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Reducing inequality in today’s produce world

These days, we are seeing as never before.

We look out for an invisible virus – masking up, scrubbing away and distancing ourselves. Over the last year, we have watched essential workers step up to the frontlines.

We visualize risk in new ways, in the daily acts of stocking grocery store shelves, preparing restaurant takeout, delivering goods and working in the fields and packinghouses harvesting and processing food.

The pandemic has reminded most Americans that these essential needs and services are often provided by workers who are unseen and underappreciated. We have seen that those in our communities who are the most exposed are also the most vulnerable.

The pandemic has brought to light these vast inequities, as COVID-related deaths are highest among those in nonwhite and lower income counties.

This recognition of essential workers has triggered an escalating interest for consumers to know that the brands on which they spend their hard-earned dollars are socially responsible and treat their employees well.

A 2020 Cone survey indicated that 78 percent of U.S. consumers believe that in times like these, a business’ primary role is to protect their employees’ health, safety and wellbeing.

Consumers who face uncertainty themselves instinctually make choices about how and where they spend their dollars. According to a 2019 Cone Study, 90 percent of Gen Zers expect companies to act on social issues.

As our world grows increasingly interconnected, the public has greater access to information about the retailers and brands they shop. Social media provides a greater platform to share praise for or criticism of brands.

This pandemic calls on all of us to prioritize the health and safety of our communities. In our industry, this means promoting social responsibility and placing greater focus on worker welfare.

Companies demonstrate their leadership by doing the right thing long before anyone asks. Frontline workers are an investment and not a cost. Those who understand this will pull ahead of the followers who view social responsibility as a trend or intend to wait until it’s mandated.

Thought leaders like Costco, Whole Foods, GoodFarms and NatureSweet Tomatoes have long understood the importance of prioritizing the needs of and providing training opportunities and raising wages for essential workers.

As early adopters, they helped create EFI and ensure that our certification and workforce development programs offer the highest standards for social responsibility in the fresh produce industry.

As an industry, we can continue to raise the bar and establish greater transparency in the supply chain. This pandemic has transformed how and what we see in each other and the world.

My hope is that we continue to make essential work visible and to make clear the need to improve farmworkers’ lives.

Rebecca Chavez is the business development manager for Equitable Food Initiative. She has spent her career working in the rural sector on food security, nutrition, economic livelihoods, gender equity and youth leadership. Follow her on LinkedIn.