You can be a part of changing the food system!
For over 30 years, Equal Exchange has worked together with farmers and consumers to change the way that our food is grown and distributed, and to give farmers a fair shake.
On June 9th and 10th, Equal Exchange held our first People’s Food System Summit at Stonehill College in Massachusetts to explore how to broaden the food activist movement. We gathered 50 Action Forum citizen-consumers and 50 Equal Exchange worker-owners together with visiting small-scale producers to discuss a wide variety of issues. Many rich discussions took place, leaving us motivated and inspired to continue building this movement together.
Here are some of our reflections from workshop sessions at the summit!
During his workshop session, Equal Exchange Co-Executive Director Rob Everts presented an overview of his experiences in community organizing and leading social and political movements.
Rob began the session by pointing out that while most consumer boycotts are “time-bound,” meaning, consumers are organized to protest against a specific store, company, product, or commodity for a specific period of time, the boycott either produces the change it seeks or it doesn’t, after which the organizers and consumers move on. Even though the Action Forum seeks to build a more lasting, ongoing model for organizing consumers, it seems prudent to look to past campaigns for guidance in building this model.
Rob’s story of how he was motivated to live a life of political activism and organizing by United Farm Workers members was stirring. The UFW, including Rob’s brother, had been picketing against Gallo wine outside of a liquor store that was on his way home from school. Nervous as he was about engaging consumers one-on-one about the consequences of their purchases, sibling rivalry finally got the better of his fear, and he joined the protest. Rob also talked about his relationship with Fred Ross, who was a behind-the-scenes mentor to Caesar Chavez, and ultimately to Rob as well.
After years of working with the UFW, Rob moved east to help organize hotel and restaurant workers, and ultimately founded Neighbor to Neighbor, which successfully campaigned to shut off aid from the US government to the Contras in Nicaragua. Inspired by the anti-Apartheid movement, as well as Rob’s past activism with the UFW, Neighbor to Neighbor then embarked on a boycott of Folger’s coffee. The goal was to put pressure on the (then) manufacturer of Folger’s, Procter and Gamble, to stop supporting the oligopoly in El Salvador that was carrying out a brutal civil war against its people. This ultimately brought him into contact with members of the young Equal Exchange co-op, and the rest is history.
The supermarket shelves are not as diverse as they seem.
Annie’s Homegrown. Stonyfield. Applegate Farms, Kashi. Back to Nature. Lara Bar. Late July. Naked Juice. During this workshop session, there were gasps of “Oh no!” from the audience as we examined a food web showing how corporations like General Mills, Mondelez, Pepsi, Hormel and Hain Celestial have been hungrily buying up our favorite food brands — brands we love and have trusted to stand for the things we ourselves stand for.
“Unless you look closely, you wouldn’t know they were the same brand,” said Phil Howard, a professor in the Community Sustainability department at Michigan State University, who has been researching the consolidation trends in the food and beverage industries for years. “It looks like you have a lot of choices. There are fewer and fewer people making decisions about the food we eat.” The increasing trend has been that corporations are acquiring as many profitable organic brands as they can, trying to control the market without making these changes visible on packaging.
Why should it matter if these brands are no longer independently owned? Howard explained that large corporations often have an agenda and must answer to their shareholders. This means that well-intentioned consumers are often unknowingly supporting agendas that may not match their own values. Brands that originally had strong values and a commitment to quality, organic ingredients and sustainable practices are now subject to owners whose main motivation is frequently increased profits, not consumers. By purchasing a sub-brand of a mammoth, multinational corporation, consumer dollars are going directly into that larger organization and, without knowing it, we could be supporting things we may not actually agree with and reinforcing trends that we ultimately don’t want to see increasing.
In spite of this discouraging trend, Howard explained that “there is a positive counter trend moving towards real diversity.” There are a handful of companies, like Equal Exchange, who have chosen to remain independent despite buyout offers. Howard recommends focusing our efforts on creating alternatives and raising awareness surrounding these issues. He suggested the website “Buycott.com” whose slogan is “vote with your wallet” as a resource to help consumers determine where their money is really going, in the food sector and beyond.
By working together and looking deeper we can stay informed and choose to support brands and movements that are working towards shifting the power structure, increasing diversity in the food system and ensuring future access to healthy, affordable, food for everyone.
Learn more about Phil Howard’s research online and check out his book, Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What we Eat?
Edith Stacey-Huber and Adi Faribank discussed their experiences with buying clubs, sharing how they work around traditional grocery entities to bring food to their communities. Edith first organized a buying club in Ontario to make organic food affordable to families in her neighborhood, and eventually she brought that model to Michigan. Each of the four dozen families involved in the club is the buyer for one specific farm, in order to make it more sustainable. Participants are committed to purchasing food that’s grown locally, versus food that’s regulated and labeled. Edith overcame eight months of Michigan state bureaucracy around warehouse licensing until member families were able to purchase and store food sourced directly from farms.
Adi Faribank helped the project to grow by creating a non-corporate information system which made things much easier on the members. The community-based nature of the open source software provided a model for systems development. Adi applied his computer science learning to the project in 2003, and by 2006 it was processing over a quarter million dollars of food orders with a dozen buying clubs. By 2015, that participation jumped to $6.5 million. With the growing use by different groups Adi added back-up servers and program improvements including a user fee to the software.
The software allows families to source locally and then manage their purchases through an alternative food system tailored to each club’s needs. The major differences to the corporate food system is that there is traceability back to every farm or kitchen, the food is fresher, more money stays with the member families, and there is no food waste.
Edith strongly endorses the buying club as of a form of food activism. “I still remember the first bite of a locally sourced walnut and how amazingly good and different it was from a walnut from the grocery store,” noted Edith. Member families do have to adapt to the limited hours and there is a need to move to a business model (not volunteer) so that families who dedicate lots of time can get compensated by the families who have less time to dedicate. Edith and Adi are happy to help any group to that wants to get started. Join the Action Forum to start the conversation!
Do you want to get involved in this movement and participate in future events with us? Join the Equal Exchange Action Forum to become a member of this growing community of activists, advocates and citizen-consumers.
We’re proud to offer fairly traded, organic olive oil grown by small-scale farmers in the West Bank. We believe this olive oil is truly special, both for what it is as a product and for the story behind it. Watch the video below and read on to learn more!
In 2007, Jim Harb of Knoxville, Tennessee, was asked to help start Olive Branch, a local non-profit social enterprise to support West Bank Palestinian olive farmers. His co-founder searched the internet and found Tania Maxwell, one of the first U.S. importers of West Bank olive oil. Tania and another woman interested in crafts had traveled by themselves to Ramallah in the West Bank on behalf of Palestinian rights groups, trying to find ways to assist Palestinians to survive economically.
Tania started an olive oil partnership with the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC) which she ran out of the basement of her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for over five years. Olive Branch started ordering cases of oil from Tania to supply Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and other congregations in the southeastern U.S. that wanted to advocate peacefully for the Palestinian people.
When Tania retired in 2012 after five years, she asked Equal Exchange if we wanted to take up where she left off. We did. A few of us traveled to Ramallah and met with PARC leaders, and we were convinced that continuing the partnership was vital work. Jim Harb and the congregations he worked with then became partners with Equal Exchange, ordering thousands more bottles of PARC oil over the past five years. Jim’s story demonstrates how an activist can help make a huge difference, and how groups of individuals working together for social justice through their congregations can provide tangible support to people in need. Jim and congregants from the Southeast U.S. are part of the movement to help Palestinian olive farmers stay on their land, feed their families, and educate their children while working toward a better future.
Every year, small groups of Equal Exchange worker-owners journey to Nicaragua to meet small-scale coffee producers and to experience what it feels like to pick coffee. The trip often evokes feelings of connection with the farmers and an appreciation for the hard work that they do.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving back in the United States, we’re remembering the gratitude that we felt in Nicaragua, and giving thanks for the people who help bring food our tables. Here are some journal excerpts that reflect feelings of gratitude from our delegation in January 2015.
From Rick, Midwest Warehouse Lead:
“Eight months later, the intense emotional experience of our delegation has sort of distilled to a deep thankfulness and overall reverence for those who toil to produce the products that we, as consumers, eat or drink without a thought. I definitely think a little harder now about the products that I buy and the stories behind them.”
From Bethany, Community Sales Events Coordinator:
“Emotions from my journey to the coffee farm in Nicaragua play back in my mind frequently. The feeling of fighting off my quickness to label something as unpleasant just because it wasn’t easy. My challenge to see the dirt under my fingernails as earth and life. Feelings of frustration with my lack of ability to communicate with limited Spanish but also pride that I was finally able to struggle through expressing my immense gratitude to my host family for their sincere hospitality and for the truly unique opportunity.”
From Sara, Copywriter and Content Coordinator:
“We spent hours picking coffee, climbing muddy slopes in the rain, reaching for red cherries beyond our fingertips, grasping branches for balance. At the end, the heavy basket tied around my waist was barely a quarter full. Wet and tired, I’d only picked enough to make a single cup of coffee. As I realized this, every taken-for-granted cup of coffee I’d ever had came back to me: every cup before work, every road trip pit stop, every exam cram session, every cup I brewed out of boredom, every coffee date, pumpkin spice latte, extra large iced coffee, and both complimentary cups on the flight to Nicaragua. Each one of those cups of coffee, immediately accessible, necessary and effortless for me, was the product of hours of work. And who is doing that work every day? It’s the farmers whose livelihoods rely on the success of their coffee trees. Farmers who innovate, invest all they have and struggle to grow their crop the hard way. Farmers who send their children to school in the city, and hope they come back with some new knowledge to carry them safely into an unpredictable future. Farmers who shared their homes and meals and stories with me that week in Dipilto. I can’t help but feel gratitude with every cup, reliving the memory of those mountains.”
One of the delegates, Bekah, was moved to write a prayer following our trip. She worked in the Equal Exchange Interfaith department for a few years and finally left to pursue her dream to become a Methodist minister. She’s currently a first year student in divinity school.
“God, bless the campesinos, the small-scale coffee farmers who spend all year working small, family-owned farms, with unpredictable harvests.
Renew their souls to so that they might carry on through the next harvest as their coffee fuels me through the next challenge in my life.
Help me remember that when I choose to buy the things that I need from fair trade companies, I’m investing in social projects like fresh water wells, educational materials, and organic agriculture projects.
Remind me every day that I do mission work simply by choosing the coffee that I drink.
This Thanksgiving, we hope you’ll join us in sharing your appreciation for farmers around the world.