Erika Inwald, Labor and Fair Trade Advocate, Rallies Communities for Food Justice

by Maggie Tauranac

Published: 1/18/18, Last updated: 5/23/19

Erika Inwald is the National Coordinator for the Domestic Fair Trade Association (DFTA), a group that integrates the goals of the sustainable agriculture and fair labor movements. Erika’s devotion to labor advocacy is deeply rooted. A New York City native, she has been champing at the bit since before college, with a focus on labor and equitable approaches to farming. We recently had the privilege of talking to Erika, who is quick with a raucous laugh that is impossible to ignore, and she dazzles even the most cynical opponent with her effective communication and forceful confidence, all at the ripe old age of 25.

Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up, and what are some of the foods you connect with your upbringing/your favorite things to eat?

I grew up in Brooklyn, NY and have lived here most of my life. I have always had such a deep love of food, so it’s vey difficult to choose just a few dishes that I connect with my upbringing.  My mother is an amazing cook and my dad loves to eat just as much as I do, so my childhood is filled with memories of food.

In a time when immigrants are routinely under attack, and when the president of our country unwaveringly pledges to disrupt the employment of millions who are essential to our communities and to our economy, it seemed me like a really simple choice to support these workers.

One of my favorite foods to this very day is a cold cucumber soup that is the perfect dish to eat on one of those unforgivingly hot and sticky New York summer days. When I was little, we grew chives in our backyard and I would always get so excited when my mom told me to go outside and cut chives because it meant we were going to be eating cucumber soup for dinner. Another food that was pretty ubiquitous was Trinidadian bake. Bake is a type of bread that can be cooked two ways: roasted in the oven with coconut or fried in a way that’s similar to Native American fry bread. It’s usually slathered with butter and stuffed with cheddar cheese. The best weekends were when my mom would make bake, codfish salad and serve it all with a glass of passion fruit juice.

How do you feel growing up in New York City informed your choice to be an advocate for farm laborers? There aren’t a ton of farms in Brooklyn … though some!

Even though there are some farms in New York City, I definitely never went to any of them.  In our home backyard, we grew a couple of herbs and some of the tiniest strawberries I’ve ever seen, but there was barely any sunlight, so growing anything more than that was challenging. I still remember how amazed I was when I was working at a community garden in Chicago and saw an eggplant growing for the first time. I couldn’t believe that such a frail looking plant could hold such a bulbous fruit!

Needless to say, my interest and passion for advocating for farm laborers did not derive from experience on farms. When I was a student at Bard High School Early College on the Lower East Side, my general passion for food led me to take a college level course called the History and Culture of Food. In this class, I began to realize the role that food plays in shaping our society, other than simply providing necessary sustenance. One of my favorite books from that class (and in general) is Sweetness and Power by Sidney W. Mintz, which chronicles the way that sugar shaped and enforced labor norms and articulates how class and race affect one’s relationship with food. As the idea of sustainability started gaining traction in the United States, I started to think a little bit about what sustainability means when you have health and wealth disparities related to race and class. I was lucky enough to live close to the Grand Army Plaza greenmarket and to have my family be a member of the Park Slope Food Co-op, so I was personally really familiar with what fresh food looked like, but taking this course in high school really helped me think more about the inequities deeply embedded in our food system. It wasn’t until I worked for the UNITE HERE labor union, which represents food service workers, that I started thinking about how improving labor conditions at every point in the food system could help make our food system more equitable.

When did you first get involved with community organizing and advocacy?

When I entered as a freshman at Brown University, I was convinced that I would study international relations. I quickly learned, though, that in almost every class that had an open-ended project or paper, I would always choose a topic related to food. Consequently, when I was looking for internships during my spring semester, I started applying to organizations that were working on food and sustainability issues. UNITE HERE! was beginning to connect their mission of organizing food service workers with the sustainability movement and was looking to hire a summer organizer that could contribute to some of their sustainability work.

I jumped at the opportunity to work in the field that I was interested in, but I had no idea what organizing was before accepting the internship. The organizers at UNITE HERE! Local 100 taught me how to organize and I quickly learned how strong organizing skills are essential to creating meaningful social change no matter what the issue. I continued to hone these organizing skills by working with three other UNITE HERE! locals and by working as a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow at La Casa Norte, my field placement in Chicago.

You are now National Coordinator for the Domestic Fair Trade Association (DFTA). What is the DFTA’s main goal? Who does this organization represent, and what are some of your main accomplishments?

The DFTA is a unique organization that fosters collaboration between farmers and farmworkers in the United States and Canadian sustainable agriculture movement. We seek to build agricultural supply chains dedicated to principles of fairness and equity by uniting these efforts with mission-based traders, retailers, and consumers. Our mission is to promote and protect the integrity of domestic fair trade.

The DFTA, which currently has 35 members, was formed for two main reasons. First, many of our founding members — who span every sector of the agricultural supply chain — realized that in order to achieve their vision of a fairer and more sustainable food system it was imperative to work together across sectors. Often, different sectors are pitted against each other in a way that makes it almost impossible to reach this collective goal of an improved agricultural system. The founding members wanted to create an organization where farmworker organizations and national brands, for example, could work together on joint initiatives to make our food system more just and more sustainable. Second, many of the founding members had been involved in international fair trade and recognized that many of the conditions facing small-scale farmers and farmworkers abroad were similar to those occurring here in the United States and Canada, albeit to perhaps a different scale. Recognizing these similarities, our members wanted to ensure that issues of fairness and sustainability were being addressed at home as well as abroad.

One of our main accomplishments has been successfully advocating for higher standards in fair trade and social justice certifications. We have created evaluations of social justice certifications according to domestic fair trade principles and continue to provide public comments and feedback for certification standard renewals. Providing input from our members from across the different sectors has been directly linked to many certifications providing higher protections to farmworkers and family-scale farmers. Another accomplishment is hosting an annual national domestic fair trade gathering for over 10 years that brings together farmers, farmworkers, retailers, manufacturers, distributors, processors and advocates for cross sector collaboration and education. New partnerships and relationships have formed from these gatherings that have succeeded in creating new avenues for change in our agricultural system.

Recently you began galvanizing the support of Park Slope Food Coop’s Labor Committee to stop purchasing products from a bakery that had abruptly fired workers who couldn’t produce workers’ papers within 10 days. Was this fueled by consumer demand? How has the Coop responded, and what are the lessons for consumers?

The campaign to stop purchasing products from Tom Cat Bakery was 100 percent fueled by workers who were asking for our support. In a country where all workers, but especially immigrant and undocumented workers, are routinely denied respect and agency, Tom Cat Bakery employees organized themselves to fight for the implementation of widely accepted policies to protect immigrants at work and for a severance package that more fairly represented their up to 16 years of service. In a time when immigrants are routinely under attack, and when the president of our country unwaveringly pledges to disrupt the employment of millions who are essential to our communities and to our economy, it seemed me like a really simple choice to support these workers.

When we brought the vote to the co-op on whether to conditionally cease purchase of Tom Cat Bakery products, we received a favorable vote of 59 percent for and 41 percent against the proposal. Unfortunately, for any vote that resembles a boycott you need a 75 percent majority for approval, so the proposal did not pass. Many Coop members were extremely supportive of this proposal, however, and we will continue to support the Tom Cat Bakery workers.

I hope one of the main lessons for consumers is that it’s never too late to take a stand on issues that you believe in.  It’s one thing to say you support immigrants, but it’s another thing to actually take action when they’re directly asking for support. Currently, the campaign still continues.

As of late you have focused your Master’s in Food Policy thesis from NYU on worker cooperative farms. How would you describe this model of farming? Can you tell us how they work and point to some successful examples?

Through my research I did not find one standard definition of worker cooperative farms (although Faith Gilbert includes a great description of a worker cooperative farm in the Green Horns Guidebook, Cooperative Farming: Frameworks for Farming Together). By examining state and federal legal statutes that define worker cooperatives, I determined that worker cooperative farms typically include three main components: workers own and operate the business, each worker-member has an equal vote and net income is shared among the worker-members according to a previously agreed upon formula. Many worker cooperative farms that I interviewed were formed because the worker-owners understood that labor is often exploited and wanted to create a farm that was centered on better labor practices, including increased pay equity and democratic participation. Although every worker cooperative farm that I spoke with had different payment models and different rules for how new worker-members can join the cooperative farm, most of the worker cooperative farms were grounded in their desire to reimagine agricultural work so that it is more collaborative and enjoyable.

Why aren’t worker cooperative farms the standard method, and what would need to change to make them such?

Through my preliminary findings, I’ve learned that difficulty communicating is one of the main barriers to starting and maintaining a successful worker cooperative farm. Even though I’m sure everyone can recall a time in which they were assigned a group project in school, we are not typically conditioned to work collaboratively in the United States. We are so accustomed to having one leader or one boss and looking to them to make all of the decisions. For that reason, so many people find it difficult to even conceive of collaborative decision-making. Many of the farms I spoke with who had been farming as a worker cooperative for a more prolonged period of time mentioned that once you get past the difficulty of learning a different method of communication, you reap the rewards. Worker-owners mentioned that by making decisions collaboratively and truly weighing the variety of considerations brought forth by each owner, they were able to come to a better decision than they would have otherwise. Each member of the cooperative also had more ownership of the decision, which created a more positive work environment.

Worker cooperative farms could be even more successful if people were taught how to manage farms, or other businesses, cooperatively. The norm in many of the business schools in the United States is a hierarchical business model. Transforming our education to include how to work and manage a business cooperatively might go a long way in making cooperative decision-making easier and in catapulting worker cooperative farms further into the standard method of farming.

What’s next for Erika Inwald?

First, I’m really excited about what I’ll be working on with the Domestic Fair Trade Association over the upcoming year. Our members have been developing a promotional week so that we can highlight some of the brands and farms that are seriously committed to domestic fair trade principles. Supporting these dedicated farms and businesses is so important because when we help them grow their businesses and supply chains, we are slowly increasing the proportion of our food system that is fair and sustainable. At the same time though, supporting these businesses and farms through purchasing dollars can only go so far. We need to create widespread policies that make it easier for fairness and sustainability to be the norm. As part of our promotional week, we’re going to host coordinated events at participating DFTA retail members featuring advocacy campaigns from our farmworker and non-profit members. By encouraging shoppers to both support committed businesses and to take action in political and policy work, we can grow our movement for domestic fair trade and a better agricultural system.

In general, I hope to continue organizing, researching and advocating until our agricultural system is finally fair and environmentally sustainable. There’s a lot more to do!

Follow the Domestic Fair Trade Association!

Twitter: @thedfta
Facebook: Domestic Fair Trade Association, @thedfta

More Reading

Where Food Sustainability and Disability Clash

June 14, 2022

Get To Know Whetstone Radio Collective

March 23, 2022

The USDA Stumbles as it Attempts to Address Historic Racism

February 17, 2022

Connecting the Dots on Biodiversity and Food Sovereignty

January 31, 2022

A Year of Challenges and Successes for Workers in the Food System

September 3, 2021

Have Local Food Hubs Proved They Should Play a Bigger Role in Emergency Food Aid?

March 4, 2021

We Need to Better Protect Food and Farmworkers During COVID-19 And Beyond

February 26, 2021

How Non-Natives Can Honor the True Story of Thanksgiving

November 25, 2020

5 Ways You Can Support Veteran Farmers Today (and Every Day)

November 11, 2020

Environmental Racism and Our Food System

October 30, 2020