Equitable Food Initiative Pilot Update

As we close in on the end of July, labor crews are up and running on the farms across the Northeast – making time it an excellent for a quick update on our pilot partnership with the Equitable Food Initiative. As we mentioned in our last post, the backbone of EFI certification is workforce development and leadership training. In order for a farm to certify, 90% of the workforce must be trained through the program. In addition a leadership team representing the diversity of the workforce (including race, ethnicity, gender and roles across the farm) must be established, and document regular meetings. Designed to encourage feedback from across the farm, these meetings allow the team to make progress on specific initiatives or develop solutions identified by the crew or management of the farm.

One of our learning objectives in this pilot was to identify how a Northeast program might differ from a west coast program. EFI has found success thus far on larger farms in the wets, Canada and Mexico. The farms in the Red Tomato network are smaller – both in terms of acreage and gross sales – and have less capacity to expand than many of their western counterparts, which limits their capacity to absorb additional costs.

Our farms use a combination of local labor and H2A workers, mostly from Jamaica, who arrive in waves as the season progresses. This meant that it would be nearly impossible to train 90% of the workforce in a single pre-season training as is typically done. This past spring we worked with the two participating farms to identify and train leadership teams on each farm, with plans to do a second training in the fall after the full crew has arrived.

Communication is Key

Each leadership team is comprised of 9-10 farm employees ranging from management, H2A workers and local labor. Each team member also represents the supply chain within the farm – from field workers to packing house workers to managers and food safety point-people. Part of the training involves creating a physical map of the farm and where each person’s job is focused; communication and team building; problem-solving; and the role and responsibility of the Leadership Team over the course of the season.

In the debrief, both farms were excited to have both training and a structure with which to explore better communication across the farm hierarchy, but also across the cultural differences built into their diverse crews. Offering critical feedback can be difficult under even the easiest of circumstances. Working to address trust, communication and teamwork creates a way for anyone on the farm to offer or receive critical and timely insights.

The Food Safety Expectations

EFI standards cover food safety and sustainability practices in addition to worker well-being. Both farms in the pilot are currently food safety certified and meeting all of the requirements of their customers. However, in order to certify with EFI, both farms will need to increase their food safety threshold from USDA GAP standards to the EFI food safety standards which have been benchmarked against Harmonized or Global GAP. For the non-food safety nerds among us, that means additional record keeping, training and rigor in the farm food safety plan. The EFI training will help workers learn to identify, problem solve, and communicate around particular elements of that implementation. Both farms may require additional technical support to become compliant with both the new food safety regulation (Food Safety Modernization Act) and the EFI certification standards.

The Work Ahead

With full crews on the farms, secondary trainings, audits, and food safety support, provided by an RT-hired food safety consultant are all on the horizon. While tremendous work continues on the farms, our sales team is working with our buyers to introduce them to the certification, if they aren’t familiar already, and the breadth of content it covers.

As we all know, doing something new for the first time takes time. And training takes time. The farms, farmers and employees participating in this pilot are committing several days of labor across the entire farm, in peak season, to the project. This was never a commitment to be taken lightly but we at Red Tomato are increasingly appreciative of the commitment and integrity the leadership of both farms have brought to this project. Likewise, our partners at EFI have been generous with their time as we apply their methods to our Northeast context and insert Red Tomato as an intermediary into what is normally straightforward collaboration between one farm entity and the talented EFI team.

We’re excited to share more information on the pilot at the NE Gathering Domestic Fair Trade in August!