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This Labor Day, buy produce grown only on farms that respect workers’ rights

Forced labor, sexual assault and abuse are not normal dinner-table topics for the relaxing Labor Day weekend. But, sadly, this is often part of the story behind so much of the produce that winds up on our plates in America. As Justice Department prosecutors noted this spring when three defendants in Georgia were sentenced to federal prison for human trafficking on U.S. farms, “These men engaged in facilitating modern-day slavery.” 

As the co-founder and CEO of a values-focused soup company, I have preached endlessly about the need to know the “story of our food.” And although we’ve made strides in drawing awareness to sustainability in the agricultural industry, we have not paid as much attention, perhaps, to the vulnerable and often unprotected laborers who do the actual work. That no longer should be acceptable to any of us. What good is it to pat ourselves on the back for buying locally sourced organic tomatoes and onions if those vegetables were picked by farm workers who endured abusive conditions?

There are more than 1.2 million hired farm laborers in this country. They pick the tomatoes for our summer BLTs, the corn for our Labor Day barbecues, and the strawberries for our fruit cups. They do this work by hand. We’ve mechanized so much in our food system, but most crops are still picked manually by farm laborers. And these laborers are more vulnerable than ever. The number of workers in this country legally under the federal government’s H2A temporary visa program has tripled since 2012, to nearly 258,000 in 2021. This number represents less than one-quarter of the agricultural workers in this country. Unfortunately, the agricultural labor force is often subject to abuse, wage theft, and worse — regardless of their immigration status. 

The statistics from the Department of Labor are staggering. Over 70 percent of the department’s workplace investigations reveal major violations, and many farms are repeat violators. A recent investigation found that violating farms owed more than $9 million in back wages to hundreds of laborers. 

We, the consumers, have the power to stop this and to reform the food supply chain for good. 

One group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, is working to end abuse in the agricultural system. These farmworkers say they have seen it all: A farm manager reportedly beating a worker simply for stopping to take a sip of water. Undocumented workers hidden inside walk-in freezers to dodge immigration officials. Women who are raped in the fields and then too terrified to report the assaults for fear of losing their jobs, or worse. 

The Immokalee Workers created the Fair Food Program, a unique partnership among farmers, farmworkers and food companies to ensure humane wages and working conditions for the people who help feed our families. Many retailers have signed on to participate, including Whole Foods, Walmart and Ahold. My company, Soupergirl, recently obtained a Fair Food certification just for our tomato gazpacho line. It’s a very modest step, and we hope that much bigger companies will join us.

Many Americans feel powerless to stop the seemingly endless stream of tragic events they hear about or read about in the news. But we actually can play a positive role simply by asking food brands to buy only produce that is certified as having been grown on farms that respect basic human values. This isn’t some ill-defined boycott that goes viral on social media for 12 hours and is never heard about again. Consumers can do good every time we step into a grocery store by buying Fair Food-certified produce and other products. And we can each do our part to push food companies to buy fruits and vegetables from certified farms that care about their labor force.  

There’s no virtue in buying pesticide-free produce grown on farms that abuse their workers for profit. This Labor Day weekend — and all days — let’s make sure that the food we put on our tables is worthy of the decent, hardworking people who picked it for us. 

Sara Polon is CEO of Soupergirl, the plant-based soup and gazpacho company based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @thesoupergirl.

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