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Fair Trade Takes Over the Whole Foods Produce Section

Words by Leon Kaye

Fair trade-certified products have long made a difference to workers in the coffee and chocolate industries, and more products from flowers to apparel and even soda pop have earned the fair trade label. Now fair trade is starting to make a difference to more farm workers in Mexico and other countries throughout Latin America.

Last month Whole Foods introduced more fruits and vegetables certified by Oakland-based Fair Trade USA. The fair trade label started appearing on cucumbers late last year, and this spring fair trade-certified watermelons, peppers, and pineapples have appeared in the stores’ produce section. Fair trade bananas have long been one of Fair Trade USA’s projects, and now that little sticker you see on fresh produce will mean more economic opportunities for workers abroad. While more farms have been certified in recently in El Salvador, Costa Rica, Haiti, Peru and Columbia, two farms in Mexico stand out when it comes to how the payment of a small premium for quality products really makes a difference for workers abroad.

Near Hermosillo, Mexico, Groupo Alta grows both organic and conventionally grown cucumbers, grapes, peaches and watermelons in the northern Mexico state of Sonora. Groupo Alto retrieved fair trade certification last August and sold its first cucumbers to Whole Foods last fall. In order to harvest the crops, the farm recruits workers from poorer states in southern Mexico including Chiapas. Most of the workers’ homes and communities lack such basic necessities as clean water, health care, education and better employment opportunities within their home towns. To that end, workers not only have a say in how fair trade premiums are spent, the monies are redistributed back in their hometowns. Money generated from fair trade certification programs has paid for ambulances, medical clinics, new roads, scholarships and supplies for clean water in the communities at which these workers stay for most of the year.

South of Sonora is Culiacan, Mexico, home to Divemex. The company operates greenhouses that employ over 800 workers, who tend crops including the fair trade-certified bell peppers that started to appear in Whole Foods this February. Agricultural workers in northern Mexico on average earn about $13 a day--double the minimum wage but still a difficult sum on which to live. While education is technically free, the costs of everything from transportation to uniforms often makes education after elementary school unaffordable for families working within the agricultural sector. Workers at Divemex voted to invest their fair trade premiums in scholarships to pay for students in high school and university who were able to maintain a B+ average.

As certifications from Fair Trade USA and other organizations around the world become even more mainstream, more workers see an improvement in their standard of living while the environment benefits, too. And anecdotally, consumers benefit: during a visit to Fair Trade USA’s office yesterday, I scored some of that fair trade watermelon. As in the case of 99 percent of fair trade products I have sampled, it was  . . . sublime.

Editor’s Note: Fair Trade USA is also sponsoring a guest series on 3p, “The Future of Fair Trade.”

Leon Kaye, based in California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photos courtesy Fair Trade USA.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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