Food Justice Certified - A New Label For Food

Our values can be fed by our food choices.  That’s why that little adhesive label that denudes your bosc pears – the USDA certified organic label – is a reassurance to many of us.  It helps us align our produce with our principles regarding soil, seeds, the environment and our health.  That little label sets hundreds of standards for the ethical treatment of the land and the food it bears, but not one regarding the treatment of the tens of thousands of people who help grow it.  This glaring gap in organic certification birthed a new label to guide our purchases – Food Justice Certified.

Though you may not see this symbol in the produce pyramids at your local market quite yet, products by Food Justice Certified producers include a full range of fruit and vegetables as well as jams, flaxseed, pancake mixes and pies.

The Just Label
The Food Justice Certified label is based on high-bar social justice standards for farms, processors and retailers, including every link in the food chain from seed to table.  These standards address collective bargaining for farmworkers, fair pricing for farmers, land rights for indigenous peoples and other issues pivotal to achieving parity in our food system. 

“Sometimes it feels that considerations of labor are set aside in the local food movement,” said Jessica Culley, Community Organizer at CATA – The Farmworkers' Support Committee, one of the founding organizations behind Food Justice Certified.  “Or, perhaps more likely, that folks assume that the labor conditions are different or better without asking for any sort of verification of those beliefs.”

Yet, as Culley and her colleagues at the New Jersey-based CATA know well, many farmworkers endure sub-standard and sometimes abusive conditions working on farms across the country – even on certified organic or small family operations.

“We all need to realize that the creation of an alternative food system has to include the needs of workers in a measurable way,” Culley cautions.  Food Justice Certified is forging this critical process of awareness and activism both here and abroad.

Who Stripped the Equity from Organic?
Food Justice Certified is the brainchild of the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP).  A group of organizers founded AJP in response to the absence of equity guidelines in the USDA’s groundbreaking 1999 National Organic Standards program.  The USDA had made a valiant effort to coalesce the varied regional and state-sanctioned organic growing guidelines into one national standard, but neglected to do the same for social justice principles.

This disconnect between sustainable agriculture and social justice was a relatively new one.  The term organic had been used to signify sustainable growing methods as early as the 1940s.  As the movement grew through the 1960s and 1970s, most practitioners recognized issues like fair pricing and labor as central to what it means to be organic.

“In international organic standards… and in the practices of groups like NOFA before the advent of the national organic program, we did have standards and principles about treating the people involved in the organic food chain fairly,” says Elizabeth Henderson of Peacework Organic Farm in Newark, New York, a cofounder of the Agricultural Justice Project.  When social justice advocates appealed to the agency, she said, “The USDA replied in no uncertain terms that this is not in our purview.”  

The USDA’s response evoked a call to action.  Michael Sligh of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI – USA), Richard Mandelbaum of Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas/Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), Marty Mesh of Florida Organic Growers (FOG) and Henderson established the Agricultural Justice Project.  Their objective: to develop standards for the fair and just treatment of the people involved in organic and sustainable agriculture – standards that formed the foundation of Food Justice Certified.

To Form a More Perfect Standard
Farmers, workers, certifiers and indigenous, retail and consumer groups around the world have helped craft the current Food Justice Certified standards.  “We went through about five drafts of the standards,” Henderson explained of their early efforts, “Each time we sent them out to farmers that we knew, to certifiers, to an increasing number of people around the world who we had learned were interested in organic and fair trade and how to combine them.”

By 2007, when a group of Midwest farmers adopted Food Justice Certified as a pilot project, the AJP had translated the standards into two languages and deliberated them at meetings and conferences from Australia to Uruguay.   This rigorous commitment to feedback and refinement is ongoing.  The coalition conducted a comprehensive standards revision in 2010—complete with multiple public and stakeholder comment periods and thorough reviews by its Advisory Committee and additional expert advisers.  Another full revision process is slated for 2015.

One important development based on lessons learned from the pilot process and feedback from participating certifiers is the online Farm Tool Kit.  Often the most equitable farms in the pilot didn’t have anything written down about their fair labor policies.   The Farm Tool Kit helps farmers adopt these best policies and practices, including ways to calculate what price they need for their products to be fair to their laborers—and to themselves. 

“In my experience as an organic farmer in the northeast for the past 30+ years,” Henderson stated, “Finding ways to encourage farmers to ask for a fair price and to help the general public understand farmers’ need for a price that fully covers the cost of production is really important.”

Food Justice Certified in the Northeast
Raising awareness of these issues is the crux of Food Justice Certified’s mission.  Jessica Culley of CATA believes that we have an exciting opportunity to do so in the northeast.  “Our goal is to become a recognizable label to folks in our region—really lifting up the profile of farms and businesses that participate and creating a dialogue around alternative labor practices,” she said.  “There is a strong movement of young people moving into organic farming here, many of whose values and ideals would embrace a project like Food Justice Certified.”

AJP has been training more northeast experts to conduct Food Justice Certified assessments.  All CATA and several NOFA-NY personnel are approved to perform inspections, and more regional certifiers are sought.  “It’s a big effort to add a new scope of work for a small certifier,” Henderson explained. “They need to hear from farms and local food businesses that people want it.”

The future of Food Justice Certified rests in our hands—as consumers, as producers, as concerned community members committed to a food system aligned with our professed values of sustainability and equity. 

“It is very nice to have locally sourced food,” said Henderson, "but if that locally sourced food is produced by people who are on food stamps themselves and don’t have health insurance, then you really don’t have a sustainable food system.”

How You Can Help

  • Get informed. AJP and its Food Justice Certified initiative are part of a much larger movement of organizations working to advance domestic fair trade. Learn more by watching the Fair Food Project’s video. Watch now. >
  • Get certified. Food businesses of any type and size can become Food Justice Certified, from restaurants to retailers to processors. Learn more. >
  • Spread the word.  The more consumers know about Food Justice Certified and the principles it protects, the more truly sustainable our food system will be.  Share this article with friends using the link on the lower right of this page and direct them to AJP’s website for more information.