our internal-roll out.  This time it’s different.

The ends of the spectrum are obvious. The systematic abuse of tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, is unjust and unacceptable and anyone you talk to will point to the progressive policies of Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, California. From conference speakers to journalists to the Oxfam America report, “Like Machines in the Fields: Workers Without Rights in American Agriculture,” everyone identifies Immokalee as the quintessential illustration of the problem and Swanton as having the ideal solution. However, the vast majority of farms and farmworkers exist somewhere between those two extremes. What works at a small, organic strawberry farm isn’t the answer for large-scale, commodity agriculture. I’ve heard Jim Cochran, co-founder of Swanton Berry Farm, describe his market position as being that of a “price-setter” rather than price-taker. That gives the farm more options for how it compensates its workers. For Bon Appétit, holding our suppliers to the standards set by Swanton (including a benefits many small farm owners would covet like a retirement plan and medical benefits) would leave us with a very short list of vendors.

Throw into the already murky waters the immigration and healthcare debates and the path to what’s “right” for fixing farmworker labor injustice fades ever further from view. It’d be easy to turn a blind eye and limit our sustainability definition to environmental impacts but that’s what farm owners profiting from  the injustices are counting on. I’ll keep asking questions and encourage other business leaders to do the same. Maybe letting farm owners know that business people like me with strong ethics are watching their labor practices is the first step toward a solution.

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