Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis
The current selection of Driscoll's berries at the Durham Co-op Market
This week, community members supporting farmworkers organized a small letter-writing campaign asking the Durham Co-op Market and Carrboro’s Weaver Street Market to boycott Driscoll’s berries and remove the product from their shelves. According to managers at each store, the Durham Co-op received at least two dozen letters from customers, while Weaver Street received eight, four of which were from co-op owners.
The boycott is a result of at least three years of farmworkers publicly rallying
against unfair treatment in Driscoll's fields, both in the United States and Mexico. Workers are asking customers and stores to boycott all of Driscoll's products. They cite below-minimum wage (as low as six dollars a day), the denial of water breaks on the job, unsafe work environments, and unsanitary living conditions.
Yesterday, the INDY reported on the official statements from the Durham Co-op and Driscoll’s.
Deborah Rosenstein, a Weaver Street Market co-owner who wrote to the market, says she could do without berries.
“I think what often happens with boycotts like this is that consumers aren't given the chance to weigh in, and co-op managers assume what the co-op membership wants,” she tells the INDY
, “and that the priority is berries at the ready versus worker rights and sustainable, just food systems.”
In 1988, Weaver Street supported a popular grape boycott
led by famed activist Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union. In a show of solidarity with the workers, the market only sold organic grapes during that time.
Today, both Weaver Street and the Durham Co-op refer to a high customer demand for berries that far outweighs the number of letters asking to discontinue them. (Neither provided an exact number.) Additionally, both markets express that it is nearly impossible to find berries from local sources year-round, which creates limited alternative options to Driscoll's.
In an email to the INDY
, Weaver Street produce merchandiser Carolyn Twesten says the market “does everything possible to avoid Driscoll berries” and is actively looking for a solution. She details the following:
An excerpt from an email written by Weaver Street Market's produce merchandiser on Aug. 12, 2016.
Durham Co-op Market general manager Leila Wolfrum says she is open to discussion. As a response to the letters—many of which she has replied to with the market's official statement
—the market created a 24-x-36-inch informational poster and taped it against the produce cooler where the boxes of berries are stacked. Its position is strategic and noticeable, though the dense block of text doesn't encourage a desire to stop and read the entire thing.
An informational poster about the Driscoll's boycott at the Durham Co-op Market
"We are by no means trying to endorse the problems being highlighted in this boycott, which is why we are eagerly posting this information about how complex this issue is," says Wolfrum. "We are probably the only store in town actually discouraging people at the shelf.
It’s in the best interest for the community to make that choice. We're not promoting them, but they are on the shelf."
She says that the market does not engage in direct communication with Driscoll's, but with the wholesalers who provide the product. Wolfrum admits that she herself won't buy Driscoll's as a result of the boycott.
"I respect both the right and opinion [of customers]," she says. "I’m glad to engage and I’m glad that people are bringing this up and that it’s getting discussed. If we can get additional focus on workers' rights and worker treatment, it can only improve the food system."
Community members on social media have been questioning whether this highlights a more complex problem: the cooperative market model becoming diluted in its ethos for the sake of affluent consumer demand.
Customer Mindy Isser wasn't happy with the Durham Co-op's response, and has decided not to shop there anymore.
"It's true that farm labor is exploitative, but these are workers who are bravely stepping out, taking their issue to the public, and asking us to do this for them," she says. "You can't pretend to be ethical and ignore a really easy boycott. If farmworkers are saying that 'we believe it's our best option,' then it is not my place to theorize from my couch about what would be a better way to end their exploitation right now. I don’t think that we need to find the answer. It’s just so easy: don’t sell the berries."
Cooperative models like Weaver Street Market and the Durham Co-op Market are born from the idea of alternative food systems, which, in theory, should represent "an anti-systemic protest"
and detachment from traditional economic models. The responses from both markets, however, have highlighted consumer product demand that goes against seasonality and ethical principles.
"The co-op is supposed to be an alternative model," says Isser. "If they’re not respecting this boycott, how are they not different from Kroger and Harris Teeter, whose sole purpose is to sell product? The co-op is more expensive, and I’m happy and able to buy from them in order to respect my values. But by them not respecting the boycott, that’s not supporting my values."