Although eaters need to participate in it, food and farm workers must be empowered to lead the food justice movement.
Reporting transparency and food worker engagement will be key to the successful implementation of the Good Food Purchasing Program.
Small farmers now engaged in sustainable practices, or those who wish to be, need to be supported in their efforts.
More needs to be done to educate the public about the impacts of the food system on our culture, economy, and planetary survival.
A Conversation with Suzanne Adely of the Food Chain Workers Alliance
Contributor: Robert Raymond
Suzanne Adely, Regional Organizer for the Food Chain Workers Alliance, talks about the Good Food Purchasing Program and The Fair Labor Practices Act and her organization’s work to support and empower food workers in our region.
What are some of the initiatives the Food Chain Workers Alliance is currently engage in in regionally?
The Northeast region holds the highest concentration of Food Chain Workers Alliance member organizations. In New York City we have five member organizations in different industries, and then in New York State we have a handful of farm worker organizations based in places like Kingston, Syracuse, and Poughkeepsie—they work throughout the state. We work in different trajectories. One is just supporting very traditional organizing work that is rooted in the efforts of farmworkers or frontline food workers. And so we help to build the capacity for our organizations to engage in workplace campaigns and local policy initiatives or state policy initiatives. And then while doing that, we are engaged in the broader food justice movement. I think it's defined differently depending on who you're talking to—food justice movements, food sovereignty movements, sustainable agricultural movements. We're engaging in those platforms locally, regionally, nationally, and sometimes internationally to ensure that workers and labor are part of the platform or part of the analysis and part of the narrative of what it means to build just food systems.
New York is one of the places in which we have been giving direct support to our member organizations for their campaigns. And it's also one of the places where we've been engaging in supporting different policy initiatives. Sometimes that would be on a very local level, like supporting the passage of a bill to increase permits for street vendors, or sometimes it will be on the state level, where we supported the recent passage of the Farm Workers Fair Labor Standards Act. And sometimes it would be around issues impacting food workers, like driver's licenses. One of our organizations helped lead the campaign to pass Green Light legislation, which would give driver's licenses to all New York State residents, regardless of status.
The Good Food Purchasing Program is one of the more comprehensive policy initiatives that we've been engaged in in New York. It’s an initiative, really a kind of movement in a way that began almost a decade ago now on the West Coast and has recently reached the East Coast. It's something that was developed with the input of food worker organizations and organizations concerned with the environment, animal welfare, nutrition, and with building local economies and equity within food production. The policy was first adopted in Los Angeles, where we've already been able to see some very important impacts, and since then has been passed in several other institutions on the East Coast and in the Midwest. We've been able to adopt a very strong policy in Boston, there's been a policy adopted in D.C., and I've also been working with our allies and partners to work towards adopting a similar policy in New York City.
It's an important initiative, given that the City of New York actually spends more money on food than any other entity except for the U.S. military. On a yearly basis, they might spend anywhere between $120-$150 million on food. They give out at least 200 million meals a year through 11 different agencies. For the past couple of years, we've been building a coalition of community-based and policy-based organizations, some that are very local, some that might be nationwide, who are concerned with the five values presented by the Good Food Purchasing Program and who are impacted by the results, to engage in a process to bring the Good Food Purchasing Program to the the City of New York’s government, and to give input in the process. We've actually very recently hit an important milestone where the New York City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, gave a presentation on New York City's upcoming food equity agenda at a town hall that he held in Brooklyn. It was there that he announced that the New York City City Council intends on adopting the Good Food Purchasing Program. We've been having various discussions and negotiations with the city council, and prior to that with the mayor's office, and we haven't yet seen what their proposed language for such a policy would be. But we have been providing our input based on our experience doing this work internationally and based on what our broad coalition is telling us needs to be included.
Can you briefly outline just a few of the most important or crucial elements that you would like to see make it into any kind of official Good Food Purchasing policy adopted by New York City?
I think that it has to very clearly state the standards—which I believe it will. I think it also has to include mechanisms for transparency, which is a challenge not just on a government level, but it's a challenge also on a corporate level as well. Without knowledge of how our food is sourced and without knowledge of what sorts of practices vendors and suppliers are actually engaged in it's really difficult to hold anybody accountable to the policy. So a strong policy will always include measures to build the kind of transparency that's needed for strong implementation. And that could be anything from codifying that the baseline assessments will be provided to the public, to setting up a community advisory council to engage in the process alongside the city institutions. We think it should also have strong language indicating the importance of using this policy as a catalyst to support small farmers—including farmers of color.
Could you talk a bit about the Valued Workforce component that is part of the policy?
We use a points system to guide the institutions towards vendors and suppliers that score higher. And they score higher not necessarily because they are perfect in every single category—they might be stronger in some categories or weaker in other categories—but the idea is to work with them to get strong in each category. There’s this understanding that there’s a particular baseline standard that vendors and suppliers will have to follow in order to be awarded contracts in the first place, and each of these five value areas states what those baseline standards are. So under the Valued Workforce category, the baseline standard is following local and international labor laws, for example, which is not really radical, not exactly revolutionary—it's just sort of very basic.
So, with the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP), if there is information that tells us that there are violations of local labor laws or international labor standards within a food processing or distribution plant in the food procurement supply chain, for example a poultry processing plant, GFPP policy will be used as a tool, as leverage and perhaps motivation for the company to improve their labor rights record, or else the policy will then call for the contracts to be redirected to a poultry company that has a good labor record. So if they're purchasing chickens from a chicken factory where it's known that there are severe health and safety violations, that there have been allegations of sexual harassment, where there have been allegations of retaliation against workers attempting to organize, if that information is presented to us, then that would be used as leverage to change the city's sourcing of chicken.
It could also be used as leverage by workers or unions who are attempting to organize that factory, to go to management and say, listen, “you're part of a food procurement supply chain that now has this policy attached to it, and this policy says that you need to respect labor laws.” And if workers want to organize and you're trying to prevent them from organizing or you're retaliating against organizing, that's a violation of the law. So if you want to continue to be looked at as a favorable choice for a New York City institution to purchase their chicken, then we'd advise you to negotiate with us. So, instead of completely mandating that this company does this or there's no contracts, it's meant to be the leverage for negotiation—a leverage for improving conditions. And so the policy is also the leverage to support the companies that are already adhering to basic standards.
So as we gain progress towards a Good Food Purchasing policy in New York City, we've begun to discuss holding what we call farmer and worker listening sessions in different parts of the state. New York City might get some of its food from urban agriculture, but the majority of it is really being sourced from food being grown in different parts of the state. And there's also an ally in Buffalo who's been organizing a Good Food Purchasing Program there and a Buffalo School. So we will be talking together, engaging farmers and engaging workers in different parts of New York State, probably predominantly in the Hudson Valley. And we also have some interest from some progressive state senators to also engage in discussions, so we're going to be thinking about what kind of policy initiatives we can take to the state to complement the Good Food Purchasing Program or to expand on a particular piece of it. What kind of policy initiatives can we take to a state level, for example, or a county level? That's something that we're exploring. The GFPP is more than just a policy—it's a movement and it has a lot of different moving pieces. And we recognize, too, that for small farmers and farmers of color to be able to benefit from Good Food Purchasing, that they would need to build capacity to also meet the baseline standards.
We often get messages from large farmers' organizations or farmer lobby organizations that it's unrealistic to expect farmers to engage in sustainable practices. We don't think that's necessarily true. We think there are a lot of farmers that are already engaged in sustainable practices but in order for them to be able to then take advantage of the existence of a policy like GFPP—or if in a future we passed a similar state policy —then they're going to need support in being able to build scale on their farm.
Of course, it's important to note that this is all aspirational. So we're not just creating these standards so that people can then be left out of contracts for work. We're also creating these standards so that people can be included in the market—so that people who believe in sustainable agriculture and fair labor practices and in nutrition and animal welfare can be part of the market. So that is capacity building, which could look like supporting cooperatives, which could look like trainings—but that particular part of the agenda hasn't really been set yet. That's the next stage that we would be starting to talk about as far as New York State is concerned. I can't speak to the other cities that much about what they did to get people to take advantage of the policy, but that's what we're starting to do.
Outside of that, this past year has been memorable in the passage of two really important bills that I mentioned before: the Fair Labor Practices Act—which has been a twenty year struggle—and the Driver's Licenses for all New York residents as well.
What are your thoughts on the Fair Labor Practices Act? What are the pluses? What are the minuses?
I think it's a positive development and I would hope that it would then lead to farmworkers in New York State organizing either as part of worker centers, as independent unions, or I guess in any institution that they choose. But,historically and in current times, it's proven over and over that no policy is useful unless it helps people build more power. If consumers have more power over how their food is grown, and workers have more power over their daily working conditions, and for workers to be able to have that power, they do need to be able to organize—they need to be able to voice their views about their workplaces without fear of being fired. And it is really vital to sustaining any policy, it's vital to making progress in any way. We're very happy that the policy was passed because we feel that it will become the momentum and protection for farm workers to have a more democratic workplace.
As an alliance, we also were not in agreement with the final outcome of the legislation which calls strikes, slowdowns and work stoppages unfair labor practices. Because being able to engage in strikes, slowdowns, and work stoppages is a fundamental right that workers have to back up what their power is in the first place. And it's not even so much just a concern in terms of its outcome in New York—it sets a legal precedent that maybe other legislators will agree to, not just in farm work, but in other work. They may say, “well, we'll agree to pass something giving workers the right to organize as long as they don't engage in strikes or work stoppages and so on”—so that was a piece that was concerning to us.
Food Chain Workers Alliance seems to put a major focus on educating and organizing workers rather than focusing on consumers. Some believe that educating consumers in terms of labor justice in the food system is where the main focus should be. Where do you see the most significant leverage point lying?
Educating consumers is certainly an important piece to it, but the food system is one system in the larger economy—in the larger social and political system. And our social political system is very classist and very racist. And so my worry is that when we say educate consumers—and they should be educated—that there is going to be a certain class of consumers that will have more of a voice. In a country where people are increasingly going to bed hungry or are impacted by food apartheid and not having access to healthy food to begin with, they're not going to be considered as a consumer class.
The real question is, why are we trying to reform our food system in the first place? Is the end goal so that consumers can have more nutritious food while feeling better about how the food is made? Or is it really going to be about changing the way that our culture is engaged. So, people are concerned about climate change, for example. Well, yeah, they need to be educated about how that's connected to their food system. If we're talking about consumers, it ends in what they consume, and how that's sourced. But it needs to be beyond that. The consumer is a particular class interest—it can't just be about organizing change for the food system through consumers. It has to be about citizens who are concerned about the future of the economy as a whole, the future of the world as a whole. People need to understand why they have an interest in making sure that farmers of color succeed and why they have an interest in making sure that sustainable agriculture is adopted—not just because of their dollars and how they produce it, because that is going to save the planet.
Workers are going to be very, very important in the long term struggle for a better food system because when workers are able to organize, it's not just about impacting their workplace—workers have the ability to organize not just for the workplace, but they have the ability to organize as a class to impact their region as a whole, to impact their community as a whole and to impact the nation as a whole. They create pockets of power that can then be used to push other policies and to push other movements.