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.


One thought on “Sprouting justice: a new kind of food certification

  1. Pingback: That’s a Wrap: Assignment Reflections – Beyond the Plate

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