Skip to main content

Addressing the social impacts of our food system

U.S. farmworkers face a slew of social, economic and political challenges that have caused a decades-long farmworker shortage. Here's how brands such as Alter Ego, Clif Bar, Driscoll's, Kuli Kuli and Philz Coffee are stepping in.


The thinkPARALLAX panel. From left: Driscoll's Soren Bjorn, Clif Bar's Rada Dogandjieva, Philz Coffee's Andi Trindle Mersch, Alter Eco's Antoine Ambert and Kuli Kuli's Emma Giloth.

The events of the past month have given many of us a newfound appreciation for our global food system. For many, the sight of depleted grocery store shelves was what made the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) jump in our minds from an abstract to an immediate threat.

Granted, the lack of pasta, oat milk and, of course, toilet paper was more a result of panic buying than an actual shortage of supply. The global food supply chain remains strong for now, thanks to hardworking farmworkers around the world, although the widespread shutdown of restaurant, hospital and foodservice organizations has resulted in an increase in food waste.

That reliance on hand labor is something to watch in the coming weeks. Some 75 percent of fresh fruit consumed in the United States, for example, is completely dependent on hand-harvesting. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, U.S. farmworkers faced a slew of social, economic and political challenges that have caused a decades-long farmworker shortage. In addition to threatening the overall stability of the U.S. food supply chain, this shortage translates to more than $3 billion in lost opportunities for growers, says New American Economy.

From farm to table, people are what make our food system possible, and we must address their needs alongside the planet’s. Doing so is both the right thing to do and also makes business sense. Yet, many social, ethical and political challenges remain.

We embed social impact in our business. This ensures our people on the front lines are thinking about these issues.
Exploring how food companies are doing just that was the focus of the thinkPARALLAX Perspectives event in late February, hosted in partnership with Net Impact SF, at the PCH Innovation Hub in San Francisco — two weeks before California implemented social distancing measures. During the event, I led a panel discussion with leaders from Driscoll’s, Clif Bar, Kuli Kuli, AlterEco and Philz Coffee. Although our world has changed significantly since February, the topics we discussed are more relevant than ever.

Defining ‘social impact’

What does "social impact" mean, anyway? The term has become yet another buzzword in corporate sustainability parlance.

"Positive social impact means the equitable distribution of risk and reward," said Rada Dogandjieva, senior agriculture programs manager at Clif Bar. "It’s the people on the front lines who bear the most risk. Brands are protected from risk yet reap the greatest rewards."

One way Clif Bar achieves this is by considering business decisions from the multiple perspectives outlined in its "Five Aspirations." The employee-owned company chooses the word "aspiration" in recognition that it’s on a journey and can always do more in each area.

The global food industry is worth billions of dollars, yet this wealth often isn’t shared fairly with frontline farmworkers. The average farmworker in California makes about $10 an hour, according to Economic Policy Institute, although they typically aren’t employed in agriculture year-round as many farm jobs are seasonal. Positive social impact in the food system requires finding ways to share more of the reward with the people growing and harvesting our food, Dogandjieva said.

Driscoll's berries

For Driscoll’s, it’s about making sure social impact is seeded throughout the organization. "We embed social impact in our business," said Soren Bjorn, president at Driscoll’s. "This ensures our people on the front lines are thinking about these issues."

Social impact is about creating shared value for farmers and food companies, according to Emma Giloth, head of marketing & impact at Kuli Kuli. "When farmers thrive, our business thrives — it’s not something extra," she said.

"In every step in the supply chain, we ensure positive impact and no harm by working with farmers," said Antoine Ambert, senior director of sustainability and innovation at Alter Eco. The organic chocolate company sources 100 percent of its products from small-scale farmers who it ensures are fairly compensated.

A question of fair pay

It’s difficult to talk about social impact in the food system without touching on the touchy issue of fair pay. Consumers have gotten used to cheap food, which is only possible due to low farmworker pay.

"The current notion is that food needs to be cheap, and by challenging that, you risk being labeled an elitist," Dogandjieva said. "But when we’re not spending enough on food, there’s just that much less money that flows all the way through the supply chain."

To illustrate, Dogandjieva pointed out that in the 1960s, Americans spent about one-fifth of their income on food, yet today it’s less than a tenth.

The current notion is that food needs to be cheap, and by challenging that, you risk being labeled an elitist.
Farmworker pay is only one part of the equation. There’s also the rising cost of living in key agricultural states such as California. Addressing the housing crisis could be one way to help struggling farmworkers. "Farmworkers need this to be solved; we can’t just focus on wages," Bjorn said.

Sometimes complications of the upstream supply chain complicates the pay question. Coffee is a commodity sourced from thousands of smallholder farmers across the world with different harvest cycles. "There are complexities within coffee farming we can’t often control or influence," said Andi Trindle Mersch, director of coffee and sustainability at Philz Coffee.

Kuli Kuli works to address this with a supplier scorecard that incentivizes farmers to have sustainable business practices by offering higher prices. The company sources moringa, a so-called "superfood," through direct relationships with family farmers and women’s cooperatives around the world, Giloth said.

Getting political for social impact

With millions of farmworkers in the United States being undocumented, creating a pathway to legalization is one of the best routes for promoting social impact in the food system.

Last year, the House of Representatives passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which seeks to reform the process by which temporary foreign workers migrate to the United States to work in agriculture. The bill has support from both sides of the aisle and from both farmworker and grower constituencies.

"This would give millions of undocumented farmworkers a pathway to legalization," Bjorn said.

Many of the social problems in the U.S. food system are tied up with the legal purgatory many farmworkers face each day. Having this cleared up also would make it safer and more desirable for seasonal farmworkers to come to the United States for work, helping to address the labor shortage problem, Bjorn said.

Kuli Kuli product photo

Engaging consumers on social impact

When it comes to consumers and social impact, there is an element of push and pull. Although consumers increasingly are demanding ethical and sustainable food, companies also must find ways to engage them on these issues. This isn’t always so easy.

"It’s difficult to tell a story with consumers having such short attention spans," Dogandjieva said. With consumers being bombarded with negative messages around food environmental and social impacts, it can be more effective to focus on individual stories of people. 

"We must move away from the commodity and put a face to the ingredient," she said.

Engaging consumers also means talking about failures alongside successes. "Often brands don’t tell the story about the struggles in the supply chain," Trindle Mersch said. "Or talk about where we’re failing and trying to do better and how consumers can contribute by asking the right questions and demanding the right products."

Remaining authentic is key to engaging consumers on social impacts. "Authentic brands take stands on values and educate consumers," Giloth said. Companies know they are on the right track when they’ve earned consumer trust.

More on this topic

More by This Author