Creating a Label for Fair Food | Civil Eats

Creating a Label for Fair Food

The terms “local” “organic” “sustainable” and the like have become so mainstream that as someone who writes about these issues I find myself searching for new ideas to explain the tenets of why changing our food system is important.  Even if you are not involved in the “good food movement” at all, a McDonald’s aficionado who revels in hydrogenated oils and spraying your lawn with Roundup, you have heard of “local” “organic” and “sustainable.”  But while this now cliché vocabulary runs rampant even in Walmart, why then do we not have the same exposure to the term “fair”?

The Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) is trying to establish a set of standards to bring fairness as much exposure as the O word gets.  In 1999, a group of five nonprofits (Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas/Farmworker Support Committee, Northeast Organic Farming Association, Florida Organic Growers/Quality Certification Services, and Fundación RENACE) came together with the intention of creating “equity in our food system through the development of social justice standards for organic and sustainable agriculture.”  They saw a disconnect between the Organic standards within agriculture and the justice issues faced by those who actually comprise the industry itself.  In what should be a holistic movement, working conditions and price to farmers is actually excluded from the USDA National Organic Program.  The team set out to solidify what social justice actually means quantitatively and to develop standards within the farming community.

Today, the Agricultural Justice Project is gaining speed, conducting pilot programs both in the states and internationally to start implementing these standards of fairness.  The whole vision is to create one label that incorporates three main categories:  Relationships (from the farmer to the buyer to the farm worker to children raised on farms), Environmental Protection, and Labor Conflict and Complaint Resolution.   Their tagline is “Healthy Relationships and Healthy Environment make Healthy Food.” This fair food label, “Food Justice Certified,” is essentially a domestic Fair Trade certification that aims to cover agriculture on a large scale and bring attention to the rampant labor issues that have been left out of organics.

Despite the rise of globalization and industrial-sized organics, AJP is seeing a growing demand for fair, environmentally sound, and local ideologies.  A 2008 Produce Marketing Study indicated that within the top eight areas of focus, fair wages within the workforce was number one.  To ensure that this label takes flight, a strong third party certification must take place, along with worker representation on the inspection team as well as oversight of the certifiers by AJP for consistent compliance.

While these pilot programs are just getting started, the auditing phase is showing promise.  Testimony from some of the small farms already involved is positive and AJP hopes to expand into more regions.  Following the upper Midwest and Canada, the next training sessions will take place in the Southern states and hopefully move into California.  In tandem to these direct efforts, Capacity Building toolkits are also being developed for farmers to have more guidance towards justice goals.  Swanton Berry Farm on California’s Central Northern coast is a longtime supporter of social justice and workers rights.  Swanton is also on the Advisory Committee of AJP and has contributed labor policy templates for this toolkit.  In addition to these self-assessment ideas, they hope to introduce a pledge format for farms that might not be able to participate in the whole program.

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What an exciting concept this is, for us as consumers already accustomed to searching out Organic labeling the concept of “social stewardship standards” would really complete the circle on the Slow Food search for good, clean and fair here in the states.  However, at a recent presentation of the Agricultural Justice Project in Santa Cruz, California, a farmer stood up during the Q & A period with a reminder of the biggest issue of all:  How do we make sure that there will always be farm workers?  The disrespect for actual handwork makes it increasingly difficult to entice the next generation into farming.  If this label can accomplish anything, it would be to repair the attitude of disrespect that burdens our labor force and reconstruct a system that ensures healthy relationships and participation in agriculture.

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Amber Turpin is a freelance food and travel writer living in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A long time Good Food advocate, she has owned, operated and helped launch several food businesses. She is a regular contributor to Civil Eats, various Edible magazines, and the San Jose Mercury News. Read more >

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