First Person

Do you know who picks your fruits and vegetables?

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Why we founded the Equitable Food Initiative—and how you can join us in making food safer from farm to fork.

Guest blogger Guadalupe Gamboa is a senior program officer in Oxfam’s US regional office and a founder of the Equitable Food Initiative. In May, he will receive the Shelley Davis Memorial Award for 2014 from Farmworker Justice. Read Gamboa’s blog about working with Cesar Chavez here.

Say you’ve just chosen a carton of fresh strawberries or a bunch of broccoli in the supermarket. You notice on the label that it’s grown right here in the US. But what do you know about the women and men working in the fields–the ones who hand-pick 85 percent of our fruits and vegetables? Are they paid fairly? What are their working conditions like?

To me these aren’t abstract questions. My parents were small farmers in Mexico who came to Texas in the 1930s. My mom stayed home with nine kids, and my dad worked in a citrus nursery in Texas until a bad freeze hit in the 1940s. We packed up two families in the back of a flatbed truck and headed to Washington, where there was plenty of work for folks willing to stoop to pick the “row crops” such as asparagus, sugar beets, and mint.

Our whole family would migrate with the harvest season along the Pacific coast in the truck: we’d stay in Washington through late July for the beets and the mint, then head to Oregon for the string beans, then to California for the cotton in the winter (before it was mechanized, when I was in about fourth grade). We lived in labor camps; they were pretty bad. I remember going to work very young, picking string beans and cotton and paid by the pound. In the spring, we’d get up at dawn, go to the fields and thin the sugar beets, and then go to school. In the summer, we’d all be out in the fields from 6am to 5pm, with an hour for lunch.

Although my mother and father never had a day of schooling in their lives, they drummed in our heads that if we didn’t want to stay farmworkers, we had to get an education.  I went to junior college in Yakima Valley in the 1960s, and then to the University of Washington, where I worked with United Farm Workers (UFW) on the grape boycott. Later, I went to law school, and went on to work for farmworkers’ rights with groups like the UFW and now Oxfam America.

To make a real difference, we realized we needed purchasing power behind our efforts. So Oxfam helped start the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI). EFI brings together workers, growers, and retailers in a collaborative effort to produce better fruits and vegetables. As produce farms comply with EFI standards—for improved working conditions, pesticide management, and food safety—the entire food system benefits. Consumers can buy food that’s safer and better. When workers enjoy better conditions, turnover is lower and the workforce is more productive. And retailers benefit too, because they get the assurance of a safe food supply and ethical conditions.

For example, Costco is one of our partners, and when our discussions with Costco began, the main produce guy there said he didn’t know what was going on in the fields; he had no way to verify the way it was grown. He embraced the idea of certification—of decent working conditions, good wages, and safe food handling.

After many years struggling to improve the lives of farmworkers in this country, I have great hope for EFI, and its promise to make a lasting difference for these people who work so hard to bring food to our tables. We have an obligation to figure out the best way to ensure that they have decent work conditions and good wages, at the same time that our food supply gets better and safer.

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