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Creating Common Ground

Creating Common Ground

When it comes to fresh food, transparency is of the utmost importance. There’s a seemingly endless amount of variables to consider between the time that seed hits the dirt and produce hits the plate, making clear communication a paramount value for the buy- and supply-sides alike. Nonetheless, there are holes in our supply chain that inherently open up. But, as we produce the very thing that keeps people thriving, it is our duty to fill those holes with the truth.

That is the mission of the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI)—to identify where we have fallen short and provide innovative, preventative solutions. It is a labor of love that few are privy to but could be an integral part of our industry’s evolution.

“At the early stages, we thought of EFI as a certification program, but we began to recognize that we were bringing workforce development programs to the fresh produce industry—something that hadn’t been done previously,” began Peter O’Driscoll, Executive Director. “As evaluation data came in, it became clear that we were delivering assurance while simultaneously driving business performance. To me, this is a total game-changer. If we are asking growers to make changes for social responsibility in order to fulfill the Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices, then we have to give them the tools to do this while improving their bottom line and marking them as an employer of choice in a tight labor market.”

This spring, the nonprofit is celebrating its five-year anniversary by recounting the vast array of accomplishments that have taken place since its founding. EFI’s services reach many in the industry, both individually and on a global scale.

"As we constantly strive to innovate, learn, and include perspectives from across the supply chain, our grower and retail partners benefit from our flexibility, problem-solving approach, and wholistic thinking."

Peter O'Driscoll, Excutive Director, Equitable Food Initiative

In the spirit of continuous improvement, EFI has evolved its standards to keep pace with important industry developments. The organization has set forth food safety and social standards that align with the Food Safety Modernization Act, the Global Food Safety Initiative, and the Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices. In 2020, EFI also plans to update its integrated pest management standards to reflect shifting buyer and consumer demands around environmental stewardship.

“EFI wasn’t created in a bubble. It was a market-driven solution for a number of pressing labor and food safety issues in the fresh produce industry,” Peter commented. “It is interesting that EFI’s multi-stakeholder dialogue began well before the 2018 release of the Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices, which essentially elevates labor concerns to the same level as food safety for the produce sector.”

The nonprofit began as a conversation among stakeholder groups in the fresh produce industry who wanted to create more assurance around food safety and improved working conditions for farmworkers. The conversation began in 2009, and by 2011 the group agreed to launch a skill-building and certification organization, initially incubated as a project within Oxfam America, until EFI was incorporated as an independent nonprofit social enterprise in 2015.

“EFI is more than a certification—it is a change-management program. Introducing the skills and concepts from the EFI Program into our workforce enabled us to bring everyone together to strive for the highest standards. I have great confidence that the whole team understands and is working toward those standards in everything they do.”

Kevin Doran, Chief Executive Officer, Houweling's Group

Founding EFI board members included Costco Wholesale, Bon Appetit Management Company, Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, NatureSweet Tomatoes, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, Oxfam America, Pesticide Action Network North America, Farmworker Justice, FLOC, PCUN, and United Farm Workers.

“EFI is more than a certification. It offers workforce development programs, unlike typical certification programs, which require training but don’t provide it. EFI’s focus is on transferrable communication and problem-solving skills that can be applied as easily to compliance issues as to bottom-line business challenges,” said Peter. “We have a team of certified facilitators who train labor-management leadership teams through hands-on, interactive learning, which is a compulsory first step to becoming certified. This is a wholistic, systems-based approach that seeks to improve the culture on farms, making them healthier and more collaborative places to work.”

According to LeAnne Ruzzamenti, Director of Marketing Communications, the real magic behind EFI is the creation and training of leadership teams. These are cross-level, cross-department teams at each farming operation that receive training in communication, problem-solving, and conflict resolution. Each team is responsible for bringing the farm into compliance with the EFI standards but can also be used to solve a myriad of business performance issues.

On top of these customizable leadership teams, EFI is the only certification that covers three key areas—labor practices, food safety, and pest management—in a single audit, helping growers eliminate the time-consuming process of undergoing multiple audits. To that same effect, a growing number of retailers now accept EFI as a certificate in lieu of other social responsibility audits.

“As we constantly strive to innovate, learn, and include perspectives from across the supply chain, our grower and retail partners benefit from our flexibility, problem-solving approach, and wholistic thinking. As a certification, we have defined standards that need to be met, but we remain flexible. As problems or new opportunities arise, we work with our partners to figure out the best way forward,” Peter continued. “Our commitment to continuous improvement means that we can bring the right people together, facilitate a process, and figure out what the next best step should be. If it doesn’t work, we will try something else.”

In addition to the operational ease that goes hand in hand with EFI, growers who implement the program have found it easier to recruit and retain employees in a tight labor market. As workers are engaged to define and solve issues in the industry, they feel respected, and women in particular feel safer through the zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment.

“Growers who participate in EFI do so because they recognize an opportunity to catalyze positive change, improve their business, and attract and retain good personnel in a tight labor market. Participating retailers recognize that worker verification of compliance improves assurance and continuity of supply,” added Peter.

“For social responsibility, EFI is in a class of its own. It’s the gold standard, and we would like to see everybody doing that. I don’t want to have a certification that just checks the box; that’s not good enough. EFI does more than check a box—it brings deep credibility to the produce industry.”

Jeff Lyons, Senior Vice President of Fresh Foods, Costco Wholesale

In the same vein of creating solutions through disruptive design, EFI has pursued its vision of becoming an equilibrium for the fresh produce industry. A cornerstone of this goal is engaging with stakeholders across the supply chain, teaming up to search for a solution that works for everyone.

“We recognize that no certification is a guarantee of perfection and, sometimes, things can still go wrong on EFI-certified farms,” Peter explained, noting that program participants come into the fold with the knowledge that this is a learning organization. “There is a commitment to continuous improvement, and as long as the grower can show they are committed and they’ve maintained a functional EFI leadership team, we stand by them in the face of crises.”

This philosophy of continuous improvement is a fundamental value at EFI. According to Peter, the staff embraces innovation and encourages one another to act boldly and broaden perspectives. The strength of this program lies in creating a common ground for everyone in the supply chain to identify their intersecting interests. By returning value to everyone in the supply chain—consumers, retailers, growers, and workers—EFI has positioned itself as an operational beneficiary whose resources can strengthen relationships across the industry.

“Since introducing EFI on our farm, we have had a much easier time recruiting workers. Word has spread quickly of the positive work environment that GoodFarms is offering, and we’ve seen a marked increase in the number of women joining the team because of the respectful environment with zero tolerance for harassment.”

Jackie Vazquez, Director of Operations, Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce/GoodFarms

“The fresh produce industry is built on relationships and many years of personal history. When EFI first entered the space in 2011, we were met with a skeptical eye,” said Peter. “Thankfully, there were a few brave companies who helped develop our certification program. Their positive experiences, and willingness to talk about them, built greater trust within the industry so that more folks began to seek us out to discuss our services.”

EFI suggests that today’s successes are a direct result of overcoming the challenges of yesterday. Building on its continuous expansion, the organization now needs to scale up and is doing so by investigating different operational models and technologies to provide training and guidance to its partners.

“EFI began through years of dialogue and building consensus. We spent our first five years in operation launching and adapting the program while engaging partners. In October 2019, we released the Responsible Recruitment Scorecard to respond to retailer concerns, and we will continue developing tools and resources like this,” Peter concluded. “Stay tuned, because in 2020 you’ll be hearing more about new retailer partnerships that will bring many more growers into the EFI Program and address the critical issues of ethical sourcing, responsible recruitment, and food safety.”

Aiming to reinvent the supply chain through continued collaboration, evaluation, and investment, EFI has set forth a monumental blueprint for the fresh produce industry. This program asks grower and retail partners for their trust in exchange for an unmatched profile of resources that will only continue to improve.

The consumer in me is brought back to this idea of transparency—an idea that is so painfully obvious and yet seemingly impossible to achieve.

I am brought back to a long-standing question: How can fresh produce operators grow and scale their businesses when their success is tied to a very personal, hands-on intervention? It is a question that may not yet have an answer. But even so, it is an answer that EFI is committed to providing.

Both the consumer and the trade news writer in me know honesty is sometimes synonymous with transparency. And that is all any of us are after, right?