By Melody Meyer, vice president of policy and industry relations, United Natural Foods (UNFI)
My father grew up in Iowa during the depression. Times were dire and he witnessed much hardship and suffering. Getting enough to eat was never an issue for his family but seeing others go hungry left its psychological mark. After returning from World War II, he witnessed the Industrial Agricultural Complex taking hold in earnest, and the availability of cheap food became a patriotic goal. Generations were raised thinking cheap food was a bonus and today it is proving difficult to shake that philosophy out of our food values.
One of the fundamental flaws in our current food system is the low value we place on food. Outside of the (growing) circle of food advocates, a clear majority of people still think cheap food is appealing. The less you pay for a pound of tomatoes or bunch of bananas seems like a personal victory won at the register. The dollar meal, the soda and snack all seem like ways to cheat the system.
In fact, the real cost of most food is often not incorporated into the price and is almost always paid later or by people out of sight. Purchasing Fair Trade products provides an opportunity to pay the fair price for those who grow, harvest, wash and pack the food that we eat.
The first time I went to Ecuador and Peru with Fair Trade USA was nearly 11 years ago. My eyes were opened to the poverty inherent in the banana growing systems throughout the country. Land reform in the 1970’s divided large plantations to give every family a small plot of land. Families now had their own private few hectares to produce bananas. But they lacked infrastructure, coordination and access to markets beyond their immediate area. These are markets where bananas sell for pennies on the pound.
My privileged American eyes widened at the rows of ramshackle homes that lacked electricity, plumbing and running water. Tattered children worked in the fields because schools were just too far away and, quite frankly, their labor was needed to make ends meet. Health care was available in theory, but the lack of local facilities in rural areas was the reality. To receive medical treatment, people jostled on a four-hour bus ride into the city. Losing a full day of work only increasing their financial plight. Local food was found in a one-room store filled with expensive packaged goods, sugary snacks but only meager provisions of fresh fruits or vegetables. Everyone was wise to drink bottled water, yet it cost more than the sugary sodas and Inca colas.
The larger producers who could trade on the international market often suffered from the whims of buyers and multinational corporations setting prices from far-flung cities. Commodity trading practices sent prices plunging well below production costs. International business capabilities did not necessarily guarantee prosperity.
I traveled to rural Peru and Ecuador on behalf of Albert’s Organics to create close relationships with our banana producers. I helped facilitate the creation of cooperative associations that brought producers together so that they could operate as one business unit. They could all share resources, develop quality control and food safety practices and achieve organic certifications. Thus equipped together, they could enter the international trade market, increasing their income and standard of living.
Becoming Fair Trade Certified was one of THE MOST important benefits that could assure a higher standard of living for those producers. It guaranteed a base price for each item. This minimum price assures that the whims of the marketplace do not go below the real cost of producing the crop.
In addition to the guaranteed fair market price, a small fee or Fair Trade Premium is collected and scrupulously recorded and tracked. These dollars and cents end up in a fund that the grower cooperatives control and use for social improvements in their own communities. The association elects officers and votes on how the funds are allocated each year. It is democratic and serves the immediate needs of the community.
Each year I returned, I witnessed pride and accomplishment for the most modest of improvements brought about by Fair Trade certification. One cooperative chose to equip every home that had a processing station with running water. This meant the workers could wash their hands, follow good agricultural practices and gain international food safety status. The homeowners now had running water to cook, clean and improve their personal hygiene. Hello, toothbrushes and flushing toilets!
The next cooperative decided to invest in a fund that would pay the producers if their children attended school. They could use the funds to offset the lost labor as well as provide transportation and clothing. Kids were now learning to read, write and could perhaps grow up to be the next generation of leaders.
A little farther down the road, another group set up a small store in their village and stocked it with wholesome, nutritious food that sold for fair, modest prices. The mercado was operated by an army of grandmothers who no longer worked the fields, now happy to enjoy an easy, modest income. After the initial funding, the market immediately became self-sufficient and blossomed with a cornucopia of healthy staples. This same group subsidized a small medical office and paid for traveling dentists, doctors and social workers to offer treatment and services in the area. Thus, the entire community is healthier and happier.
Buying Fair Trade products helps remove the exploitation factor and allows workers in developing countries to achieve basic human conditions. It is a pure market-based approach that gives the farmer fair prices and safe conditions while benefiting the entire community.
There are several reliable and transparent Fair Trade brands that certify your purchase is making a difference: Fair Trade USA, Fair Trade America and Fair Trade International all work diligently to ensure those who produce your food have basic social rights. Please honor the true costs of food by always choosing Fair Trade when it is available. The few extra pennies you pay mean so much more to those who produce our food.
If we shift the way we value food and begin to incorporate its true costs, we can change the entire food and agricultural paradigm. One banana at a time.