The “Elephant” in the Farm Bill: Farmworker Welfare

Written in Spring of 2018 prior to the adoption of the latest Farm Bill. Unfortunately this didn’t make it on to the agenda at the House or Senate, but we did succeed in bending the ear of one state rep… read on!

Co-authored with the phenomenal Emanuelle Klachky

After a five-day hunger strike outside the headquarters of the Wendy’s fast-food chain, a crowd of farmworkers began marching through Manhattan to deliver a message: time’s up on the unfair treatment and exploitation of farmworkers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization fighting for farmworker rights, organized the demonstration last March after Wendy’s refused to sign their fair food agreement. By signing on with CIW, Wendy’s would have agreed to enact humane labor standards and fair wages for farmworkers in their tomato suppliers’ operations; they said no. CIW’s “Time’s Up Wendy’s March” highlights one of the most pressing issues facing our country – and it’s much bigger than Wendy’s tomato supply chain.

Farmworkers are the backbone of U.S. agriculture and are essential to our nation’s food supply, yet there is no mention of farm labor standards within the 1,000 pages of the Farm Bill, the comprehensive piece of legislation governing our food and agriculture policies. With Congress currently redrafting this omnibus bill, it is time to address the “elephant” in the Farm Bill: farmworker welfare.

The Farm Bill was initially created in 1933 to stabilize crop prices and support farmers during the Great Depression, and has since evolved to reflect emerging issues within agriculture and food policy. The existing Farm Bill includes numerous regulations to protect both animals and wildlife conservation, yet no such measures exist for the 1 million farmworkers without whom the agricultural sector would crumble. With over 70% of farmworkers born outside of the U.S. and – nearly half of those undocumented – farmworkers are an extremely vulnerable population. They are excluded from national labor laws that protect workers’ rights, and are often subjected to poor working conditions, job instability, and unpaid wages.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, U.S. Representative for Oregon’s 3rd congressional district, thinks that farmworker welfare belongs in the food and farm legislative agenda. “Federal programs should meet the needs of farmworkers, employers, and consumers to help them work within the system and ensure they are treated fairly,” said the Congressman in a recent interview. He has endorsed proposed bill H.R. 2690, the Agricultural Worker Program Act, to safeguard farm workers from deportation by allowing individuals to earn a “blue card”.

The agriculture industry is dependent upon migrant labor, and increasing immigration control has led to a growing labor shortage, resulting in crops often being left on the ground. Clearly, immigration and agriculture are tightly related, which might lead to the argument that farm labor falls under immigration policy and does not belong in the Farm Bill. To be sure, both immigration and labor laws need to be reformed to protect agricultural workers from being exploited or living in fear while working to put food on our plates. The Agricultural Worker Program Act and other state-specific initiatives are steps in the right direction.

Still, the Farm Bill should acknowledge agriculture’s dependence on immigrant workers and institute controls at the national level to ensure their fair treatment. Some farms have opted into various non-governmental programs that offer special certification for fair labor practices. Programs such as the Agricultural Justice Project and the Equitable Food Initiative outline labor standards that recognize and protect the rights of workers throughout the supply chain, starting with farmworkers. But providing fair labor practices should not be done solely for the sake of a market-premium certification. The Farm Bill should use these models to mandate basic rights for agricultural workers, and impose penalties for non-compliance. If the USDA can oversee the certification of organic produce, they can also implement a fair labor certification, with these programs providing the blueprint.

Congressman Blumenauer touched the heart of the matter when he said, “[Farmworker’s] living and working conditions reflect both the health of our food system and how we, as a country, treat each other.” Now that the redrafting of the Farm Bill is upon us, it is time to take our rally cry from Wendy’s doorstep to the halls of Congress: time’s up on excluding farmworker welfare from the Farm Bill.

Let My People Eat Poison-Free: Calling on Judge Chhabria to approve lawsuits against Monsanto

My latest Op Ed submission. Disclaimer: this may hit a nerve….

Ever the hotbed for political action, San Francisco is currently ground zero for a heated federal court hearing on the safety of a weed-killing chemical called glyphosate. This chemical is an active ingredient used in Monsanto’s branded Roundup, one of the world’s leading herbicides. More than 375 lawsuits are pending against Monsanto, filed by people alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto covered up the risks.1 U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria is presiding over this case,  allowing evidence only from experts in cancer science to inform the argument. Ultimately, he will decide if the lawsuits move forward in court. Although a shadow was cast over the plaintiffs arguing against Monsanto when Judge Chhabria referred to epidemiology, the study of disease determinants, as a “loosey-goosey” and “highly subjective field”2, there is by-and-large sufficient evidence linking glyphosate to negative health impacts. It is time that we finally put a stop to spraying glyphosate on our food and surrounding environment.

Introduced in 1974, glyphosate was touted as one of the safest of all pesticides ever brought to market. In fact, Monsanto declared Roundup to be as safe as table salt.3 And so, Roundup became the world’s leading weed killer, being used mostly on crops, but also in city parks, on school playgrounds and on homeowners’ lawns. Studies show that glyphosate is now present in all levels of the food chain, including in water, plants, animals, and even in humans.4 In a paper published in JAMA in 2017, researchers found increasing levels of glyphosate in the urine of 70 patients living in Southern California over a 23 year period.5 Even more recent, earlier this month a study was published reporting over 90% of pregnant women tested were found to have detectable levels of glyphosate in their urine. Higher glyphosate urine levels were significantly correlated with shortened gestational length.7 As exposure to this chemical has increased, so too has the prevalence of cancers and other negative health outcomes with mounting evidence pointing to glyphosate as an associated cause.

Despite Monsanto’s attempts to stamp out the science against glyphosate, in March 2015, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) did an in-depth review of many scientific studies and concluded that glyphosate had a positive association with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.In the few decades leading up to this study review, non-Hodgkin lymphoma had steadily increased to become the tenth most common cancer worldwide, with nearly 386,000 new cases diagnosed in 2012.3 Their reviews produced evidence that glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor, causing DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells. Once released, the IARC findings were heavily contested, with Monsanto pointing to other recent studies showing glyphosate to be safe. However, documents have been found in which Monsanto executives discussed “ghostwriting” scientific papers to their favor, as well as paying experts who would lend credibility in their defense of glyphosate.3

Yet even before the IARC report, a separate systematic review of literature on the effects of pesticide use on chronic health outcomes was conducted in Canada by a group of family physicians, cancer specialists and epidemiologists. Back in 2007, their review included a well-designed study that found elevated risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma with exposure to glyphosate.8 While glyphosate is not banned in Canada, starting in 2019 they will be instituting new  measures to reduce human exposure by mandating products that contain glyphosate to have labels with explicit directions to avoid spraying in areas of human activity.9 Across the globe, doctors and health specialists recommend, if not downright demand, that we discontinue using glyphosate.

However, with Roundup being the most widely used herbicide worldwide – in the United States alone, over 1.8 million tons of glyphosate ingredient have been applied since it hit the market in 19746 – it’s no wonder Monsanto has taken such extreme measures to protect its asset. But if we continue to allow corporate interests to direct and dictate the science that safeguards our health, then we are agreeing to be the test cases for their chemical experiments. Right now, Judge Chhabria is the gatekeeper in this long battle for our health to come before corporate profit. His approval of the case would mean we are one step closer to ridding ourselves of this toxic chemical. Therefore, I urge Judge Chhabria to look at the science as well as the death toll – how many more people need to become ill or die before we realize the err in our ways?

Approve the case, Judge Chhabria, and let’s put an end to spraying poison on our food.

Map from the U.S. Geological Survey.


  1. US Right to Know. (2018). The Monsanto Papers: MDL Roundup (Glyphosate) Cancer Case Key Documents & Analysis.
  2. Rosenblatt, J. (2018, March 14). Monsanto Judge Says Expert Testimony Against Roundup Is ‘Shaky’.
  3. Gillam, Carey. (2017). Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science. Washington, DC. Island Press.
  4. The Detox Project. (2018). Glyphosate in Food & Water.
  5. Galindo, Y. (2017, October 24). Exposure to Glyphosate, Chemical Found in Weed Killers, Increased Over 23 Years.
  6. Benbrook, C. (2016, February 2). Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and globally.
  7. Parvez, S., Gerona R., Proctor C., Friesen, M., Ashby, J., Reiter, J., Lui, Z., Wichester, P. (2018, March 9). Glyphosate exposure in pregnancy and shortened gestational length: a prospective Indiana birth cohort study.
  8. Bassil, K., Vakil, C., Sanborn, M., Cole, D., Kaur, J., Kerr, K. (2007, October). Cancer health effects of pesticides.
  9. CBC News. (2017, April 28). Glyphosate labels to change, Health Canada Announces.

Tomorrow I eat my words… and nothing else.

“What can we do to help?”

This was the question one of my classmates asked Gerardo Reyes Chávez, a leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Gerardo was being televised into our class that day from New York where he was preparing for a week-long boycott of Wendy’s starting tomorrow, March 12. The CIW is an incredible organization founded in 1993 by laborers working in the tomato fields of Florida. It began with a small group of people who came together in desperation to discuss what they could do to improve the poverty wages and abuses they were experiencing in the fields. As word about this organization grew within the community, more and more people started coming to the meetings, sharing their stories of abuse, harassment and exploitation.  In 1998, CIW organized a work boycott in three different tomato-farming communities and a month-long hunger strike camped across the lawn from a Publix Grocery store to demand a 1 cent raise for each pound of tomatoes they picked. 1 cent. This raise would still not bring their wages up to poverty levels, but it would translate to relatively better financial security for the farmworkers. Publix refused to even listen to CIW’s requests. Nevertheless, CIW persevered, shinning the spotlight on other food retailers and restaurants who make profits from the exploitation of their labor. Through tireless efforts and unshakeable determination over the years, CIW has succeeded in enlisting food chains such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Whole Foods, Subway, Trader Joe’s and Chipotle in their Fair Food Program, a model they established based on worker-driven social responsibility.

Now, CIW is looking at Wendy’s, and their message is particularly salient. In honor of International Women’s day (March 8), the #MeToo movement and the countless women working in the fields and food industry, CIW and nearly 100 farmworkers are setting up camp outside the hedge fund offices of Wendy’s Board Chair Nelson Peltz on Park Avenue in the heart of Manhattan.  For five days they will go without food as part of the  “Freedom Fast” to protest Wendy’s unconscionable failure to join the rest of the fast-food industry in fighting sexual violence against women in its tomato supply chain. Sexual assault towards migrant workers in the agriculture sector is disgustingly common. Given that many of these women are in position of very little power, with fear of deportation, being separated from their families or retaliation from their abuser if they speak up, much of the assault goes without consequence. 

So my classmate’s question, what can we do to help, was one many of us in the room had upon learning of these horrendous truths about our food system. And Gerardo’s answer cut straight to the core:

Participate, he said.

But don’t do it out of pity for us.

Don’t do it because you feel sorry.

Do it because… you owe us.

You see, Gerardo has been working in the fields since he was 11. He’s worked on large agricultural operations in Florida picking oranges, tomatoes, and watermelons. He joined CIW in 2000 when his roommates, who had previously escaped a violent slavery operation hidden in the swamp south of Immokalee, Florida, invited him to come to the CIW’s community meetings. Yes, you read that right: slavery.

Here’s the sad truth: We are taught that the 13th amendment abolished slavery in 1865 and we talk about slavery today as if it were a blemish in our country’s history. The reality, however, is that modern-day slavery in the United States still exists. There are people, right now, who are picking the food that you may eat later this week who have been forced into involuntary servitude. (If you don’t believe me, watch this.) Even those workers who are receiving what some may call “income”, are getting less than poverty level wages. This is not enough to support oneself, let alone provide for a family. In 2001, the Department of Labor even issued a report to Congress, stating: “Production of fruits and vegetables has increased and global demand for American produce continues to grow, but agricultural worker earnings and working conditions are either stagnant or in decline.” “Farm workers not only lost ground relative to other workers in the private sector, they lost ground absolutely.”

And yet, these are the people who are feeding us. These farmworkers are responsible for the food in our grocery stores, the cans of peaches that are in your cabinet, the peanut butter you put on your kid’s sandwich, the Thanksgiving turkey you share with your family, the tomato on your restaurant burger. These are the people on whom our food supply depend!

So yes, you’re damn right, Gerardo, we owe you.

With that, to show my solidarity with our farmworkers and participate in the demand to end sexual abuse in agriculture, end exploitation of farmworkers, end slavery, I am joining CIW in their first day of fasting. Starting 7pm tonight through 7pm tomorrow I will go without food in support of the Freedom Fast. I will call Nelson Peltz Monday morning to tell him that he has an incredible opportunity to join other leaders in our food system in a movement towards equality and justice – this is the future, Mr. Peltz, and you have the chance to lead the way.

And you, dear reader, I want you to know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I want you to think deeply about your role as a consumer – we all play a part in this. I also want to invite you to participate as well. CIW offers many ways to show your support on their website. But even just sharing this information is a start. We need to wake up to these unacceptable realities in our food system. We need to make decisions (with our dollars and our votes) and make demands (with our voices and our actions) to end this human rights crisis in our country.

Here’s your chance. Here’s how you can help:

1) If you’re in NY, join thousands of Fair Food activists for the Time’s Up Wendy’s March on March 15! 

2) Call Wendy’s Board Chairman Nelson Peltz on Monday, March 12  between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. at 212- 451-3000. (Here’s a sample call-in script!)

3) Organize a solidarity action at your local Wendy’s from March 11-15!

Plan your own creative action at a Wendy’s restaurant near you to coincide with the Freedom Fast.  Whether you organize a picket, march, letter delivery or vigil, your action will help speed the day when we can end sexual harassment and assault in the fields!  Please see our Creative Actions Guide for ideas and inspiration. Contact Julian at to let us know that you’ll be planning your own Wendy’s action. 

4) Send in a statement of solidarity for the Freedom Fasters! 

Write a few words of support to share with farmworker and ally fasters during the “solidarity hour” at the Freedom Fast site outside of the offices of Wendy’s Board Chair.​  Local groups or individuals are invited to share their statement in person.  If you aren’t able to join us in New York City, we will read your statement out loud during one of the days of the fast, to give a fresh wave of strength to those fasting.  Please send your statements and any questions to Patricia at by Sunday, March 11.

5) Donate to support the Freedom Fast and Time’s Up Wendy’s March! 

Make a contribution to advance the swiftly growing movement to end sexual violence against farmworker women!  Every donation goes a long way to strengthen the growing Wendy’s Boycott to bring the world’s third-largest hamburger chain into the Fair Food Program – and to realize farmworkers’ vision for dignity and respect in the U.S. agricultural industry and beyond. Donate today! 

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Join thousands of farmworkers, students and consumers of conscience in refusing to patronize Wendy’s until the world’s third largest hamburger chain joins the Fair Food Program!


That’s a Wrap: Assignment Reflections

If you can recall, a month ago I wrote a post called The Blog Assignment. In that post, I explained the impetus for starting this blog was a very cool mid-term assignment for a very cool class I’m taking this semester called the Sociology and Political Ecology of Agro-food Systems. The directions were to visit two farmers markets, two urban gardens/farms, two grocery stores and one food pantry in the Bay Area and create a blog about my experience. I wasn’t sure when I sat down to bring this site to life which farms or which markets I would visit. I wasn’t sure how I would structure each post, or what angle I would take. And I definitely wasn’t planning on publicizing my site, nor expecting the incredible feedback I’ve gotten from readers. But I guess that’s all part of the adventure, and if you know me, you know I love a good adventure. Yo ho!

It’s been exactly one month to the date from when I started Beyond the Plate and I’ve somehow managed to visit all seven places! (Whew!) My first stop on this local food system adventure led me to a very unique farmers market as well as a sweet community garden tucked away in a quiet corner of the bustling Mission District of San Francisco. My visit to the Free Farm Stand and All in Common Community Garden revealed the organizing power of a few committed individuals who’ve prioritized feeding their community with healthy, locally grown produce. While it takes an incredible amount of work to gather and grow all the food that is offered at the stand, as well as a tremendous effort to coordinate all of the volunteers and supplies needed for a weekly market as well as garden maintenance, everyone I met at these two locations were laughing, smiling and clearly enjoying taking part in meaningful work. img_4138.jpgThe same could be said about my visit to the Gill Tract Farm near Berkeley, a 10 acre plot owned by the University of California with a history of resistance and fierce perseverance to maintain the land in order to grow food for the community. Dirtying your hands with the soil from which food will grow that will feed the people in your community is powerful, honorable work. I am deeply grateful to these people for giving so much of their time and energy to nourish their community and for sharing their story with me.


My next stop landed me in the middle of San Francisco’s largest farmers market located at the famous Ferry Building, talking food justice and farmworker’s rights with the Farm Manager of Swanton Berry Farms. While the push for using organic farming practices and fair methods for international trade of our fruits and vegetables has been popularized, the important conversation missing from the food justice movement is the treatment of the workers who are doing the back breaking work of planting, harvesting and tending to the food that sustains us all. With my visit to the Ferry Building Farmers Market, I became aware of the Agricultural Justice Project and the Food Justice Certificate program that has put forth standards of fair and humane treatment for farmworkers. I encourage everyone to familiarize yourself with this and start asking your grocer, restaurant manager or market vendor if their produce is Food Justice Certified.

Screen Shot 2018-02-22 at 6.44.09 PMMy next two destinations were quite a different experience from my previous stops on the food system track, but likely the places we are all more familiar with: Whole Foods and Safeway. Large corporate grocers feed the majority of the US population and employ all sorts of marketing messages to vie for your food dollars. With Whole Foods being known to sell unblemished local and organic produce but at a high premium, I wanted to test if the “Whole Paychecks” reputation was actually true. Interestingly, you all were curious as well because my post on the investigation results had over 100 views! While I don’t claim the produce at Whole Foods is anything remotely close to “cheap”, I think we were all surprised to learn that the selection and price for some of the most common organic staple items were actually less expensive at Whole Foods than at Safeway.

My final stop for the food system adventure assignment was an interesting example of the intersection of some of the places I had previously visited. At the Berkeley Food Pantry, you can find boxes and cans of food from Whole Foods as well as fresh picked produce from the Gill Tract Farm. As a means to provide food to Berkeley residents who are in need of extra support to feed themselves and their families, the Berkeley Food Pantry is also keeping perfectly good food from going to waste since oftentimes grocery stores and markets have to throw away items that are near expiration or aren’t selling quick enough. The Berkeley Food Pantry is run almost entirely by volunteers and helps to put food on the plates of nearly 2000 Berkeley and Albany residents each month. ‘Thank you’ just doesn’t feel sufficient.

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As this blog assignment project comes to a close, I wanted share my sincere thanks to everyone who gave me their time and shared their stories with me. It has been an incredible privilege to be entrusted with people’s stories and to share what I have learned. I am also deeply grateful to everyone who has read my postings, left comments and participated in the conversations on social media. Thank you for the support and encouragement.

So… that’s a wrap folks!


Just kidding! 🙂

I’m having too much fun with this. Plus, it seems you all are interested in learning more about our food system (my people!) and I am eager to share what I am learning throughout my scholastic journey. So I’ll continue to update you with riveting news (and of course my completely unbiased opinions… ha!) pertaining to your food and how it winds up on your plate. I invite and encourage you to leave comments, agree or disagree, tell me what you know, and share! share! share! the information as these topics impact ALL of us!

And if you’ve made it this far down the post (gold star!), I’ll leave you with a fun treat: my favorite vegetable joke!

Here it goes:

Why do peppers make bad friends?




Because they get jalapeño business!


Tee hee,


A peek inside the pantry

Tucked away on the bottom level of the Berkeley Friends Quaker Church, is a small sunny room containing shelves and fridges stocked with food. The walls are painted a warm yellow, and a few of the branches from the passion fruit vine outside have snuck their way in through the window slats, creating a feeling as though you’ve just stepped into a tiny slice of Eden. While in reality this isn’t the promised land, it is however, the source of hope and nourishment for many folks living in Berkeley who find themselves in a tough situation without enough food to eat. The Berkeley Food Pantry may seem small on the outside, but its impact is huge.

Dharma Galang, Berkeley Food Pantry
Dharma Galang, Director of Berkeley Food Pantry

As I mentioned in my post about the Gill Tract Community Farm, I heard about the Berkeley Food Pantry (BFP) when two folks showed up to the farm to pick  fresh produce for the Monday afternoon pantry offering. That evening I went home and emailed the pantry to see if I could pay them a visit. This week I had the privilege and pleasure of sitting across the tiny registration desk from the Director of the Berkeley Food Pantry (BFP), Dharma Galang. Dharma’s warm smile matched the brightness of the room.

Before we settled in, Dharma introduced me to a couple of the volunteers who were helping to set up for the afternoon pantry hours. There are only two paid employees at the BFP. All others work as volunteers, donating their time and resources to ensure the pantry stays up and running. Since 1969, the BFP has been providing emergency groceries to local community members during their time of need. It all started with just one woman from the Friends Church who began handing out cans of food from her home. The need quickly outgrew the capacity for this woman to manage out of her house, so the church opened up this space and BFP has been there ever since. Now the BFP serves packaged and fresh food 3 days a week to nearly 2,000 people a month.

Information for BFP guests to get CalFresh assistance.

While Berkeley is known as a rather affluent community, nearly 20% of the population live below the federal poverty level (that’s approximately $12,000/year for a single person, or $25,000/year for a family of 4). Many of these people are disabled, which makes accessing food all the more difficult. With California’s SNAP program, called CalFresh, low-income individuals can apply for EBT debit cards to buy food. But what happens if that money isn’t enough? The end of the month comes and you have nothing to put on your kids’ dinner plates? That’s why places like BFP are essential to the strength and wellbeing of our communities.

Sitting next to the cans of organic pinto beans and bags of rice, I asked Dharma where they get all of the food they hand out. She told me about a few sources, starting first with the Alameda County Community Food Bank. The Food Bank serves as the hub, receiving shipments of USDA supplied food. BFP, along with the other food pantries in the county, gets a portion of this supply and is allotted one free shipment from the Bank each month (although they have to pay a $100/month membership fee… the concept of “free” is so interesting in this country). On top of the USDA monthly shipment, BFP goes to the Food Bank’s grocery outlet and shops for supplies at highly subsidized prices. This isn’t your average grocery store, mind you. As Dharma explained, this grocery outlet is stocked with whatever surplus products the government has bought from large producers in order to keep the market stable (just you wait until I get to writing about our government’s subsidy and commodity programs! It’s a nightmare to say the least).  Apparently there’s been a boom in chicken processing of late because Dharma said there’s a ton of whole chickens available at a cheap price. Usually chicken is a high ticket item.

Food on the shelves at the Berkeley Food Pantry.

Outside of the Food Bank’s shipments and grocery store, BFP gets packaged food from the Grocery Rescue Program. This program partners with local retailers to offload excess food items or items that can no longer be put out on shelves. Instead of wasting perfectly good food, these items get sent to pantries around the county. She mentioned both Target and Whole Foods participate in this program.

And last but certainly not least, BFP receives donations of produce from our AMAZING local farmers and backyard gardeners. Oh how I love our farmers!! (fireworks, balloons, all the emojis!)

As for funding, BFP gets most of it’s financial support from individual donors and grants. (Donations can be made here. Nudge, nudge.) There have been times in the past where they have had to close there doors due to lack of funding, but thankfully some generous hearts in the community helped them to re-open. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen again. (Just in case you didn’t click the first time, here‘s your chance again.) For all my Bay Area peeps, Triple Rock Brewery is hosting a fundraiser this month… you’ll be hearing from me with the details!

Towards the end of our interview, Dharma walked me around the pantry and into their back storage area which was stacked ten feet high with cans, boxes and all sorts of food items. Imagine all the hungry bellies this food will go to feed. Berkeley Food Pantry…. thank you!!

As I stepped out of the door shortly after 11am, there were already a couple of folks waiting outside for the pantry to open at 2pm. I offered a smile and a nod, receiving the same in return, and jumped on my bike to head to class.


The investigation results

Pull out your magnifying glass and trench coat folks, we’re going in to detective mode! You’ll want to get up to speed on the background of this investigation by reading my last post Greenwashing your dollars if you haven’t done so already (actually, you should just go ahead and read all my posts as they contain riveting information and insightful perspectives. #ShamelessSelfPromotion )

What we are diving in to today is whether shopping at Whole Foods for our organic staples, now that it’s been acquired by online retailer giant Amazon, is actually more expensive than shopping for organics at Safeway. Does the Whole Foods moniker “Whole Paychecks” still hold up? Let’s see!

IMG_4380First stop: Whole Foods.

I sauntered in to the Berkeley Whole Foods on Gillman St. on a sunny afternoon. As I walked in, I snapped this photo of their produce section. Notice the large sign above the refrigerated produce ‘Supporting Local Organic Farms’. Nice touch. Turns out Whole Foods has a Local Producer Loans Program. According to the Whole Foods website, they hand out $25 million a year in low-interest loans to help local producers bring their products to market. During my undercover jaunt through the aisles, I noticed this shelf-talker promoting how the loan program assisted a San Francisco-based ice cream producer. (Mmm, honey graham ice cream… ).

WF Local Producer Loan
Whole Foods in-store advertisement of their Local Producer Loan Program.

But, being the good detective that I am, I didn’t want the shelf to do all the talking so I turned to Julie, a friendly employee in the Whole Body department. I asked Julie what her observations have been since the Amazon takeover. She said that as an employee, she hasn’t seen a huge difference. Yes, there have been some price reductions, mostly in the ‘grocery’ and ‘produce’ departments (though she did point out that Tom’s deodorant prices have gone down! Get it while it’s hot!). She said that online prices aren’t competing with in-store prices, so there’s no disincentive to do your grocery shopping IRL (millennial speak for “in real life”. You’re welcome.) When I asked her about local products, she sighed, and said actually she has seen her store purchasing less local products since the acquisition. Dun, dun, duuuun!! She elaborated by saying that in fact it’s part of a bigger strategy to offer more “consistency” throughout all the stores. (But I want my honey graham ice cream!) Seeing as how Whole Foods’ pitch leans heavily on their support of local producers, I’m curious to see how this dichotomy plays out. (Note: Julie said that pulling local products off the shelves is her least favorite part of the Amazon acquisition. Thanks Julie, that goes for me too.). I continued my undercover moseying through the store, snapping photos of some of what I think of as ‘staple’ food items. Not actually needing any groceries myself, I felt oddly guilty for going in to the store, ‘snooping’ around and not buying anything. So I purchased a REBBL Mocha Elixer  (fabulous marketing!) and walked briskly to my car.

Next stop: Safeway.

It was evening time when I pulled in to the Berkeley Safeway parking lot on Shattuck Ave. The store was lit up and I was pleasantly surprised how cozy-like the inside felt compared to the impersonal coldness I often associate with major supermarkets. Flooring and lighting are key (says my inner interior designer)! You can see, much like Whole Foods, Safeway has called out their organic produce. Upon closer inspection, I found their selection to be lacking compared to that of Whole Foods, as is evidenced in my comparison chart below where organic Romaine lettuce was not offered at Safeway.


Oddly, there was hardly anyone in the store. That went for customers and employees alike. No friendly Julia to covertly extract strategic information from in the deodorant aisle. Maybe they heard I was coming and went on their break. Cover blown. Regardless, I came for the price tags and that information I successfully apprehended.

This morning I sat down to compare the evidence, and low and behold we have a winner!!! The items I price-compared included romaine lettuce, bananas, apples, packaged spinach, milk, eggs and bread. I controlled for price differences between brands by comparing the same brand at both stores (ie. Organic Girl packaged spinach and Dave’s Killer Bread), and comparing the prices of the private label products (ie. Whole Foods’ branded milk and eggs, compared to Safeway’s branded milk and eggs). Without further ado, my fellow sleuths, here are the results:


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Whole Foods for the win!!! Surprised? I have to admit I was a bit surprised too. The difference isn’t a lot, but it does start to challenge the ‘Whole Paycheck’ stereotype. However, we could argue that both stores are over-priced, catering to a more affluent population and thereby limiting access to pesticide/herbicide/antibiotic/poison-free food for lower income populations. But that’s a topic for another post. 🙂




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Greenwashing your dollars: Whole Foods vs. Safeway

The big news last June was that Amazon planned to purchase Whole Foods for $13.4 billion. This acquisition rocked the grocery industry, along with the morals of many Whole Foods shoppers (like myself) who felt justification in spending the high premium for convenient access to local and organic products – a hallmark of Whole Foods’ marketing pitch. But let’s be honest. Buying “local” at Whole Foods is a stretch. However, with it now being under new management of the largest online retailer in the world, there is no longer the cloak of “but all the stores are managed regionally” to hide behind. So what does the busy conscious food-consumer do? Is shopping at Whole Foods now no different than buying organic at Safeway? Rumor has it that Safeway prices are better and consumer demand is driving more and more organic options on to their shelves.

I smell an investigation!!

I’ll present here for you, my devoted audience of maybe two (thanks for reading Mom!), some information I’ve dug up on our two challengers: Whole Foods vs. Safeway.  I’ll then venture out in to the wild to do some hands-on investigative journaling and report back my findings in my next post. Nancy Drew would be so proud.


Whole Foods Market An American supermarket chain that specializes in selling food products without artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, and hydrogenated fats. It has 473 stores in North America and the United Kingdom.

As mentioned above, Whole Foods was acquired by Amazon; the deal made final in August of 2017. The pledge to lower prices on best-selling grocery staples (think eggs, bananas, lettuce, apples, etc.) was upheld as promised and markdowns can be seen in stores nationwide. Amazon is also reportedly working on integrating a discount for Amazon Prime members who will receive “special savings and in-store benefits”. CEO of Amazon Worldwide Consumer, Jeff Wilke, said, “We’re determined to make healthy and organic food affordable for everyone. Everybody should be able to eat Whole Foods Market quality – we will lower prices without compromising Whole Foods Market’s long-held commitment to the highest standards.” Sounds good to me, but as we know, in our world of capitalism, anytime prices are cut, someone somewhere is picking up the tab. In this case, it seems like local brands are bearing the greatest brunt. Higher costs for shelf space, elevated minimum-sales requirements and new fees to have third-party hosted product demos are making it impossible for many small businesses with items on Whole Foods shelves to turn a profit. Lindsey Rosenberg, the CEO and founder of Cherryvale Farms, a supplier of baking mixes to Whole Foods told Business Insider, “It’s a whole new level of challenges for small brands. It’s either go big or go home now.”

While we may be saying a sad good-bye to our favorite local goods at Whole Foods (though I strongly encourage you to seek out other retailers that carry local brands), one thing set to remain intact is the 365 Everyday Value brand which is Whole Foods’ product line of low(ish) cost “natural” and organic goods.

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Whole Foods online landing page. Get your passion while it’s fresh!

Also sticking around is the feel-good ambience Whole Foods is famous for. I have to admit, I love the Whole Foods shopping experience. Perfect looking produce stocked high, lots of natural lighting and soft green tones, wide clean aisles and friendly employees who seem to always be standing right behind me when I have a question.  It’s an art, really. But nothing speaks more to the Whole Foods marketing and design experience than their current homepage. I mean, who doesn’t want to ‘find their passion’ while picking up the groceries?


safeway logo

Safeway An American supermarket chain founded in 1915. It is a subsidiary of Albertsons after being acquired by private equity investors led by Cerberus Capital Management in January 2015. As of 2014, Safeway had a total of 1,335 stores in the United States and 195 in Mexico with its partnership with Casa Ley.

Couched as your everyday neighborhood market, Safeway is actually part of the 3rd largest grocery retailer by market share (first is WalMart with 14.5% of market share, second is Kroger with 7.17% and then Alberstons with 4.5%, according to GlobalData Retail, 2016). Taking a page from the Whole Foods playbook, in 2005 Safeway launched their own line of organic products, O Organics. This includes items like meat, eggs, dairy, produce, coffee and other prepared snack foods. Their claim is “to make high quality organics affordable and accessible to everyone, everywhere”. Sounding familiar? It’s a similar story to Whole Foods in that with the current supply and distribution model of these huge retail chains, there isn’t any room for small local farmers and businesses to get in to the game. Media Strategist Ali Hart put it well, “This sad fate of the American farmer does not bode well for the small organic players who have paved this path from niche to mainstream with innovative approaches; they created the demand that Safeway is now intent on meeting.”

Ok, good to know, but in the big picture buying organic is still better than buying conventional, right? And if we don’t have time, access or money to shop at a local famers market, which of these two food-retailing behemoths is the better option for good pricing and quality?

Don’t worry team. Jessamyn Wead is on the case. Stay tuned as the story is revealed…

Sprouting justice: a new kind of food certification

It’s been two weeks since my visit to the Free Farm Stand in San Francisco’s Mission District (you can read up on that post here). Much of the produce handed out at the Sunday Free Farm Stand comes from donations of leftover veggies from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which takes place every Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday at San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Building. Despite all of the hype about the Saturday Ferry Plaza Market being one of the nation’s most lively and scenic markets,  I admittedly haven’t been out there to see what all the fuss is about. So this morning, I decide to boldly go where thousands have gone before and headed west across the Bay Bridge.

Standing on the outskirts of the Ferry Plaza Market was like looking down on to a bustling beehive – shoppers buying fresh produce from the vendors, families with strollers meandering from sample table to sample table, joggers leap-frogging their way through the crowd, and throngs of people lined up at the prepared food stands to get a taste of SF’s famous foodie-friendly cuisine – all happening against a backdrop of glistening bay waters and old-time jazz buskers playing their hearts out for tips and accolades. The hype is real.

Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, San Francisco


So into the masses I went, bopping along amidst the herd of tourists and market goers. One of my first stops was to catch a bit of David Little from Little Organic Farm give a cooking demo on how to turn his tomatoes and dry-farmed potatoes in to a sumptuous meal. (Dry farming: refers to crop production during a dry season, utilizing the residual moisture in the soil from the rainy season. Dry farming is not a yield maximization strategy; rather it allows nature to dictate the true sustainability of agricultural production in a region.) Rad!

Moving along down the busy walkway, my gaze fell upon a sign hanging in the corner of a modest produce stall: “Food Justice Certified”. I’m familiar with the different organic and fair trade certifications, but this was the first time I’d seen anything about food justice certification. Interest piqued, I decided to inquire within.

Standing across the table piled with jars of delicious looking jams, Barrett “Bear” Boaen, farm manager of Swanton Berry Farm generously gifted me over a half-hour of his time to talk about the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP). AJP is an organization working to promote farm and food labor equity through the creation of the Food Justice Certification program, a set of standards laid out in attempts to codify “social justice” in organic and sustainable agriculture.

From the AJP website:

We provide farms and food businesses with technical tools to improve work and trade practices from farm to retail, including extensive toolkits and templates, one-on-one technical assistance, and a stakeholder-driven certification program for high bar social justice standards — Food Justice Certification (FJC), the gold standard for labor and trade practices in North America. We support and partner with third-party certifiers and worker organizations that carry out the certification and inspection process for the FJC program. Food Justice Certified products can be found on grocery store shelves, farmers markets, CSAs and roadside stands. We maintain a Social Justice Fund, through which five percent of all grants received are set aside, and a portion is used to subsidize certification fees through our cost share program for small family farms and independent retailers and cooperatives that have excellent labor practices, but are experiencing economic hardship.

Swanton Berry Farm stand at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

Bear explained that as a Food Justice Certified farm, Swanton Berry Farm pays their farmworkers fair wages, offers health insurance, permits unionizing, and provides their workers with well-maintained housing among other things. He described how on many small-medium sized farms, farmworkers are often paid by “piece rate“. A system whereby workers get compensated based on the number of bags or buckets they pick of whatever product they are harvesting at the time. This oftentimes leads to workers not taking breaks and literally running themselves to points of extreme exhaustion. In this scenario, it’s possible for farmworkers to earn less than minimum wage depending upon the rate being offered and the complexity of harvesting the produce. Bear said that farmworkers paid through the piece rate method can only sustain the intensity of the labor for roughly 4 – 7 years before their bodies start to break down. “What do they do when that happens?” I asked. Bear’s straight-lipped silence told me everything.

Swanton Berry Farm is one of two farms that is Food Justice Certified in California. On one hand, I wanted to yell HALLELUJAH!! It’s about time that there is a system in place to hold farms and businesses accountable for treating their workers justly. On the other hand, I felt like screaming WTF?! Only TWO farms??? C’mon California, we can do better. Props to you Swanton for leading with your morals and serving as a model for other small farms to hopefully follow suit. All my berry bucks are now and forever more going into your (and your farmworkers) hands.

But that’s not all folks!

In addition to Swanton treating their workers fairly (which is abhorrent that this is the exception and not the rule), they also mindfully steward the land on which the farm sits. Of the 200 acres they cultivate, strawberries are planted on just 20. The other acreage is used to grow a variety of different crops, allowing for more nutrients to naturally build up in the soil while also utilizing the symbiotic relationship of companion plants to increase yield and prevent disease. For example, Bear said that by planting collards and green beans together, they get 1.7 times the yield than if they were to plant each crop separately. Seems like magic, but really it’s just letting nature work through her perfect design. Feeling immense gratitude for Swanton and AJP, I bid Bear and crew adieu and disappeared back in to the masses of tourists.

As I sit down to write this, I can’t help but to think of the many hands that touch our food before it reaches our plate; so many backs bend and brows sweat in order to make available the produce that sustains us. I walked away from the Ferry Plaza with a greater appreciation for the hardworking folks who spend their days in the field, as well as for those who support the fair and equitable treatment of our farmworkers. From here on out, I’ll be looking for the Food Justice Certified brand and directing my dollars there. I hope you will too.

Agricultural Justice Project’s Food Justice Certification.


Op Ed: Let’s call Trump’s SNAP budget cut proposal what it really is – a Weapon of Mass Destruction

Outraged by the Administration’s new budget proposal that includes massive cuts to many of the programs in place to protect human and environmental health, I wrote this handy-dandy Op Ed (my first ever!) to the SF Chronicle. It highlights my thoughts on Trump’s proposed cuts to SNAP, our nation’s food-aid service currently feeding 40 million Americans. Enjoy…

Let’s call Trump’s SNAP budget cut proposal what it really is:  a Weapon of Mass Destruction

Not all weapons of mass destruction come with a launch code; some are neatly written up as policy, aiming to slowly and deliberately take down their target. Earlier this week, the Trump administration laid out the blueprint for their latest assault on America with the proposal to slash billions of dollars to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP. The cut, which would start out by eliminating $17.2 billion from the budget in 2019, and continue to reduce the entire budget by 30 percent or $214 billion over the next ten years, would hit low-income families with children the hardest. As a Master’s student of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, I find Trump’s proposed changes to SNAP to be a dangerous threat to the health and wellbeing of our nation.

The hallmark of Trump’s new proposal is what the USDA is calling “America’s Harvest Box”, consisting of shelf-stable foods such as cereal, peanut butter, milk and canned vegetables. For SNAP recipients who receive over $90 a month towards food purchases, nearly half of their monetary benefit would be replaced with this pre-packaged box of commodity foods. Not only does this proposal violate the recipient’s freedom to make personal dietary choices – which can be shaped by cultural preferences, or religious and medical requirements – nutritionally speaking, the items suggested for the Harvest Box are processed foods known to contain high amounts of sugar, a major contributor to Type II diabetes.

According to the American Diabetes Association, 30 million children and adults in the United States are affected by diabetes. That’s 1 in 11 Americans. People with diabetes have health care costs that are 2.3 times greater than those without diabetes. The estimated total cost to the American public for the treatment of diabetes and prediabetes is $322 billion. Research has shown that diabetes is more prevalent in food-insecure households. It is unconscionable then, to prescribe this ‘one-size-fits-all’ food box to anyone, let along the population most at risk for developing this disease.  Furthermore, removing choices from SNAP beneficiaries whose lack of income already limits their opportunities and options, is not a solution to the problem. It detracts from ongoing efforts to increase participation in the SNAP program and improve nutrition outcomes for low-income Americans.

While the Trump administration’s stated goal is to reduce federal spending, their tactic to target low-income Americans is not only vile, it’s flawed. Lowering the SNAP budget and replacing dietary choices with a box of commodity goods will only impose more stress and poor health upon our nation’s most vulnerable populations, invariably driving up healthcare and social service costs. Instead, I urge the administration to get behind programs that will increase access to fresh produce for SNAP recipients. We’ve already seen pilot programs such as the Healthy Food Purchase program and Farmer’s Market Promotion program achieve success. Both programs have been shown to increase healthy food consumption and improve health for low-income Americans. Not only do healthier people have lower health care costs, they miss fewer days of work, lessening the need to rely on programs like SNAP. The Healthy Food Purchase pilot program, put forth in the 2008 Farm Bill, incentivizes the purchase of fruits and vegetables, whereby for each SNAP dollar spent on fruits and vegetables, participants receive 30 cents added to their balance. The Farmers Market Promotion program supported by the USDA, awards grants to local food markets which boosts their economic viability, translating in to more fresh produce that is accessible and affordable to a wider community.

The most promising action we can make is to increase the access to fresh produce for SNAP recipients; to limit and dictate what those receiving the benefits should eat not only detracts from this goal, it undermines the strength of this program and threatens the health of our nation.

Trump's 2019 Budget Proposal
From the Washington Post: The Trump administration is seeking to cut the Department of Agriculture’s discretionary budget by $3.5 billion, or 15 percent, while also slashing by $17 billion the funds available to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). The budget would also reduce federal crop insurance subsidies and cut spending for conservation programs and foreign food aid. Trump’s budget hits poor Americans the hardest.

Dirty Hands

My ongoing crusade in to the local food system here in the Bay area landed me just a few miles from my home in Berkeley this past Sunday at the UC Gill Tract. I’ve visited the Gill Tract once before to hear Miguel Alteri, professor of Agroecology at UC Berkeley and recent inductee in to Kyoto’s Earth Hall of Fame, speak about peasant farming and traditional foodways. This visit, however was the first time I had the opportunity to meander through the lush garden beds and learn a bit about the highly politicized past, present and future of this land.

My guides for the afternoon included my dear friend, gardener extraordinaire and mushroom foraging bad-ass, Bryan Bramlett along with the Gill Tract’s hard-working and deeply committed Farm Manager, Jon Hoffman.

The land the Gill Tract sits upon is owned by the University of California. I won’t go too far back in to the history of the land, but rest assured it follows the all too common story of colonialism and development. Interesting to note, however, is that UC Berkeley is a land-grant university, which means that it was established and funded by the US government to focus on agricultural teachings and research (who knew?!). So it was to my surprise to learn that the UC stonewalled a proposal put forth by faculty and students for the creation of a center for sustainable urban agriculture throughout the 90s and early 2000s. All the while, plant genetic research on corn was a booming Berkeley activity, and the land which originally spanned about 100 acres, was slowly being parceled off for development (high-rent housing, stores, experimental agriculture, etc.). #hmmm

This is where the story heats up. Ready?!

On Earth Day 2012, over 200 community members cut the chains to the fence surrounding the remaining acres of undeveloped land to “illegally” break ground and plant food. My kind of rebels! This became known as the Occupy the Farm movement.

The stated intent of the participants was to establish a sustainable farm to provide food to the local community. Participants argued that such a farm could play an important role in educating the local community about sustainable agricultural practices while helping to establish food sovereignty in the local community. The organizers emphasized that their intention was to create a working farm, rather than simply occupy the land.

There was backlash from the University which included engaging the police who at one point brought out bulldozers in an attempted threat to level the occupation. However, the occupation persisted and conversations with the University to establish the Gill Tract as a community supported farm ensued. The next year, 2013, the University entered in to a 10 year agreement to preserve the land for agricultural use, establishing the Gill Tract as a part of the formal agreement. Yay!

Miner's Lettuce
Miner’s lettuce aka winter purslane is an amazing wild superfood, high in Vitamin C!

But the struggle is ongoing. Ironically, the UC sold a piece of land bordering the Gill Tract to Sprouts, which recently erected a giant supermarket featuring “farm fresh produce”. I’ll tell ya, it doesn’t get much fresher than walking down the rows of red and yellow chard, loading your basket with food that was moments ago drawing nutrients from the soil, and all the while snacking on the Miner’s Lettuce popping up between the beds. As Bryan and I snacked he showed me around the BioMass Beds which utilizes a technique called hugelkultur to build up rich, healthy soil in which to grow nutritious food. Bryan, like almost all the folks who work with the land at the Gill Tract, is a volunteer. Depending upon the day of the week, the weather, or the events happening at the farm, there may be anywhere from 2 to 60 volunteers picking, pruning, digging, watering, etc. During my 2 hour visit, I met at least five of the nearly two dozen people I saw coming and going. There was a couple who stopped by to pick produce for the Berkeley Food Pantry (stay tuned for more on that), and a mom with her toddler daughter simply roaming through the garden, observing the the magic to be found amidst the kale forest and under strawberry leaves. There was also a group of volunteers hard at work plunging giant forks in to a recently cleared bed in preparation for a new planting cycle. That’s where I conducted my interview with Jon: knelt over the beds, forming rich earth in to a 3 foot wide row with a handmade wooden frame, speaking the story of the farm in to the soil as we moved along.

He asked if I wanted the 15 minute or the 2 hour version of the Gill Tract story. I opted for the 15 minute (which went for nearly an hour) and promised him (and myself) to come back without my recorder for a day of gardening and storytelling. Jon talked about the Occupy the Farm movement described above, as well as his extensive and in my opinion, heroic background in sustainable food production and education. He said that the Gill Tract is a place for all people – all colors, genders, faiths, and abilities. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Jon, “Why do you garden?” His response, half-jokingly: “instead of burning down banks, I decided to grow food”.

It seems that engaging in the act of growing healthy, wholesome, organic food for the community, one can find themselves ironically at odds with the law. But if you’re going to dip your hands into some dirty business, these are the best kind of dirty hands to have.