Over its 15-year evolution, the Equitable Food Initiative has gone from a conversation between farmworker advocates and retail buyers about labor abuses to a certification program launched in 2016, and now a workforce development tool for tackling the ongoing labor shortage.

Yet the not-for-profit organization covers just a sliver of the nation’s farms and it is still shaping its reputation after a tumultuous start.

The Costco Wholesale Corp. was the driving force behind EFI, partnering with Bon Appetit Management Co., a British food service company, as well as consumer advocates and labor leaders to launch the initiative in 2011. EFI’s first certifications for labor conditions, food safety and pest management went to fresh produce operations in California.

“EFI’s strange bedfellow approach was to recognize that consumers, retailers, workers and suppliers actually have many, very different interests,” EFI Executive Director Peter O’Driscoll told the state Board of Food and Agriculture recently.

“But the premise of EFI is that if we can find that intersection where their interests actually overlap, we can build a strong program of shared value and a win-win approach to solving these challenges in the industry.”

O’Driscoll acknowledged that conservative voices have lambasted EFI for being overly friendly to unions, while those on the left have criticized the organization for not embracing a fully unionized approach. EFI was viewed with suspicion as it came onto the scene, but O’Driscoll assured the board that the perception has changed as it has built a track record for creating value for growers.

Yet he also pointed out that the certifications have reached just 60 farms across the U.S., Mexico, Canada and Peru.

The slow adoption is due in part to the fact that EFI tried to set the most rigorous certification standards in the industry. The scope of the initiative is also limited by EFI’s small budget, which derives from a combination of state funding, philanthropic donations and user fees on services.

Peter ODriscollPeter O'Driscoll, Equitable Food Initiative

The comprehensive set of standards raised the eyebrows of Joe Garcia, a farm labor contractor who founded the Central Valley Farmworker Foundation. During the board meeting, he shared doubts about requiring growers to undergo annual audits to maintain the certification, particularly when California is already “the most over-regulated state in the country.”

O’Driscoll assured Garcia that EFI is attempting to address the challenge of audit fatigue through a “one-stop shop certification,” covering labor, food safety and integrated pest management in a single audit through a third-party certifying body.

The first operation to volunteer for EFI’s certification program was GoodFarms, a San Diego-based berry producer under the umbrella of Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce. Ernie Farley, a partner at A&W, said the company was drawn to EFI out of the prospect of instituting a broad culture change. He noted that while other certification programs offer easier standards to comply with, EFI brings the added value of having larger companies involved in the organization.

Farley warned that labor markets are changing drastically and stressed that producers of labor-intensive products should recognize that “those costs are not going to go anywhere but up.” He called it a smart business move to engage in improving the people and processes.

EFI has helped to identify workers who are good candidates for promotion within Misionero, a vertically-integrated operation known for its organic salad kits, with operations in the Central Coast. Vice President Pete Donlon said it has been “very, very rewarding” to see many of the company’s open positions filled internally.

Farley said the close workforce engagement has helped GoodFarms respond to intense pressure from large retail organizations for improving data transparency throughout the supply chain. 

Yet the slow uptick in certifications has propelled EFI to expand beyond its certification program and develop tools for enhancing communication between workers and employers, with the aim of improving conditions and identifying work efficiencies.

EFI is teaming up with the California Workforce Development Board and the Labor and Workforce Development Agency to standardize a system for documenting and assessing agricultural skills and for formalizing skill ladders. O’Driscoll hopes that will also create more opportunities for workers to earn better salaries.

“Almost every mature industry has a career path. People coming in at entry level can see the different skills, different experience, the different knowledge that they have and how they can move up that career path,” said Kevin Boyle, who directs organizational and workforce development at EFI. “Agriculture doesn't have that system.”

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EFI is attempting to identify the key skills along those career paths and the steps needed, for example, to move an entry-level harvester to a higher paid job in agtech. O’Driscoll said the system aims to stabilize the workforce by improving retention rates. The system applies the same standards to both domestic workers and H-2A guestworkers.

“It's not just employers who want the same workers back,” he said. “It's those workers themselves who are looking for some stability and assurance.”

EFI is also seeking to support employers in implementing ethical charters covering responsible labor practices. Earlier this month it launched a software tool to help employers assess their practices and implement the ethics principles. O’Driscoll said most of the major buyers in the industry—Walmart, Costco, McDonald’s, Kroger—are backing the effort and rolling it out in their supply chains.

The ethical charter program exists outside of the certification program and is available to all employers. O’Driscoll said the program shifts the focus away from “catching growers doing bad things or nailing them for compliance issues” to instead teaching the industry about the types of management systems it should implement to minimize labor abuses.

In the policy arena, he is pushing for California to be the first state with a standardized system for documenting, training, assessing and credentialing agricultural skills and to have that system recognized by agencies and the industry. He wants to see the system in place within five years. 

“Imagine a system in which workers could actually demonstrate—through electronic badges or certification systems—that they have the skills that the industry needs, that those skills have been calibrated to the reality…of interacting with ag tech in a whole new way,” said O’Driscoll.

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