Advocacy is a Catalyst for a Stronger Produce Industry

Originally printed in the July 2023 issue of Produce Business.

Six years ago this summer, I embarked on a life-changing journey. I squeezed all my belongings into two suitcases and set my sights on Washington, D.C. Little did I know this move would ignite my passion for policy advocacy.

The bustling pace of Congress overwhelmed me as I stood among my fellow interns, feeling like a fish out of water. Yet, amid the chaos, one profound experience etched itself into my memory — the sight of countless advocates flooding the Senate offices. Among them were professional lobbyists, representing diverse industries, from airlines to hospitals to higher education institutions. However, what truly caught my attention were the Kansans who arrived with their personal stories and unique perspectives. Their involvement proved instrumental in shaping important votes.

This realization cemented my belief in the importance of advocacy for all of us. As individuals immersed in our respective fields, we possess unparalleled knowledge and insights. It is our collective responsibility to share our stories and ensure our voices resound.

Advocacy is essential, because no one understands our field better than we do. Many people don’t realize they have the power to shape policies and regulations at all levels of government. Engaging in advocacy not only ensures a bright future for our businesses, but also impacts the larger produce industry and the millions of people who consume our products daily.

Advocacy is essential, because no one understands our field better than we do.

When I talk to folks about this, many tell me they’re unsure where to start. I’d like to share a few ways to get the ball rolling:

1) Find an issue that resonates with you and your work. Advocacy is about combining passion and knowledge to make a difference. Do some soul searching with key decision-makers in your organization and select a key issue. Dive deep into understanding the issue and its potential impact on the produce supply chain. Here are a few examples:

  • Nutrition: USDA nutrition programs, like the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and Produce Prescriptions, play a crucial role in addressing food insecurity and ensuring access to fresh, nutritious food for vulnerable communities. By supporting these programs, we not only make produce more available and affordable for those in need, but also improve their overall well-being and contribute to a healthier society. And the best part: It’s not just a social responsibility, but also a smart business move that opens up new market opportunities.
  • Labor and Immigration: We all know a reliable workforce is the backbone of our industry. Grower-shippers need certainty when planting, harvesting, packing and distributing their crops. Ensuring lawmakers understand our unique position is key in installing sensible and fair labor and immigration policies.
  • Sustainability: As sustainability gains increasing importance in the public eye, all of us are seeing increased regulations and consumer demands for things like biodegradable packaging, waste reduction, and sustainable agricultural practices. By actively participating in advocacy efforts, we showcase our commitment to sustainability and actively shape the development of environmentally responsible policies.

2) Find ways to make your voice heard such as submitting public comments, participating in public hearings, and volunteering with regulatory bodies or promotional boards. Another impactful way to advocate for our industry is by inviting local lawmakers to tour your facility. This immersive experience helps build relationships, deepens their understanding of industry challenges, and positions you as a trusted resource for shaping policies and garnering support.

3) Join industry associations and trade organizations. These associations provide a platform for collective action and a stronger voice for our industry. By actively participating, you can collaborate with like-minded professionals and collectively advocate for policies that benefit the entire industry. Together, you can drive positive change and elevate our industry’s influence. DNO is a member of the International Fresh Produce Association and School Nutrition Association and is also involved with local organizations like Ohio Proud, Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association, and the Ohio Ecological Farm and Food Association.

4) Establish a public affairs leader. Within your own organization, consider establishing a public affairs leader. This individual will coordinate and drive advocacy initiatives, keeping key staff informed about policy developments and serving as the dedicated advocate, the “go-to” expert for your external contacts.

Advocacy is not just a necessity for today, it is the catalyst that empowers our businesses and industry to reach new heights tomorrow. With each step we take to shape policies, regulations and public perception, we forge a path that aligns with our needs and aspirations.

Together, united in purpose and determination, we possess the power to leave an indelible mark on our industry. The time for advocacy is now, and together, we will shape a brighter and more prosperous tomorrow for all.

Marissa Dake is the vice president of brand and people at DNO Produce in Columbus, OH. Raised in a farming family, she is no stranger to wrangling cattle, driving a tractor, and fighting off unruly roosters. She is passionate about ensuring that all people have access to fresh produce, regardless of their income or zip code.

Committed to Healthy Made Easy, DNO Produce is a bulk and fresh-cut produce provider based in Columbus. The family-owned company, which provides ready-to-eat produce for school districts across 17 states, has been a passionate advocate for child nutrition policies, earning the title of Industry Advocate of the Year from the International Fresh Produce Association.