Bobby and Diann Johnson grow pecans on a small farm in southeastern Georgia. Rajah Banerjee improves his community by tending organic tea gardens in northeastern India. Ofelia Flores harvests wine grapes on a vineyard in California where workers have organized for a voice on the job. And formerly unemployed Margaret Sillemon has been grateful to find training and steady work packaging beans and spices into gourmet soup mixes in Denver.
These people—and many others—want to support their families by growing, harvesting, or preparing sustainable food for America’s dinner tables. To do so, they need support from committed customers who shop for food with people in mind.
Most American households will spend more than $2,000 per person this year on food, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). In these tough times, it’s more important than ever to keep your money away from conventional agri-businesses and support farmers and workers here and around the world. Here’s how to use the power of your food dollars for eating well and doing good.
Buy Local and Organic
Here in the US, large corporations have consolidated production, squeezing out smaller-scale farms. According to the USDA, the nation lost more than 13,000 farms between 2006 and 2007, and the average size of the remaining farms continues to rise. The large factory farms that replace small-scale family farms may not support their local communities financially or culturally, may not provide living-wage jobs, and are more likely to use toxic chemicals and create vast monocultures. In this environment, small-scale farmers often have difficulty connecting with markets for their harvest. Buying local helps support farmers in our communities and curbs global warming emissions by reducing food miles.
Organic agriculture also avoids toxic pesticides and herbicides, reduces chemical runoff into the water supply, increases biodiversity, avoids genetically modified crops (GMOs), and protects community health.
When possible, look for produce that is both local and organic. Find local and organic produce by joining a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, or by shopping at a nearby farmers’ market. The nonprofit Local Harvest can help you find both.
Buy Fair Trade
For the food items that are grown and harvested in other parts of the world, Fair Trade offers a strategy for sustaining the livelihoods and communities of small-scale farmers. Fair Trade ensures that farmers and farm workers receive living wages and labor under fair and healthy conditions, with no child labor allowed.
When American consumers purchase Fair Trade Certified™ food products, including tea, coffee, cocoa, chocolate, honey, vanilla, rice, and fresh fruit, they help to raise living standards for farmers by guaranteeing fair prices for the harvest. This Fair Trade premium covers the costs of living and sustainable production, with enough left over for farmers to invest in development projects. Ask your local grocery stores and restaurants to carry Fair Trade items.
Support Family Farms
Family-scale farming can thrive in the US when farmers join together to connect with committed
customers. Two members of Green America’s business network are helping US farmers do just that.
Organic Valley has knit together a cooperative network of over 1,300 family farms across the US and Canada, enabling farmers to sell their organic food to major markets. The company keeps their markets regional, reducing food miles. The model has succeeded in sustaining these smallscale farms: Organic Valley’s revenue from sales of its dairy products topped $432 million in 2007.
Equal Exchange, a worker-owned cooperative that began bringing overseas Fair Trade products to market more than two decades ago, launched its “Domestic Fair Trade” program last year. The company actively searches out US family farmers or farmer cooperatives and purchases their products, rather than items from large agri-corps. It sells these items at retail through its catalog and Web site, and wholesale through grocery stores and food coops across the US. It offers pecans from a cooperative of African-American farmers in Georgia, cranberries from an organic bog in Wisconsin, and organic almonds from cooperative farms in central California. Customers can “track their snacks” on the Equal Exchange Web site to learn about the family or cooperative that each product supports.
“We should all be thinking about how farmers and farm workers are treated here in the US,” says Joe Riemann of Equal Exchange. “This is part of the larger question of striving for a more equitable and cooperative economy.”
Protect America's Farm Workers
The consolidation of farms hasn’t only squeezed small-scale farmers; it has also given rise to a population of 400,000 migrant farm workers moving between 80,000 farms, according to the United Farm Workers (UFW), a union of US farm workers. The UFW, founded by organizer César Chávez, has worked for more than two decades to help farm workers organize to effect change. But unfortunately, laws concerning wages, working conditions, and health and safety for farm workers are not enforced consistently, writes Arturo S. Rodriguez, the current president of UFW. Too often, US farm workers continue to be cheated of wages, female workers experience sexual harassment, pesticides on non-organic farms make workers sick, and many aren’t given consistent access to clean drinking water.
The union label on food helps ensure that farm workers are given a voice on the job to advocate for fair wages and healthy working conditions. UFW maintains a list of mushrooms, roses, grapes, strawberries, apples, and citrus harvested by unionized farm workers at www.ufw.org (click on “Union Label”). A list of packaged foods manufactured by members of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union (UFCW) is online here.
In addition, the Agricultural Justice Project has been working to develop standards for what social justice means in the context of sustainable, organic agriculture in the US. The Project undertook a pilot program in the Midwest, through which produce from four family farms was sold in co-op grocery stores under a “Local Fair Trade” label, meaning that the source farms had undergone independent monitoring to ensure they adhere to Project standards. Farmers; farm workers; and indigenous, retail, and consumer groups have worked to develop the standards, which address: workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, fair wages and benefits for workers, clear conflict resolution policies for farmers and farm workers, the rights of indigenous peoples, and workplace health and safety.
A Hand Up for the Unemployed
Low-income people are going to be suffering the most in a depressed economy marked by high unemployment it’s more important than ever to support people’s livelihoods when you purchase food.
Look for enterprises in your community that produce food products as vehicles for training and employing people who may otherwise struggle to make a living. For example, the Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, NY, sees its primary business as supporting individuals in becoming self-sufficient: “We don’t hire people to bake brownies,” says CEO Julius Walls. “We bake brownies in order to hire people.”
When customers purchase Greyston’s “Do-Goodie” brownies in stores and online, they help to ensure that Greyston can continue to provide training and good jobs even during tough times.
Likewise, Food from the ’Hood is a student-run business that helps train high school students from Crenshaw High School in a low-income neighborhood of Los Angeles. Purchasing Food from the ’Hood’s “Straight Out ’the Garden” line of salad dressings, which are available online and in supermarkets throughout southern California, helps to educate students about gardening and entrepreneurship, and to fund college scholarships for graduates of the program.
In Denver, the Women’s Bean Project employs low-income women in the work of baking mixes, bean soups, and marinades for online sales, while also providing on-site mentoring, computer literacy classes, individual job coaching, and life skills classes. The Project has employed more than 500 women over two decades.
Likewise, next time you are looking for a caterer for a meeting or gathering, look to see if there is an employment program caterer at work in your community. These programs serve a critical need in many communities, providing much-needed jobs and job training, especially when times are tough.
Support Livelihoods With Every Bite
We all have tremendous opportunities every time we buy food to make sure our dollars support dignified work for those near and far who grow, harvest, prepare, and serve food.
“Our products make great meals, but what they’re really about is helping women move towards self-sufficiency,” says Tamra Ryan, executive director of the Women’s Bean Project. “When anyone buys one of our products, they can know that it’s literally changing somebody’s life.”