PCC's produce merchandiser considered Fair Trade bananas but instead leaned on the natural-food chain's longtime supplier, a Mexican family-owned plantation, to start a social program for its pickers.

Share story

The question: What’s an ethical banana?

The scene: Boxes spill over with perfectly ripe, unblemished bananas offered for snacking to local produce guys gathered this spring evening at Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford to hear a couple from Colima state, Mexico.

The ex-pat Americans, armed with slides of poor villagers in lush, tropical banana-growing country, are touring the Northwest to win hearts for GROW: a banana-labeling program they’re involved with that charges stores 60 cents extra per box to fund workers’ health and education benefits, from scholarships to potable water.

Key player in audience: Joe Hardiman, PCC Natural Markets’ produce merchandiser, who returned from five days in Mexico a believer.

Emcee: Tom Lively, head of sales of Eugene, Ore.-based Organically Grown Company, the Northwest’s largest organic-produce distributor, who dreamed up the four-city tour after volunteering in Colima.

Afterward, we peeled back more layers with Hardiman and Lively:

Q. Why is it important to sell an ethical banana, of all fruits?

Hardiman: “It’s a signature fruit, the No. 1 selling produce item. It always comes from Third World countries. There’s been a lot of history with the banana and the huge demand for it in Europe and America — they (American companies) went in with a strong-arm approach, rolled over these smaller countries to get it.

That’s part of why the natural-foods shopper wants to know we’re replenishing the soil, paying a fair wage — wants to feel a sense of fair play.

Q. Why are bananas “top banana”?

Hardiman: No seeds, no pits, you can eat them traveling with no mess, there’s a “protective wrapper.” Kids love it. The elderly love it. You can eat it with young teeth, no teeth. There’s nobody challenged by consuming a banana. It is the perfect fruit.

Lively: You don’t have to wash them. You don’t get a mealy one. They’re super nutritious; available year ’round. And, for good or bad, they’re attractively priced, partly because they come from Third World countries.

Q. Who broached the idea of a fair banana to you?

Lively: When Fair Trade bananas came from Ecuador we had to do some soul searching. But we were reluctant because of poor luck with organic bananas in other countries (than Mexico).

Q. Fair Trade folks say that’s because only the Doles and Chiquitas with their own boats can ship to the West Coast efficiently. Your Organics Unlimited bananas from Mexico are trucked.

A. Hardiman: Trucking them makes a difference in quality. I think this is the best banana we’ve ever had. Mexico’s the closest country to Seattle that grows bananas. From further away, you have to pick them too green and then gas them.

Q. There are no Mexican Fair-Trade bananas so far. How did Organics Unlimited come up with GROW instead?

Hardiman: We asked (president) Mayra Velasquez, pretty much demanded, she find (a social-equity program). They’re fourth-generation family-owned, they’re not a Dole or a Chiquita.

I have to pick my words very carefully. We felt it was better for the growers themselves to naturally do this rather than to force them into an expensive banana.

(Fair Trade Certified banana standards mandate: a minimum floor price; an extra $1 per box going toward farms’ community development or environmental projects; and licensing fees to cover third-party oversight).

Lively: I support the concept of Fair Trade, it’s not a criticism of the organization. The choice was Mayra’s, to come up with a social-equity program. Mayra looked into it; she was not turned on. For one thing, Fair Trade products are not all organic.

Q. Whole Foods supports Earth University bananas — which aren’t Fair Trade or organic but support a sustainable tropical agriculture program in Costa Rica. Did you consider those?

Hardiman: I don’t want to comment about Whole Foods’ commitment. Nobody from Earth University has approached me for several years.

Q. Joe, you visited banana workers’ kids in housing you likened to mangers. Is GROW just a Band-Aid?

Hardiman: These kids that are in school honestly would tell you they had no opportunity until they had this grant by the GROW foundation. It’s a Band-Aid, but those kids had nothing before.

Q. You spoke about the Cavendish, the variety of banana that Americans love, being in danger.

Hardiman: Some catastrophic diseases are threatening the Cavendish; there’s concern they could spread either accidentally or deliberately; there could be a terrorist threat. Every Cavendish is a clone, so you can’t build a resistant strain. That banana is carrying the strength of every produce department of America. The amount of sales and jobs and production loss would be devastating. People say it could be the end of the banana.

These interviews were condensed and edited. You can reach Footprint editor Carey Quan Gelernter at 206-464-2218 or footprint@seattletimes.com.