Like most consumers, I had heard of responsible shopping and labels like Fair Trade had some meaning to me but until recently, I didn’t have the whole picture. There is just so much to be educated on!
Certified Responsible Shopping
There are several non profit organizations that offer certification programs for farmers with strict guidelines that make sure the farm is complying to high standards for the conserving the environment, worker conditions and wages, community outreach, and the quality of the produce itself. Some of these certifiers are Fair Trade USA, The Rainforest Alliance, Fair for Life, and Fairtrade International. Each certifier has a slightly different focus or way of achieving their goals but all of these are working to bring responsibly produced goods to a global marketplace and help consumers locate the responsible product choices with their certification labels. At Whole Foods Market, they simply this for the consumer by using the term “Whole Trade” to signify that the product has been certified (by one of the third party certifiers mentioned above) thus making it easy for you to “shop with conscience”.
My in-depth education on responsible shopping began on a trip to Costa Rica where I was able to go along on a press trip with the Rainforest Alliance and visit several certified farms- a flower farm, a passionfruit farm, a banana farm, and an orange and mango farm. This was an amazing experience for me. I am a biology major and my passion is for nature and preserving its beauty. Farming also runs in my family (rice farming) and so I have extra interest in the topic and I LOVED getting to see sustainable farming practices working. I heard many of the farmers say they felt overwhelmed at the start of certification but they all appreciated the in depth guidance the certification process provides, and they all seemed truly proud to be a part of a sustainable farm. I was honestly moved when the P&F Flower Farm Production Manager, Juan Pablo Villalobos, said that, “In the start we became certified to be a leader at the market, but we find less worker accidents, we find that workers are protected from pesticides. We find we are saving money by making our own organic nutrients for the soil, we find less soil disease. We are making environmental and social improvements and it is not just for the market any more. It has brought the employees and their families forward and we can not go back. We can not accept less.” I saw that the Rainforest Alliance was spreading knowledge to people on how they could farm in sustainable ways that really worked for the environment, for the bottom line, and for improving the lives of the workers and their communities. Witnessing The Rainforest Alliance work made me truly feel inspired and hopeful.
Needless to say, I was thrilled when I got the chance to expand my learning on responsible shopping and go with Whole Foods to visit Fair Trade farms in Mexico. What was unique about this trip is that it was a press trip combined with a reward for members of the Boise, Idaho, Whole Foods Market team. Their store had won a contest for the most success promoting the Whole Trade Peppers which are still a pretty new product that they were working on educating Whole Foods team members and shoppers on. There were also members of Whole Foods buyers and distribution team and I got a chance to talk to all of them on the brief but packed trip! What really caught my fancy was just how genuinely excited everyone is about this Whole Trade Pepper project. The thing is about doing good is that it makes you feel good, and it is catching! I even joked with the other reporter that I should look for a Whole Foods job because everyone really loved their job and you could tell they loved being involved as a piece of the puzzle that makes this world a better place for everyone. It was great for me to get to see the whole cycle from the Whole Trade peppers and watermelons in the Whole Foods Market and the presentation and education efforts of the Whole Foods team to the peppers and watermelons on the vines in the fields in Mexico and meeting with the farm workers who grow and harvest the crops and hearing from them how Whole Trade is changing their lives. It was an awesome experience and you can bet I was inspired and I will be choosing Whole Trade products whenever I can!
Whole Trade Produce In Whole Foods Market, Scottsdale, AZ:
Fair Trade Produce From Grupo Alta:
We spent one day with Grupo Alta touring their farms, a packing plant, and witnessing a meeting of the Fair Trade workers elected officials. It was a long day filled with an amazing peek into their farming operations and into the lives of thefarmers.
Grupo Alta Fair Trade Grapes:
We had the pleasure of looking at the table grapes in the fields- just beautiful! Carlos, one of three bothers, in the family business showed us many varieties of grapes that they are growing and gave us a little education on table grapes. It turns out that the consumer drives some strange trends in the table grape business! Consumers want green grapes, when in fact “green” grapes turn yellow when they are most ripe and sweet. I am embarrassed to say that I did not know that! Consumers all want their red grapes to be “red,” so much so that many conventional farming methods use a chemical to achieve that deep red. Wow, a little education goes a long way! Grupo Alta is growing many varieties right now to test the most flavorful ones for their growing conditions. They are also experimenting with different shading options to help achieve the color desired by consumers naturally.
Grupo Alta Fair Trade Greenhouses:
Next up was a visit to Grupo Alta greenhouses where we saw them growing Fair Trade tomatoes, Fair Trade bell peppers, and Fair Trade cucumbers. The Whole Trade cucumbers from Grupo Alta are the second Fair Trade vegetable to be sold in the U.S. I never knew tomatoes could grow so tall!
Or that greenhouses could be so big!
Grupo Alta Fair Trade Watermelons:
On our way to see the watermelons growing in the fields, we passed an avenue of saguaros cactus which Carlos explained had been transplanted there when they cleared the area for the farm. We also saw lots of beehives which they rent to help fertilize the watermelons.
I loved seeing the watermelons growing in the fields and the farmers taking a look at their crop as they discussed size and sweetness of their fair trade watermelons.
Next we visited the watermelon packing plant which is covered to protect from the sun but the sides are open for fresh air and sunlight. We saw the workers packing, and stickering, and loading. We interviewed a farm worker and got a group photo of the Grupo Alta Fair Trade farm workers and the Whole Foods team members.
Grupo Alta Interview:
We were able to interview Carlos Bon, a sales executive and a member of the family that owns Groupo Alta which was started by his father and uncle. When I asked Carlos what made them decide to seek Fair Trade certification, he said that his father was a “nature freak” and that they believe that, “In order to grow a healthier fruit and plant, we need to have healthier soil.” Fair Trade standards help them achieve healthier soil and grow in a sustainable way. Carlos Bon said that there are economic benefits to becoming Fair Trade as well- they have achieved “higher efficiency, better quality, and higher yield”. He also said that Grupo Alta has always tried to provide good benefits to their workers but that Fair Trade standards made this easier to measure, easier to accomplish, and provided the workers with more input into their benefits.
Organo Mixto Grupo Alta (The Elected Farm Worker Fair Trade Group):
Fair Trade requires that the workers elect their own governing body to represent them in decisions on how to use the Fair Trade money for community building. With money from their first year of Fair Trade proceeds, the group had awarded 32 scholarships to children of farm workers that met merit requirements. They are awarding 47 scholarships for children on their second round. I was honored to participate in the awarding of a scholarship to an adorable 12 year old girl (the one with the braid in the photo below). I was a little flustered by the whole thing since I was not expecting to be a part of the ceremony so I forgot to get a photo but the girl’s family took one of she and I together! ( Here is a photo of group of the students who received scholarships that night- it warms my heart. One boy who got a scholarship said, “Thank you for this opportunity so that I can be somebody.” It almost made me cry because you feel so happy to give them that opportunity . The group was also making plans to improve housing.
The visit to Grupo Alta was really a wonderful experience and I thank them all for being so welcoming and Whole Foods for allowing me to go on their trip and have a peek into Fair Trade produce from farm to store.
When You Choose To Buy Whole Trade® You Support:
- Better wages and working conditions.
- Environmental responsibility that encourages biodiversity and healthy soils.
- Community development projects like scholarships and health clinics.
- 1% donation to Whole Planet Foundation® to help fund poverty alleviation through microcredit in the US and abroad.
You have to shop anyway, now your responsible shopping choice can make someone’s life better and help protect the environment!
I am going to make a separate post about my visit to DiveMex Fair Trade Pepper Farm so be on the look out sometime next week.