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 WWII 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. It is proving hard to shake that philosophy out of our food values.
One of the fundamental flaws in our current food paradigm is the value we place on food. Outside of the (growing) circle of food advocates, a vast majority of people still think cheap food is appealing. The less you pay on that pound of tomatoes or that bunch of bananas seems like a little victory won at the register. The dollar meal, the soda and snack all seem like ways to get ahead.
In fact the real cost of most food is often not incorporated into the price and is almost always paid at a later date or by people out of sight. Fair Trade Month provides an opportunity to take a look at those people we cannot see 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 almost 9 year ago. My eyes were opened to the poverty inherent in the banana growing systems throughout the country. Land reform in the 1970’s had broken up large plantations and given every family a small plot of bananas. Indeed they now had five hectares to grow bananas, but lacked infrastructure and the means to sell them anywhere but on the local market, for mere pennies to the pound.
Most homes were ramshackle structures that lacked electricity, plumbing and running water. We saw a few lit by a single bulb that glowed dimly, powered by a car battery. Tattered children were often working 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 but there were no local facilities in the rural growing areas. In order to receive medical treatment folks had to jostle on a bus traveling 4-5 hours into the city, taking them away from their work. Local nutrition was often a one room store filled with packaged goods and sugary snacks, very little fresh whole food for purchase. Bottled soda was often less expensive than bottled water!
The growers that were larger and could trade on the international market were often at the whims of buyers and multinational corporations setting prices from far off in New York or Houston. Commodity trading prices often went below production costs, so the growers would often lose money or just make a few dollars or pesos per week. International business did not equate to prosperity.
I went to rural Peru and Ecuador on behalf of Albert’s Organics to create long lasting relationships with the banana producers. I helped facilitate the creation of cooperative associations that would bring the producers together so that they could operate as one business unit. If they could all share resources, develop quality control, food safety practices and organic certifications, they could enter the international trade market, thereby 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 the producers. It guarantees a base price for each item, organic, conventional and by country. This base price assures that the whims of the marketplace do not go below the real cost to produce the food.
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 community. They elect a president, treasurer and secretary, then vote on how these funds are allocated each year. It is democratic and services the immediate needs of the community.
Every year upon my return I witnessed pride and accomplishment for the most modest of improvements brought about by the Fair Trade Certification. One cooperative chose to equip every home that had a processing station with running water. Running water meant the workers could wash their hands and gain international food safety certificates. The home owners now had running water to cook, clean and increase their personal hygiene. Hello tooth brushes and flushing toilets!
The next cooperative decided to invest in a fund that would pay the producers if their children attended school. They would use the funds to offset the lost labor as well as provide transportation and clothing. Kids were now learning to read, write and quite probably grow up to be the next leaders in their country.
A little farther down the road another group set up a small store in their village with wholesome nutrition food to be sold at fair prices. The store was operated by grandmothers who no longer worked the fields and received a modest income. The market immediately became self-sufficient after its initial funding and grew to include a cornucopia of healthy staples. The same group subsidized a small medical office and paid for traveling dentists, doctors and social workers to offer treatment and services in the area. They were all healthier and happier as a result!
Buying Fair Trade products truly takes the exploitation out of products, allowing workers in developing countries to achieve basic human conditions. Fair Trade is a market-based approach that gives the farmer fair prices and safe conditions, and it also benefits the entire community that they live in. Please celebrate with me by always choosing Fair Trade when it is available. Let’s change the way we value food and incorporate the true costs, so agricultural workers may also live well.