Podcast Recap: “Reimagining Grocery”, from Food + Tech Connect…

“The power of the purchasing order” to protect workers and prevent human rights violations in retail food brands’ supply chains takes center stage in dynamic panel discussion…

In early February, the CIW’s Gerardo Reyes and Greg Asbed joined a panel convened by Food+Tech Connect, a leader in the growing “good food innovation movement,” to explore the role and responsibility of grocery retailers in protecting farmworkers’ fundamental human rights in the fields where they buy their produce through their purchasing decisions. 

Here below is the video of the hour-long podcast in full, followed by a brief summary of some of the conversation’s most thought-provoking moments — great food for thought as we head into the weekend, smack dab in the middle of Farmworker Awareness Week (March 25th-31st).  Enjoy!


Ending Abuse in The Grocery Supply Chain

Speaking from the perspective of the farmworker community of Immokalee — the first link in the country’s $554 billion produce supply chain — Reyes and Asbed began by sharing a snapshot of farmworker life before the Fair Food Program.  They described a world in which wage theft, violence, sexual assault, and modern-day slavery were commonplace in the fields that have stocked American grocery stores and restaurants for generations.  As shelves were replenished, farmworker lives were diminished.

Years of marches and strikes aimed at establishing dialogue with Floridas’ growers were yielding only limited results.  Eventually, the frustration of those early years led farmworkers in Immokalee to widen the lens through which they perceived their workplace, to deepen the analysis at the heart of their organizing efforts in search of a new way forward.  They came to see that the farms where they worked were not the walled-off world that they had been perceiving, but were rather an industry within an industry, and that that larger industry — the trillion-dollar retail food industry — loomed over the growers and farm bosses who previously appeared as titans in their world.  Through that fundamental insight, they realized that the massive retail food chains that bought the tomatoes, peppers, and watermelons that they harvested were able to leverage their overwhelming economic power to drive down prices at the farm gate, and so drive down wages and working conditions in the fields — that, as they declared to the world in 2001, “Taco Bell makes farmworkers poor!”  A new theory of change had emerged: If those retail food brands were the true force behind farmworker poverty and abuse, they could also be the means to end that historic exploitation, if properly motivated to leverage their power, the power that the CIW’s co-panelist Errol Schweizer, former VP of Grocery at Whole Foods called “the power of the purchase order.”

Skeptics only need to look to the analogy of food safety to see proof of the concept.  As foodborne illnesses made the headlines in the 1990s, large food buyers came together behind substantial new food safety standards and told their suppliers, “we won’t buy from you if you can’t guarantee compliance with these safety protocols.”  By conditioning their purchase on compliance with the new standards, change was inevitable, and today buyer-imposed standards are the norm.  Harnessing that same buyer power, the Fair Food Program was launched in 2011 to enforce new human rights standards on farms.  Ten years later, the Program has grown to include 14 giant retail Participating Buyers, from Stop-n-Shop to Whole Foods, and dozens of Participating Growers across six states.

“The Buck Stops with Retailers”

America’s food supply chain has for years been home to numerous longstanding inequities, all exposed and exacerbated by the unprecedented upheavals of 2020.  The pandemic is the most salient example.  As both essential and, yet somehow, disposable, thousands of food factory workers, warehouse workers, grocery employees, and farmworkers are suffering from COVID-19.  Schweizer called the food industry itself is a super-spreader event.

Speaking directly to the buying side, he acknowledged that everyone in the business has goals, and has to “make their numbers.” But he asked them to imagine: what if one of your priority goals was to not create harm?  Like CIW, Schweizer knows this change is within reach. “We built a $50B organic food market in less than 20 years. We can do this.”

Schweizer acknowledges that the challenge on the table for big food retailers, often staffed by people who do care and do want their supply chains to be ethical, is not a lack of understanding that something is going wrong, but how those decision-makers can go beyond empathy and into real action. How can executives and officers on the buying side make choices that lead to real results, especially when they lift the lid on their existing CSR schemes and realize that they are empty?  In the grocery supply chain, “the buck stops with retailers” so they must be the ones to step up to the challenge. 

The Solution Already Exists

Unfortunately, if the history of the CIW and the Fair Food Program has proven one thing about change in the food industry, it is that most of the time, asking nicely isn’t enough.

But the other lesson learned in the two-decades since the launch of the Campaign for Fair Food is just as clear: Power flows downward in the food market, and, despite what we might believe, at the very top of that markets sits not the billion-dollar brands that we all know, but consumers — us.  While typically the act of shopping is a mundane and lonely endeavor, a wallet becomes a powerful tool when consumers act collectively, creating the incentives that retailers need to overcome reluctance to adopt new purchasing policies.  Only when they were ushered through that door by organized consumers were those retail brands able to finally make real the claims of social responsibility they had been making all along: the elimination and prevention of modern-day slavery, sexual assault, and violence through real transparency and worker empowerment.

Reyes clarified, “we’re not against progress or success. We’re not activists just for the sake of agitation. We do that if we really have to. But what we really want is the opportunity to sit at the table and make change.”

No one should have to die or suffer in a sustainable grocery supply chain. The good news is that the solution modern food retailers are looking for already exists.  

Ten years on, the Fair Food Program has had the advantage of years of insights from our relationships with Participating Growers and Buyers.  Many have attested to the long-term benefits of participation and compliance with the Program, including reduced turnover, reduced risk, more transparent and organized operations. These business-friendly benefits are simply side effects of doing the right thing: preventing egregious harm in the farm workplace. Despite the initial challenges of setting up new systems and protocols, some of these growers and indeed the buyers themselves, have become our best ambassadors because the cost-benefit analysis speaks for itself.  Just last summer, even in the midst of COVID-19, our partners at Whole Foods facilitated an agreement with Bloomia, the largest cut-flower operation on the East Coast.

Asbed and Schweizer underscored the common shortcomings of the now-discredited CSR model, and advised retail food buyers how to avoid the pitfalls: reject empty greenwashing, recognize that CSR and even Fair Trade Labels are not sufficient because they lack real enforcement, and most importantly, re-orient your goals at the highest levels. “As a buyer, if price is your North Star, you’re not heading in the direction of ethics and human rights,” Asbed said. “You are setting the direction of the race for others.  Are you racing to the top or racing to the bottom?”

That’s just a quick look at some of the dialogue in store for you if you check out the podcast in full.  So click on the video above, and check back soon for more breaking news from all the CIW’s work, from the Wendy’s boycott to the fight against COVID-19 in Florida’s farmworker community!