Member Engagement and Education

by, Liz Blum, Vice President

As a Co-op Board member, one of my interests has always been member engagement and education. Last fall, a member asked me to encourage the Co-op to stop selling berries from Driscoll’s, the nation’s largest berry supplier.

In 2015, farm workers in the United States and Mexico organized a boycott of Driscoll’s products. The aim was to have Driscoll’s require its growers to negotiate contracts that would protect workers against alleged exploitation, including interference with the right to unionize, low pay, poor working conditions, child labor and sexual harassment.

Last year, one of Driscoll’s major growers, Sakuma Brothers Farm in Washington State, recognized the independent union Familias Unidas por la Justicia as the workers’ representative, and began contract negotiations. This was a big step toward resolving issues in the United States, but many supporters of worker’s rights are continuing the boycott, hoping to encourage similar progress for workers in Mexico.

The member and I discussed the boycott, and I suggested that it would be more effective to make the request through our Member Services department. She agreed, wrote a petition and within a week she had 70 signatures that she presented to Member Services, which helped organize a meeting with signers, Board members and management.

The meeting shared information about Driscoll’s and labor issues. Dave Chapman, a Co-op organic tomato grower at Long Wind Farm in Thetford, added another concern: Driscoll’s suppliers grow many of its berries hydroponically (not in soil, but in a “growing medium” such as coconut husks or vermiculite, fed a nutrient solution of water and fertilizers).

The problem, according to Dave and other organic farmers, is that Driscoll’s is allowed to label these hydroponically grown berries “organic” if the nutrients are allowed by the USDA.

Many organic farmers believe that organic produce must be grown in soil. Chapman told us that there is no way for consumers to tell whether berries are grown hydroponically or in soil.

Last fall, farmers came from around the Northeast to hold the Rally in the Valley in protest of a practice they consider deceptive and misleading.

Being a berry lover, I’ve wondered how it is that fresh strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries are available out of season here. I realized that the berries don’t really taste fresh, although they look wonderful.

Co-op members who attended the meeting did research and found that some other co-ops boycott Driscoll’s. The result of several meetings is that the HCCS put information about Driscoll’s on our website and offers information at point of sale. Dave Chapman spoke about hydroponic issues at a public meeting at the Co-op.

This is the kind of member and employee engagement and education that makes our Co-op stand out. I hope to continue supporting the Co-op’s involvement in sustainability, member and employee empowerment issues. Please contact us with more ideas for talks, issues, and ways to serve you.

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