By Emily Ambrose, Organizer, Equal Exchange
Being new at Equal Exchange has been like returning to school. I am constantly learning the intricacies of building supply chains that support producers beyond what a “fair-trade” label could mean. What drew me to Equal Exchange was their unconventional worker-owned cooperative model, and the farmer partners who are supported to stay on their land and to have more bargaining power as small farmers collectively. Working in small-scale agriculture in the U.S. has exposed me to the realities and obstacles around land tenure, access, and security that prevent a lot of people from entering into agriculture and also staying in it.
My path in agriculture and food systems has led me to the organizing work with Equal Exchange that focuses on the issues and effects of consolidation on all parts of the supply chain. The effects of corporate consolidation and the take-over of majority of our food system not only hurts small farmers everywhere but independent food economies. It blinds us with numerous choices we are given as consumers and creates a deception of choice. I feel and live these changes in my life, see them in the news, and in the lives of others around me. I think about the number of small farmers I’ve worked with domestically and the number of small farmers all over the world who are under the control of the market and the monopolistic nature of corporations and agricultural conglomerates.
The idea of being a first generation young farmer to me, is a highly romanticized realization and reminder of just how many barriers do exist in our food system, on all levels. I can picture a world where solidarity amongst small farmers and their communities exists. It’s not something easy to envision, when we live in a globalized world with expansive amounts of inequality and inequity. We have producers and consumers who struggle at both ends to get paid and pay for food; and that gap is widening. The need to make alternative systems of exchange and cooperation between small farmers and consumers is more apparent than ever.
Over the next couple of weeks I will share a follow up piece that will focus on the current dairy crisis and the role of creating viable, equitable supply chains. I will share more on the state of dairy, from my perspective of having worked for small dairy farmers in the US, the concept of domestic fair trade, and local food economies in a globalized world.
By Jennifer Pruess, Demo & DSD, Equal Exchange
Welcome the second edition to the Equal Exchange Out West series! In early August, I sat down with Wells Neal, current Director of Equal Exchange West. We had a thorough discussion about his beginnings with Equal Exchange, his journey out west, struggles we’ve overcome along the way and ones we face as we peer into the future. One highlight is hearing how the elevator at our old Portland warehouse is now a coffee shop (Elevator Cafe & Commons), one that no longer moves, but can still be found right in the middle of our lively Portland coffee scene.
Wells, you started in the East, correct? Walk me through how you came to work with Equal Exchange.
Took me three applications. I applied for three separate positions over a period of a couple of years. I met Rink and Rob at an SCAA event in Florida. I had become aware of Equal Exchange and the fact that they were it in fair trade coffee in like 1999 when I was working for a privately held coffee roaster in upstate New York It was a great organization, but we didn’t do fair trade coffee. I was head of Sales, I tried to convince the owner (by saying): “Hey, we gotta do this fair trade thing. It’s really cool.”
I went to this event that Equal Exchange was doing in Boston at the Boston Common, there was all this activity, I had no clue what was going on. There were people speaking and it seemed like really interesting energy and I just kind of got an elixir, it was like, this is really great stuff. It’s all about farmers, it’s all about sourcing, this is cool. We were typically buying through a broker at our coffee company. I could never convince anybody in my company that it was cool, but that’s another story.
I wound up meeting Rink and Rob at a dinner and we ended up sitting down together with a bunch of people. I got to know them a little bit. So, I applied for a couple of jobs, it didn’t work out because I didn’t want to leave Syracuse. Then I got the job as National Sales Manager and my wife agreed that I could commute to Boston. I would go early Monday morning, drive the six hours, 333 miles, to get to work by 9:30, leave at one o’clock Friday afternoon, drive home for the weekend. I did that for a little over three years.
Wow, that’s quite the schedule!
A committed participant! A side note is that it almost didn’t work out because I didn’t understand Equal Exchange culture. I thought I would, I did not, it wasn’t working, that’s a separate story. We wound up working things out so my job kind of shifted away from being National Sales Manager. One of my direct reports was Tom Wilde who was out west (West Sales Manager based in Oregon). I was his supervisor from the day I was hired so I was always thinking about the west. I would visit the team and try to understand the west more. I have been connected with the west since 2006 and that’s when we started building the team.
And so you were on the hiring committees then?
Oh yes, I mean, we were growing. I was helping Tom think about how we grow in the west, that was just part of my work. You know, when we started, the first budget Tom and I did together was for 4.5 million dollars for the west. They hadn’t hit that goal the year before, that had been the prior year’s sale goal, we hadn’t hit it and we were very nervous. We said: “Well, let’s try to hit it this year.” And I don’t want to say with any deeper thinking than that, but right now, we’re probably up to 15 million.
So, that was scary and we managed to come through. I was scared to death, but at any rate, that was our first goal and we had a very small team back then. When I came on, they were in Hood River. Fast-forward to the team is growing, I’m putting more time, effort, and energy into the west, I suggest to Rink that I should move out here.
You also had other responsibilities at that time, correct?
We had been shifting responsibilities, but regardless, I was still visiting the west and only going into West Bridgewater a couple of times a month. We also knew that we were outgrowing Hood River, so we formed a committee and decided to get a bigger space. Ultimately, we moved to 1033 SE Main in 2010.
So, we weren’t at that location for that long then.
We were there for like three years and we outgrew it. So we had a very nice landlord and we knew we needed something bigger, our chocolate room needed remodeling.
Ha, yes, I remember our chocolate room.
When we first started receiving chocolate in the west, we would get it on a 52-foot cold trailer. The trailer couldn’t get in to our dock because there was no ability to back up a truck that big in to our yard. So, the truck would park on the street (I think I still have movies of this). We would go next door to borrow the forklift from our neighbor, pick off the pallets and set them down on the street, and then we would pull them up our ramp.
After all of that, where are we going to put the chocolate? The building’s not air conditioned. We would hand unload every single pallet on to a cart, take it down the hallway into our conference room because that room was air conditioned. Then we’d unstack every single case. And that’s how we started handling chocolate in the west.
My next question was concerning your transition which you spoke of just now. A typical work day for you back then sounds like it was a mix, a little bit of everything.
The west was always Sales and Operations. As opposed to the east being Sales over here and Operations over there with separate people, separate reporting channels. When I came out west as the West Sales Director, I was Director of Operations and Director of Sales. I mean, Tom was really Director of Sales, but it didn’t matter who was leading, you were always worrying about the warehouse because we were small and you had to.
When we started out, the Customer Service Manager was also the Warehouse Manager. We didn’t ever really have a Warehouse Manager. Ultimately, one move we made, was we changed the title to Customer and Warehouse Manager. So, we created a new job. Lincoln (current West Sales Representative at Equal Exchange) got that job, and so once we moved over here (NW Industrial St in Portland, Oregon), we split the job again. We split it into two jobs because we’d gotten so big, the world is more complex, and once he left the position, you kind of ask: “Geez, why didn’t we do this sooner?”
I imagine if you are growing as quickly as we were, you’re constantly dealing with challenges you haven’t dealt with up until then. The landscape is always changing so-to-speak.
Exactly, and there again, an example with that is almonds. We had had this teeny, tiny, failing program. We had cranberries, we had pecans, and we had almonds. This was our domestic fair-trade program. All the supply chains that were domestic, they basically crashed and burned for different reasons. The program, let’s say, self-destructed because of supply chain unreliability.
At the end of that, the only thing we had was almonds and we decided to get rid of our almond inventory we would sell bulk almonds. That’s how our fruit and nut bulk program started, was us being saddled with a few thousand pounds of almonds and being like let’s just put a price on it and ask somebody if they want to buy this from us. That’s the kind of “problem” that we were very accustomed to facing and figuring out. Oh, it’s an Operation problem, we have all this inventory…it’s worth a lot of money, what do we do with it?
So, then you enter into that whole sales process and you find out if the price is wrong or if people want to buy it, or what is it? We had a compelling backstory on how we were sourcing the almonds. We knew where they were coming from, we had visited the farmers, so we had something to talk about. That’s how the bulk program, everything we are doing now, started from that weird mistake. From almonds and us not being able to put them in a little pouch any longer.
So one of my questions was roughly how many folks were working for Equal Exchange at that time. So it sounds like maybe ten around there roughly?
I’m going to say in 2009, we had the café, so let’s say for worker-owners there were three in Seattle in addition to some baristas that were not worker-owners at that time. We had Kevin in Sacramento and in Portland we had about six people and we had a part-time person in the office. We also had Adam who also did the DSD work. Lincoln got hired as a part-timer, and he came in 2011, I think, when we were all doing warehouse work. We all packed boxes every day. He was working part-time for a while, it was just like “Hey, man, you want some hours?” I think we didn’t have anybody full-time.
Just some part-timers.
Yes, so how many is that?
It’s roughly ten.
That’s about right.
So, just in comparison, we currently have about 30 employees out west?
I think we’re thirty! Let’s go office by office. In Portland we have 25 worker-owners and four worker-owners in Washington. That’s it for now. We lost some because of the café closing. So, now, we are up to 28, right? Now let’s go down the coast. Rafael is 30, Kevin is 31, and let’s go to Chicago and get Meade, that’s 32. Interesting, it’s very hard to keep track, it shouldn’t be, but it is.
Yet it’s gone from 10-32 employees out west in a matter of seven years.
Call it 2010 and now it’s 2018 and we’ve tripled in terms of people. Let’s call it 32.5 with Tom since he does still work with us in the west part time.
So, what’s next?
As part of delving into the Equal Exchange history, I want to take a moment to honor Jim Feldmann and the work he did for Equal Exchange. Is there anything that you would like to say about that?
Jim is responsible for a lot of things happening in the west, hiring Rafael is one them. Other than Raf’s own determination, which was considerable, Jim was the one who basically said to Tom: “You gotta hire this guy, we gotta hire this guy.” In typical Jim fashion, as we lovingly remember Jim, when he got a bee in his bonnet, he would be like a dog on a bone and he was that with Raf, because let’s say we didn’t need the body yet, but Jim was saying we gotta get this guy.
Jim’s fingerprints are on everything out here. He helped with the move from Hood River to here measurably. He’s, how can I put this…he’s had a variety of jobs. He’d go through periods where he’d be like: “Oh, I’m done with this now. What do I do? I finished this.” He was always looking for something new to do that would consume him. Kind of like a gift and a curse.
He was critical in building the relationship with New Seasons that we have today because when Roxanne left Jim became the glue at New Seasons. She was the sales rep and she had been a broker for New Seasons. They loved her. We hired her and then she decided to do something else. She’s at Life Source now, that’s something that she decided that she wanted to do again with her husband Jeff. Let’s call this 2009. He became Mr. Everything with New Seasons. Developing the relationships, getting to know the key people who were making decisions in the stores, building the DSD program to what it is now.
Jim had a way of involving himself in things. His heart was always in the right place, advocating for people and ideas. There was no truer believer in the Equal Exchange mission than Jim and he was always, always, always talking about the mission very effectively. Sometimes we just talk about selling stuff. Jim always had the mission. It intertwined with whatever he was talking about. He was always educating, always. He’d often speak in public, go to Portland State University, to teach a couple of classes on a Saturday. He did a lot to spread the word shall we say. He was like a brother to me. I can actually talk about him now, mostly without getting choked up. We couldn’t have done this without him.
Wow, thanks for that. Jim is certainly missed.
We’re just down to the last question here and just really quickly, what do you see as being some of the current challenges that Equal Exchange Portland faces and what do you see for our future in say the next twenty years?
Great question. We’re riddled with challenge right now in a manner we’ve never been challenged because it’s insidiously unknown, it’s not clear and it’s all market driven with the click-and-pick-up, with people’s grocery buying habits and methods changing, a bunch of stuff is shifting. People aren’t shopping in grocery stores of any description like they once did, as routinely. I’m not even saying everyone’s getting on Amazon and ordering x,y,z, people are eating out more, cooking less. So there’s a lot of unknowns. How much shifting? What other things should we be thinking of selling?
I think this is a good note to end on.
This has been really great for me too, Jenn. I really appreciate you taking on this thing and allowing me to ramble on. It’s been fun thinking about the old warehouse. Keeping in mind that elevator, you know what it is now? Try to stop in and see our elevator as a prop in a coffee shop!
I find that looking back at where you’ve come from is valuable to determining how to move forward as a company. Equal Exchange has a history of taking risks, making big changes, and thinking outside of the box. All in an effort to connect small-farmers and producers with consumers while building an alternative supply chain with products that are socially and environmentally responsible. We are a company with many nodes and staying connected through our stories sustains our strength as a worker-owned cooperative. There’s still much to tell about the west, so stay tuned for future posts about that and our journey to bringing the art of coffee roasting in-house.
As the days get shorter in the northern hemisphere and the winter solstice draws near, people all over are gathering close to share food, burn candles, and celebrate. Equal Exchange works with producer groups on four continents — and our coworkers here in the U.S. hail from many different lands, too. We checked in with three Equal Exchange worker-owners to learn about Christmas and New Year holiday traditions in their home countries.
Gladys Minaya comes from Peru. There, she says, Christmas is the biggest holiday of the year — a birthday party for the Baby Jesus. They begin preparations with an advent wreath, lighting a new candle on each of the four Sundays before Christmas.
The main celebration takes place on Christmas Eve, when it’s common to attend midnight Mass, Misa de Gallo. Afterward, family members gather at home to eat different kinds of salad, lamb, and desserts. They set up a Nativity and play music for the Baby Jesus, Villancicos de Navidad. To emphasize giving, not receiving, they also collect for people who are less fortunate. On Christmas day, it’s traditional to eat a turkey dinner and visit friends in the neighborhood, bringing cookies!
And after Christmas, on January 6th, they bless their home for the New Year, praying and writing with blessed chalk on the front door of the house C+M+B. This stands for Christ Might Bless and is also is the initials of the traditional Magi: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.
Martha Griem was born in the US, but both of her parents are German, so she grew up celebrating German traditions alongside American ones.
December 6th in Germany is Nikolaustag. Before going to bed the night before, children leave their shoes out to be filled with goodies by St. Nikolaus. Sometimes in the days that follow, St. Nikolaus himself will visit a group of neighborhood kids. As he passes out gifts to each girl or boy in front of all the others, he’ll tell them (thanks to intelligence provided by their parents) what they did well that year and what aspects of their behavior need improvement. Advent calendars and Adventskränze — advent wreaths — are popular ways to count down to the holidays. People decorate their homes with trees and Weihnachtspyramide, spinning wooden carousels powered by candle-heat, depicting nativity figures.
The big celebration — once again — happens on December 24th. Germans share Christmas Eve dinner with neighbors and extended family. Martha’s family eats beef fondue. After the festive meal, the Christ Child personally visits each house! Children are made to hide while the adults meet with him in the living room. He leaves behind presents and sparkly things — glitter or small bells — as evidence for the skeptics.
Marlon Cifuentes hails from San Felipe Reu on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. Just like in Peru and Germany, here it’s also traditional to celebrate on the night of the 24th, a Catholic observance that has become so popular that even the non-religious join in. Guatemalans spend Christmas with siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts uncles and cousins. If you go out with friends beforehand, you’d better be back home for a dinner with your family by the stroke of midnight! Typical foods include tamales, apples, grapes, and perhaps a turkey. They enjoy ponche de frutas, a sweet drink made from fruits and cinnamon — usually non-alcoholic, so the kids can try it, too — and exchange gifts. And they share food with neighbors.
Because the holiday is so family-oriented, Marlon says that it reminds him more of American Thanksgiving than of Christmas. At midnight, you can see and hear fireworks going off everywhere. In small towns, they close off the streets for singing and dancing.
Here in Rhode Island, where he lives now, Marlon usually celebrates with friends. This year, he’ll go to the house of a friend — also a Guatemalan — so they can pretend they’re at home!
¡Feliz Año Nuevo!
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Intro:0:05Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee — these are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is The Stories Behind Out Food Podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux — and I’m Kate Chess — and we’re your hosts.
Danielle R.:0:30Sexual violence as a tactic of war is a huge problem worldwide. We’re here today to talk about the Democratic Republic of Congo. Maybe you heard recently that Dr. Denis Mukwege is the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Panzi Hospital and survivors of sexual violence. We’re here today with Beth Ann Caspersen, the coffee quality control manager at Equal Exchange and cofounder of the Congo Coffee Project. She’ll be giving an important background on the political situation in the DRC and steps that you can take as an individual to make a difference.
Beth Ann:1:07Hi everyone. Great to be here.
Danielle R.:1:10Beth Ann, can you give us just like a brief landscape of the history and overview of this problem?
Beth Ann:1:20The problem we’re working to address is the sexual violence in Democratic Republic of Congo, the DRC, which it’s known as, is the second largest country in central Africa and it’s located in an area known as the Great Lakes region. It’s surrounded by nine countries and it occupies this great expanse of land and resources. So there are countries like Rwanda, Central African Republic, Uganda, all around the DRC and there are more than 78 million people. It’s rich in biodiversity. It has these vast natural resources. But there’s this history that’s really important to understand. First you need to understand that the Belgians colonized the DR Congo in the 1880s, and in 1885, King Leopold II declared it his private property and he named it the Congo Free State. This is where colonization begins bringing with it, unfortunately, death and disease. And in the 1900s it became the Belgian Congo. You’ll see a variety of name changes throughout the history.
Beth Ann:2:26And during this period of Belgian rule, the Belgians are just extracting resources and there’s very little development. and it really wasn’t until 1960 that they achieved independence. The first president — this might be getting down into the details, but it’s an important to understand about the presidents as well — was Joseph Kasa-Vubu, however, conflict arose over the administration of the territory which became known as the Congo Crisis, and so he was ousted. The Republic of Congo — and it’s also known now as the Republic of Congo. So here we go through our name changes. Through this, you see another leader rise and take power through a coup and he’s called Mobutu Sese Seko, and he was a military dictator. And this is going on from 1965 to 1997. At this point in 1970, the country again is renamed Zaire. So again, we’re seeing this, this theme, what we know is that there’s conflict warring groups and continual fighting for land and resources.
Beth Ann:3:33And this persists throughout the history of Congo. Mobutu begins to lose power in the 1990s. And then we see in 1994 the Rwandan genocide. This is a war between two ethnic groups and the Rwanda is right again on the border of DRC and it’s the Tutsis and Hutus and this unfortunate event claimed more than 800,000 lives in a very short period of time in 100 days, they say. So there’s a lot of warring happening there. There’s this political strife and then the Congo goes into its first war. It’s called the first Congo War and this is in 1996 where there’s a foreign invasion of Zaire that is led by Rwanda and that replaces President Mobutu with the rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila, and he is the first Kabila. There is another Kabila that comes along a little later in our story. Mobutu flees and Kabila becomes president.
Beth Ann:4:36Unfortunately, his reign is very short because there are tensions between President Kabila and the Rwandan and Tutsi presence in the country and this led to unfortunately the second Congo War and that was from 1998 to 2003. This war involved all of the neighboring countries, so all nine countries and around 20 armed groups. And ultimately it resulted in the deaths of what is estimated to be 5.4 million people. Let me repeat that. Five point 4 million people. So what happens next? President Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in 2001. And then he was succeeded. Some people say eight days, some people say 10 days later by his son Joseph Kabila. And so this happens and he’s not officially president or becomes elected as president until 2006 of which he is then reelected in 2011. And so you have this series of presidents and rulers and power and this president that is in power right now, Joseph Kabila, he has been in the … they were supposed to have elections in 2016. Here we are in December of 2018, they still have not elections. And there’s definitely political instability surrounding this. Um, yeah. So the DRC is this large country with what I would call small pockets of development. So I’ll give a little bit of the, the difficult sides of the DRC, but also some of the more positive, but first you need to understand there is overall very poor infrastructure. There are no roads in between, in the interior of the country. People are out in the streets protesting. They want a new, a new president. They want a new election cycle. There’s distrust of the government right now, and then you have denial by the government that people are actually protesting and that people actually have been harmed over over many over the last few years in particular. Meanwhile, you have these armed groups — and I’m building up to why sexual violence is actually such an issue — and these armed groups are now being labeled as terrorists by the DRC government and they’re fighting for land, arms and precious resources and there are a couple of precious resources that everyone needs to understand. In particular, they’re tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold, and they are all found in things that you’ll be very familiar with — your laptop and your cell phone. So all of these minerals are used again to make cell phones and laptops, but they, the mines are what the military groups want to control. And so this is for sexual violence comes in, the groups perpetuate violence by, through sexual assault, which is just a horrific practice where they rape women, children and men of all ages. And this violence is really used as a tactic of war.
Beth Ann:7:52It tears apart communities, destroys families and it creates insecurity. And it’s, when I say it’s complex, it’s really a wild understatement, but sexual violence is really just persisting throughout DRC right now. And on top of all of this, you have an ebola crisis, which is really, really difficult. It’s not the first time it’s happened, however, it’s in a more populous area called Beni. And it’s really, really sad to say that military groups have even attacked the health workers there and there’s a lot of insecurity. So it’s difficult to address just sexual violence when there are all these complex layers of what’s happening with poor leadership, little economic development, a huge country with this wonderful mineral wealth and just little economic development. So these levels of sexual violence continue to persist and destroy families and it’s really to gain power over people and resources. Wow.
Kate:8:57Thanks for that. Really thorough background here. And then just add something else to the pot. Another complication. This is a podcast about food, and we’re a coffee company. What does coffee have to do with this? There are coffee farmers in the Congo. We source coffee from the Congo. What does that have to do with women and other people who have survived sexual violence? And is there any overlap between these groups?
Beth Ann:9:22Definitely. And thanks for asking. Sexual violence, is this really a widespread issue throughout Congo? But it’s really in other parts of the world as well. So we need to at least address that.
Beth Ann:9:35But it’s rampant in Congo again, using it as this tactic of war. So we work with the small farmer Co-op in eastern Congo. It’s on the shores of Lake Kivu, which also borders Rwanda. And a number of the women had been sexually assaulted. But historically there hasn’t been anywhere to go. So sexual assault has persisted for a long time. Um, and for people who live outside of larger areas like Goma or Bukavu in eastern Congo, there, there hasn’t been many places to go. However, in 1998, Dr. Denis Mukwege a gynecologist, established the Panzi Hospital and the hospital has become very well known for treating survivors of sexual based violence. And over the years Dr. Mukwege has treated thousands of people, thousands. It’s really, like I said, sad to say. Treating these survivors for sexual violence is a holistic process for them where they’re treating people both physically and mentally at the Panzi hospital. Uh, in terms of the overlap between where we buy our coffee, Bukavu is pretty far away from as the town of Minova, which is where SOPACDI is located. Um, and many of the coffee farmers are in the adjoining communities. And so for years we tried to figure out how, how to get the survivors from those communities some help, but it’s really far away. In 2014, maybe it was 2015, I don’t remember exactly. But the World Bank supported a project to build what they call One Stop Centers in different communities and these are really small clinics that are built in smaller towns in order to treat people that are affected by sexual sexually based violence, um, in that same holistic way, right? As, as the larger Panzi hospital. And this is where some of the farmers of SOPACDI live, they actually live in Bulenga. And so having a small clinic there has been a really important development. I’m on a lot of levels, I mean, but really the overlap is with one small farmer co op, I’m talking about that affects or is part of our coffee project. However, there are farmers throughout Congo and people are affected everywhere, all over Congo. So it’s not just farmers, it’s children, teachers and more. Um, and I think that the One Stop Center that’s been constructed in Bulenga has really helped to bring the farmers closer to the hospital, which I’ll talk about and I hope in a few minutes, um, and together with Equal Exchange in the same way. And I’ve been there to visit and I’ve been there and I’ve spent time with Dr. Bwema and the general manager from SOPACDI and so we’re creating these connections. Yeah.
Danielle R.:12:34So Beth Ann, can you talk a little bit about what kind of inspired the creation of the Congo coffee project and what has been the evolution of this project through the years?
Beth Ann:12:48It’s a great story actually, because, excuse me, I was in the Equal Exchange cafe in Boston and I was there with two — I’m a Coffee cupper by trade — and I was there with two coffee cuppers from Columbia. And I ran into Jonathan Rosenthal who’s one of the founders of Equal Exchange. And he said, you know, Beth Ann, have you ever do you, have you ever heard of Panzi Foundation? And I said, no, who is that? And he said, you know, they’re a really interesting organization, they’re doing advocacy work and in, in Congo, in Democratic Republic of Congo. And they’re looking for a product to tell their story, a private label product and to raise money for their programs. And it really sort of just happened. And serendipitously at the time I didn’t know anything about DRC. I’ve spent time in east Africa and my coffee work, mostly in Uganda but also in Ethiopia, but I didn’t know a lot about DRC. I didn’t know a lot about the issues around sexual violence or the Panzi hospital. And so I, over time as I started to learn more and more, I was, gosh, we’ve got to do something. How in tarnation will this work? Um, we’ve never done this sort of thing before. And so I was very lucky because I spent a lot of time with Tara Herman who was a representative for Panzi over many months to develop a coffee product. Um, we weren’t even buying coffee from the Congo at the time. So it was like, well, how can we actually make that connection?
Beth Ann:14:21In my mind I was working to make a product, but it was almost going a little backwards because I really wanted to figure out how to impact the lives of the coffee farmers on the ground. So I reached out to one of my friends, Richard Hyde, formerly of Twin Trading in the UK and asked him and talked to him and he said, you know, I know a group that you should contact and we should, we should connect to you. Um, and so over the years we’ve gotten to know the farmers and support them with technical assistance. As I mentioned, I’m a cupper by trade. And so I had spent some time working with their team to find a cupper to help them to build their quality. Um, and over time I would say pretty quickly we introduced a product which inevitably came, the, became the Congo coffee project.
Beth Ann:15:12Um, it was the first organic coffee in the US that was fair trade. Um, and I’m really proud of it. It has a beautiful design — our design team did it, props to them. Um, but I think the whole point of the product was to tell the story, right? What is the story, raise awareness and have impact. So we have impact, um, on the farmers by buying coffee at fair trade prices, um, at higher than fair trade prices, that’s for sure. Um, and then in addition to that, we are supporting the Panzi Foundation, so for every bag that we sell it, a, $1 goes into a fund and at the end of the year we collect all of the money or count all the money I should say, and then we send a check to Panzi and I’m proud to say that we’ve raised more than $80,000 with this project since inception, which was in 2011. So I feel like the evolution is continuing. I don’t think it’s done. I think that we’ve got a lot of work still to do. Absolutely. Always more work to do.
Danielle R.:16:22Can you, can you tell us a personal story that you have with maybe one of the women that kind of highlights the collaboration of Equal Exchange in the Panzi project?
Beth Ann:16:38Definitely. I think that there’s, there are many faces that come to mind. There’s this woman, Janet, who works in the nursery school, um, that just really, every time I see her she just has a big smile on her face and she just has a dramatic impact on me in my life, but the woman I think I’d like to highlight is known as Mama Zawadi, um, and Mama Zawadi is the director for the Maison Dorcas aftercare center and she is, um, this is a place where people go, survivors go to the aftercare center to heal and to rest they receive counseling, um, and —
Kate:17:22Is this part of the Panzi hospital?
Beth Ann:17:23This is part of the Panzi hospital. Yes. But she’s just this gentle soul with a giant heart. And I just connected with her immediately. Um, you know, she’s the mother of eight. She also happens to– I know, the mother of eight — but also she’s the sister of Dr. Denis Mukwege, the founder of Panzi and she’s a widow. She lost her husband a few years ago, which hit her pretty hard, but she told me “I need to be here. I need to be here for the woman.” Wow. Uh, the aftercare center itself is about 300 beds. Um, uh, but you can see this when you walk around. It’s a pretty overwhelming experience. Of course, I’m not in, in each of the rooms. Being there, my first time, was really overwhelming and Mama Zawadi was just very supportive and very direct. You know, I think people sort of walk on eggshells when they talk about sexual violence or, oh gosh, you know, how do you explain it? And she’s just direct and said, you know, “this woman was raped, this woman has AIDS. This child that is four years old was raped,” and it was just really overwhelming. But I feel like she was really supportive for me to, um, because she has this calming presence, really calming presence, which you can see as being really important.
Beth Ann:18:54The first time I went, uh, I had this idea because Lee Ann De Reus from, from Panzi Foundation USA had told me a little bit about the hospital and so I decided I was going to bring a big bag, a big suitcase of clothing for, for the kids. Um, and so I collected all of my son’s things that were too small and went and got some things from my nephew and I wasn’t quite sure how it would be received, you know, here, here comes this person that’s never been here with a bag of clothes and I was received with song and dance and it was really another piece of being overwhelmed during that same day. And so every year when I go, I always bring a bag of clothes in that bag of clothes started as a small suitcase and now it’s this giant suitcase that’s called the Wheely Beast. And I shove as much of it in there. The weight is the problem, but it’s always, it makes me feel so happy to pass along small things that, um, that, that while they can get clothesthere, they can get clothes there. But I’m passing along something that is meaningful to me. And she said if everyone in the world could have as big a big a, have a heart as you do, then we wouldn’t have the same level of problems. And that stuck with me. So she is very, very special to me.
Danielle R.:20:23Wow. She sounds so special. Thanks for telling us that story. That’s, that’s really nice. Can, can you talk specifically about maybe one of the women who has benefited from this project in particular with the Congo coffee project?
Beth Ann:20:43It’s hard to sort of pinpoint one woman, you know, survivors are there for us a short period of time and then they move on. So usually I don’t see the same faces which I consider a blessing. Um, but I do see the same staff, like Mama Zawadi. But when we first started the project, all of our funding was going toward the Maison Dorcas aftercare center and so specifically to support vocational training. So I think that’s the place where I’ve seen this impact. The center, you know, again, is this healing place. It’s an important refuge for survivors, but one really important thing that they try to do is give people the skills so that once they leave, um, or some type of a trade so that when they leave they can use it. Um, so that might be sewing, that might be weaving. Um, and this is all happening along with counseling and medical services and so those are, those are important things to, to leave with. Um, it’s a really holistic approach taking into account the physical and the mental, which I think I really appreciate. So I think it was probably my second or third visit, I saw these really gorgeous plastic woven bags and I bought one and I was thinking, how can I, how can I get these to the United States, could I sell them what if we could design them and sell them? What if we, there was an outlet? And so this became the Congo coffee bag, um, and it’s this beautiful woven bag that’s too black and white and they’re, they can be used to shopping bags, as baskets. And so what I love about this program, what is that every bag is there’s a woman earns $10. $5 of that is paid to her outright. $5 is kept, um, as part of a savings account so that when the woman leaves, she has a little pile of money, um, to leave with. So a savings. And I love that. Um, it is just a really — you know that someone was using that as healin. They were learning through weaving and then ultimately they sold it into the market. So for all those people out there that have bought one, now, you know, a little bit more about the story. Yeah. So that’s, that’s something that I feel like has had really good impact.
:23:18And in a lot of ways our funding has evolved as well. So in years past we’ve used that to support vocational training and we’ve decided we want to create a connection between the Bulenga clinic and where the funding goes now. So in 2016 we embarked on a new journey where we decided — now this is after consultation with the clinic, this is not my idea, this is what the clinic wanted — is, um, to build water tanks. Yeah, because the clinic is small. This One Stop Center is, it is a tiny clinic. It doesn’t have the services that it probably needs or the money to support it. So knowing that the farmers are in the same community and they need access to water, the idea was to take the money and use it to build a water tank and they did that and I was able to see that and you can see pictures on our website if you’re interested. So, and we’re working on that. I feel like that’s evolving and how it impacts each woman. The bag project continues and I feel like that will continue to impact women, um, in very specific ways.
Danielle R.:24:32Thanks. Thanks, Beth Ann. I feel like I can, I can really feel from you that you are really passionate about this work. Can you talk a little bit about what this means to you on a personal level
Beth Ann:24:48Without crying? I’ll try.
Danielle R.:24:51It’s okay. It’s part of it.
Beth Ann:24:54I’m a crier.
Danielle R.:24:58Me too. Not a shocker to you.
Kate:24:59You guys can’t see this, but we’re handing out tissues now.
Beth Ann:25:05It means so much to me. You know, I’ve traveled to DRC to work with coffee farmers, visit Panzi hospital, visit the clinic and Bulenga and I don’t think I quite understood the experience it would give me. I’ve traveled throughout the world and in my work and training and working with roasters and cuppers and quality training, but this has had a different level of impact, um, where you see human suffering but hope at the same time and I feel like there’s a, if we have to have hope, we, you always have to have hope and you always have to fight for what is right and this is a very deep and meaningful. This has been professionally a very, very meaningful and I’m personally very meaningful project for me.
Danielle R.:25:56That’s wonderful. And we really appreciate you doing this interview with us. I had done a webinar with Beth Ann and that was kind of how this idea came about and I just wanted to keep getting the word out about this project. I think it’s a really important project that Equal Exchange is involved in, um, how can, how can some of the folks listening beyond this podcast, right? What, what are some action steps that they can take and some good resources that folks can kind of stay connected to this story.
Beth Ann:26:29Well, you should get out your pen and paper. Write that one down. Write these down. Well let’s just start with a blog piece that I just wrote and it’s about our work. And there’s this, I’m not sure how many of you have heard, but in October we received news that Dr Mukwege, the founder of Panzi, is the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which is
Beth Ann:26:56A round of applause — on so many levels well deserved, well deserved. He’s been up for the Nobel peace prize in years past. So for him to, to receive this as a very high honor, um, and well, well deserved. Um, when I learned the news, um, I wasn’t even expecting it. My husband was on a plane and he sent me a text and said, did you hear the news that he won that? And I couldn’t even believe it. I literally started crying because again, I am a crier, but I started to cry because it was so happy. So happy for him, for the survivors that have suffered for the survivors that have persevered for all the support for everyone out there listening right now for everyone at Equal Exchange and just really for him, for bringing and talking about sexual violence on the international stage for so long and having that acknowledgement I think is enormous and it’s especially important right now given the political situation, you know, that there’s a threat of not having free or fair elections on December 23rd of this month. And I think that that is a threat out there. And so one of my asks for you would be to say let’s get fair and free elections happening. There are no excuses as to why they haven’t happened for two years. The excuses put out by the government are just rubbish. It’s ridiculous and they don’t actually have any traction. And so we really need to put pressure there. I’d encourage you to learn more about DRC. So not just, um, at Equal Exchange, the Congo Coffee project and at Panzi and our work. Um, but there are other fantastic groups out there doing work. Um, there’s the Enough Project, there’s Steer Forward. There are others, um, and those are on our website too.
Beth Ann:28:53So buy the coffee. It is a plug, but I think it’s an important plug because you’re supporting our work and coffee does help to build the economy. So we’re talking about this poor infrastructure and these warring factions in this really complex political landscape. I think that this is something you can do is to buy a bag of coffee or buy a bag and give it to someone else. Um, and then the last thing — and there might be more things I think of when I get off of this podcast — is to support our Create Change campaign. We just launched it to raise additional money for the Bulenga clinic. Uh, our idea is that we have built these small tank water tanks, but we need to do so much more and it’s expensive, but we really want to put solar panels on clinic. We want to have renewable energy options and we want to have consistent, clean water that’s available throughout the community and to really be a model of what a great clinic can be. So I think that those are a few of the things you could do up. So if you forgot all of that and didn’t, write it down,
Kate:30:02we’ve got links that we’ll put right in the episode of this podcast. If you go to the podcast homepage, you’ll be able to find a place where you can take action on all of these suggested steps. I wanted to ask about Dr. Mukwege. It’s so exciting. The prizegiving is in December. So, and not only, I’m sure it’s gratifying for him to have his work recognized, but this brings the issue to a wider international audience. Have you met Dr. Mukwege, Beth Ann? Can you talk about your interactions with him?
Beth Ann:30:34It’s amazing. Every time I’m in DRC he’s not, and then he comes to the states and I’m not. I travel a lot for work. Um, so we’ve had very little time to connect and I think I, I’m sort of an ambassador and a champion on not just his behalf but on the behalf of Panzi Foundation USA, Mama Zawadi. So I have not had a lot of interaction with him. Um, but he’s very proud of the Congo coffee project. I know that. Um, and uh, that, so my connection, my physical connections have not been, have not been so many, but I, again, I feel like this is so powerful what he’s received in the Nobel peace prize alone and putting this work on the international stage when he received word, he was in surgery because he’s still an active surgeon. He’s not just a, he does go out and do a lot of speaking all over the world to talk about sexual violence and the issues in DRC. So he is not afraid to talk about the other issues. So this is another level of excitement and, and honor that I think that will definitely, I, I hope will bear more fruit where people are listening. Um, so my, my interactions are limited, but I think we should all feel very proud of the work that he does.
Kate:31:58Yeah. And thanks for telling his story. I have seen a picture of the two of you together. So I know it’s not a Batman/Bruce Wayne situation.
Beth Ann:32:07I went to, uh, the women for women international dinner in New York City a few years ago because we had not been able to connect and was able to meet him for not very long. It’s really hard to get him by himself. He’s a, he’s a very busy guy, so, and will be even more busy now.
Kate:32:26That’s good news. Yeah. Yeah.
Danielle R.:32:28Thanks Beth Ann. I would just say that, you know, what really had got to my heartstrings was, you know, after this webinar that we did with Beth Ann, just the scale of this problem, the systemic nature of it and just the stories of the women and the brutality that is experienced. I think that, you know, I would really encourage listeners out there to go learn more about this story and the human stories behind it because there is no way that you can not be moved by it. So thank. Thank you so much Beth Ann, for all the work that you do, it’s, it’s really, really important work in, um, we really appreciate you telling the story.
Beth Ann:33:08Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here and tell the story, so tell your friends.
Danielle R.:33:15Definitely tell all your friends about the podcast.
Kate:33:17Subscribe, share the episode. Thanks very much. Thank you.
Outro:33:25Thanks for listening to the stories behind our food. A podcast by Equal Exchange ake a worker owned cooperative. Love this episode. Please subscribe, rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit Equal Exchange.co op to join the conversation, purchase products and learn more about small scale farmers in the global supply chain. This episode was produced by Equal Exchange with hosts Kate Chess and Danielle Robidoux. Sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the stories behind our food.
These delicious peanut butter balls taste similar to the peanut butter cups we are all familiar with from our youth. Easy to make, and don't require any baking. They are a great recipe for the holidays or you can make them as a fun activity with kids. And they're gluten-free!
Combine Peanut Butter and Butter into a bowl and beat together. Add in vanilla extract and sugar and combine until you get a nice crumble.
Roll mixture into balls of about 1 heaping tbsp each. Place on baking sheet lined with wax paper or parchment paper.
Insert toothpicks into each peanut butter ball and place in the freezer for 1 hour.
About 20 minutes before removing the peanut butter balls from the freezer, start melting your Equal Exchange chocolate chips in a double boiler or in the microwave. For microwave, heat and stir the chocolate every 30 seconds. Make sure not to overheat. If using a double boiler, you can temper the chocolate to get a shiny surface. Dip each ball into the chocolate leaving a small "eye" of peanut butter at the top.
Place on wax paper to cool.
By: Dana Drugmand, Equal Exchange Barista
On Thursday October 11th, a group of activists, teachers, friends and allies gathered in the Equal Exchange cafe for a discussion on chocolate and climate change hosted by the Equal Exchange Organizing department. The event, titled, “The Current Storm: The Realities of Climate Change for Cacao Producers,” featured Miriam Elena Maza Asencios and Cesar Salas Garcia from Acopagro in Peru and Abel Fernandez from the CONACADO Co-op in the Dominican Republic.
Cesar Salas Garcia pictured left with Julia Baumgartner
For cacao producers in Central and South America and in other regions around the globe, climate change is already a reality and a significant challenge. “We’ve seen climate change affecting us in terms of prolonged droughts and fires,” Cesar Aide Salas Garcia, president of the ACOPAGRO Co-op in Peru, said (via translator) during the presentation.
Precipitation extremes on both ends of the scale – droughts and flooding – are intensified by climate change. The ACOPAGRO Co-op has dealt with drought and fires in recent years. Cesar showed a picture of a farmer standing in a dried up area that used to be a river.
“We have droughts, and on the other hand we have another problem, which is flooding,” he said. In 2017 the flooding destroyed about 60 percent of the cacao crop and affected 150 members of the co-op. Increased rain also brings about more pests, exacerbating another problem.
Small-scale cacao producers face similar challenges in the Dominican Republic.
With 10,000 producer-members, CONACADO is now the leading supplier of fair-trade cacao in the Dominican Republic, exporting about 17,000 metric tons of cacao per year. Last year, however, the Dominican Republic’s cacao production was down by roughly 30 percent. Climate change impacts – like excessive rain and flooding – are a big reason why. As Abel explained, the rain levels, if high enough, can drench and kill the flowers on cacao plants so they don’t produce. This in turn can throw off the harvesting timetable.
“Normally the cocoa market is managed in advance,” said Abel. “Climate change has been making that more difficult. Sometimes we cannot meet the deadline for delivery.”
So what are the farmers doing to address these challenges?
Reforestation, is a big part of the solution, because intact forests act as huge carbon sinks absorbing some of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is warming the planet. ACOPAGRO is working to restore virgin forests in the Peruvian Amazon. The co-op currently owns 180,000 hectares of a reserve and is helping to reforest it. From 2012 to 2014, 50,000 metric tons of certified CO2 were captured through this project.
ACOPAGRO is working on crop diversification and is installing 80 hectares of cacao with other agroforestry crops such as sacha inchi, black pepper, fruit trees, timberwood and medicinal plants. Farmers are applying intensive management practices to stay on top of increasing pests.
In the Dominican Republic, cacao producers are finishing up an eight-year project on model farms to practice resiliency techniques such as using organic fertilizer and biochar and deep-soil planting. Production on these model farms has increased by 500 percent.
And yet, challenges still remain, and the impacts of climate change will only worsen. But small-scale cacao farmers are navigating these hurdles and leading the way to find solutions.
“They’re not only having to adapt to the effects of climate change, but they’re doing an incredible job of trying to mitigate the effects for the entire planet,” said Julia Baumgartner, Cooperative Development Program Consultant at Equal Exchange.
The evening closed with questions and reactions from the audience, the room filled with thoughts on carbon capture, mitigation techniques, and actions consumers can take to push for better climate policy in the US.
An attendee and professor at Bridgewater State University, Jame Hayes-Bohanan commented “I learned more about the ways in which cacao farmers are suffering and the effects of an increasingly unstable climate system. I was humbled by the farmers who take on their responsibilities as contributors to climate change with an obligation to reduce their own carbon footprint.”
As Cesar with ACOPAGRO put it, “We can’t sit still and do nothing. We can’t let this [climate change] situation dominate us.” Cesar’s words offer inspiration and urgency for all of us to find ways to make a difference.
This risotto, cooked with white wine and chunks of butternut squash, makes for a quick, comforting dinner on chilly days, or a classy side dish that will impress your friends. The sweet and salty maple almond topping provides the perfect crunch. Looking for a new Thanksgiving recipe? You may have found it …
Enjoy one of our favorite fall recipes!
Heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add the onion and sauté until it softens and begins to brown. Add the butternut squash, the Italian seasoning and 1 tsp salt. Cook for 5 more minutes.
Combine the uncooked rice, the stock, and half of the wine in a 9x13” baking dish or large cast-iron skillet. Add the cooked onion and squash mixture. Without preheating the oven, put the dish inside on a center rack, set the temperature to 400, and allow to bake for 15 minutes. Stir the mixture, return the dish to the oven, and continue to cook for 15 more minutes.
While the risotto bakes, make your maple almonds. Melt butter in a skillet. Add the almonds, the maple syrup and the extra pinch of salt. Stir to coat almonds and allow to toast, then remove them from the skillet promptly. Leave them to cool on a plate or a piece of parchment paper.
Take the risotto dish out of the oven and stir in the parmesan cheese and the rest of the wine. Broil in the oven for five minutes, until it bubbles. Top with the maple almonds.
Here’s the second episode of our storytelling podcast, The Stories Behind Our Food!
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Intro:0:02Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee, these are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is the stories behind our food podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Roberto and I’m Kate. Chess and we’re your hosts. Hi. Welcome to the stories behind our food podcast. I’m Kate Chess and I’m here today with Daniel fireside. Hi. Thanks for having me on. Thanks for coming. Daniel is the capital coordinator here at Equal Exchange and we’ll be talking with him about something we don’t always think about when we think about the food system, the role of capital, and how a company can use financing to actually support its social mission instead of undermining it. All right, we’re rolling. Who are you and what do you do here at Equal Exchange?
Daniel Fireside:0:59Yeah, so I’m Daniel fireside. I’m and I’m the capital coordinator at Equal Exchange. So what that means is I’m in charge of raising all the outside capital that the company needs and managing the investor relations. Uh, the one part I don’t deal with this sort of our conventional banking relationships which are getting us to be a smaller and smaller piece of what we do.
Kate Chess:1:27For those of us who aren’t in finance, would a company the size of Equal Exchange normally have a, a person in your position have a capital coordinator?
Daniel Fireside:1:36Probably not by that name. I’m not aware of any other company that uses that term. And when, when I was offered the job I was told I could be a, I could come up with whatever name I wanted, I could be head of investor relations or a finance something or other, uh, but we’d often use the term capital coordinator. And what I liked about it and why I decided to keep it was because it’s so unusual and it like everything equal change does, reflects our unusual approach to business.
Kate Chess:2:11All right, great. Yeah. We want to talk to you about what the role of capital is in a food business.
Daniel Fireside:2:18So you know, capital is generally a company needs capital for longterm expenses in general. So your buildings, we own an 80,000 square foot warehouse and roasting facility with offices. We lease a lot of, a very expensive equipment. So those are normal capital expenses. A lot of other expenses are finance through your normal sales. So a payroll and for most conventional companies, inventory wouldn’t necessarily be a huge expense, a capital expense, especially for a coffee company of our size. They would just be having a very, as little inventory as possible, buying from brokers, uh, or contracting from a coffee producers and getting the coffee delivered whenever the roaster needs it or they’d be buying futures contracts. We decided that that whole system really puts the growers, the farmers at a huge disadvantage and they’re the ones least able to carry that cost. So our whole model, our business model from the start flips that around. So we arranged months in advance with the farmer cooperatives for basically a year supply of what we’re going to buy. And as soon as they’re ready, once they’ve milled it and sorted it, and once they’ve mailed it and sorted it and are ready to ship it, we settled on a final price, which is always above the market and is very favorable to the farmer co op. And as soon as those containers hit the water, I’m on the ships, we pay for the entire contract, we pay upfront and as soon as we own the coffee and then it’s a great deal for the farmers. A lot of other companies pay months, many months later, um, or they force them to sell at a huge discount. It’s great for the farmers. It creates a problem for us that have our own making where we suddenly have a huge amount of inventory that is sitting around. We can store our co ffee unrested coffee for a long time, but we, we’ve paid for it and it’s a capital expense. So as the company grows, that volume of inventory grows. So we’ve always needed a capital coordinator to really figure out how to do this kind of financing basically from the start.
Kate Chess:5:03So it’s really just, you’re talking about the cost of the coffee itself, it’s the building block of the business and the cost of that product is what you’re raising capital for that. That’s the unusual capital we’re talking about. Is that correct?
Daniel Fireside:5:14Well, we have the usual capital expenses that any other business would have, uh, the, the buildings and the equipment and so forth. But the other stuff is a, is a problem that we’ve created because if we don’t take it on, it’s pushed onto the farmers. And, and that’s we, you know, one of the really crazy things about the modern food system is that the big businesses that are the multinationals that are making all the money and all the profit, uh, take on as little risk as possible and push and basically have the farmers financing all the inventory costs as much as possible. And the farmers are the weakest link in this whole. And there are the ones who have the least amount of power. So we’re trying to flip that equation that creates a problem for us. And instead of just, uh, getting the financing from some deep pocketed venture capitalist, we early on figured out that we need to have our financing reflect our cooperative fair trade business.
Kate Chess:6:23Yeah. Gotcha. It seems like there are other people in the world who have these types of ideals who would like to be doing the right thing and treating farmers fairly and paying them well or doing good work in other parts of the food system. But it seems like whenever. It seems like a lot of food companies seem to be being bought up these days and the ownership changes in the way they do business changes. Can you answer in your opinion why food company so often seem to sell out?
Daniel Fireside:6:56Yeah. And especially, I mean, I think a conventional food company, it’s a, what their goal is from the start is to sell out, you know, build up the business, get it to a certain scale, whether it’s profitable or not, doesn’t really matter. You just sort of build the brand and done the legwork. And then your. If you get bought up by coke or Pepsi or General Mills, that success, you get a pile of money, you can move onto your next thing. Um, if you’re, you know, have a social impulse in the social goal when you created the whole business. Uh, that’s where our heart kinda breaks when we keep seeing these businesses that are in the same universe that we are really concerned about the equity issues and how the farmers are doing, the producers are doing and trying to create a business that changes that power dynamic. And then they get to a certain scale and they sell out as well. So why do they keep doing that? Well, in, in, in my view, because I talked to a lot of people in startup phases and, and, and a little bit beyond that early startup capital, it’s the hardest to get. And they go around talking to a financial backers and you know, venture capitalists and Angel Investors and they sign these deals because somebody hands them a wad of cash that they needed that moment and they’re just not thinking about the fine print and the implications that go down the road. And so the first question, the businesses I always ask is, what’s your exit strategy? How are you going to sell this business? Either either sell it to big whatever or go public where it’s sold to investors and it’s going to get eaten up by big whatever, uh, in five to seven years. And if you don’t have an answer to that, they’re not gonna put their money in because they want 10 times their original investment. It’s crazy. It’s just a total casino. I, I think the greatest PR job was done by people who label themselves angel investors because they’re really anything.
Kate Chess:9:05But that’s just the term everybody uses fitness. Yeah.
Daniel Fireside:9:09Oh, the angel came in with a pile of cash and it’s like, no, it’s the other kind of angel. Then you’ve got to read the fine print. I’m so people are just like, oh, that’s the deal. You know, the, the laws are also written to really privilege, really wealthy people to invest and the finance laws, investing laws were written that way to protect small investors, especially after the Great Depression. And then after every scandal where were some. Somebody rips a bunch of people off the. They try to write new laws, protect against the last scandal and the problem is you know that that’s all well and good, but it also has created such huge barriers for anyone who isn’t a millionaire to invest directly in a regular company. Some of those laws are changing now and some of them have certain exemptions that equal change has used to reach out because only about two minutes, two percent of the US population fits the criteria that the securities laws are written for. That says you can invest in anything. Ninety eight percent of us were, were not allowed legally to invest except in rare circumstances. So equal is using those exemptions. And uh, some of those laws have have eased up a little bit. And I hear from companies all the time, how can we follow Equal Exchange his path to avoid this other a trap. I call it the exit strategy trap. You know what, if you’re trying to build a company, not for an exit, but to stick around.
Kate Chess:10:46So to connect the dots here a little bit, even if you’re a company with a social mission, it’s hard to find investors or to get around the laws too. Utilize investors who aren’t huge dollar amount, big dollar investors and those people. What’s the disadvantage of going with a big investor?
Daniel Fireside:11:04Well, it’s not necessarily that are they all evil or is there something more there? No, it’s more that the investors, people who are investing for a living or investing other people’s money for a living have created this game plan that says, uh, you pick, you know, seven companies you put money in with the expectation that within five to seven years they’re going to return your money times 10. Now you actually figure that six of the seven are going to fail, but one is going to pay off. That sounds to me a lot like gambling. And it basically is, they don’t really care about those other six companies. They just care that enough of their bets, they’re going to pay off that they come out ahead and then they sound like geniuses. This is a system that works to keep making really rich people richer. It helps get some companies off the ground, but it doesn’t further the interests of people who, you know, back when Equal Exchange was founded. I, I’ve, I’ve often heard from our three founders, Jonathan Michael, and a rink that, um, you know, back in the mid eighties when they got into the coffee business, I said, any idiot could make a lot of money in coffee. And that wasn’t really their goal because first off the end of the day, if it works, they’d be above another bunch of idiots who made money in coffee. And if it didn’t work, then they’d be the real idiots who couldn’t even make my own coffee. They said, no, they’re, they’re a goal from the start was to really change the food system and empower workers and empower consumers, uh, in a food system that wasn’t allowing them to do that. And coffee was the vehicle that they used and that’s great because now we’ve added chocolate and tea and bananas and mangoes and all sorts of other wonderful things to eat and drink. So if your goal is to make change and not, and within the system, within the financial system that we have, your goal isn’t to maximize profit, it’s to maximize all these other things. You want to be profitable and keep growing and doing more good. Keep the lights on. But it’s hard to find people and institutions that say, well, if there’s other things are really valuable and when we’re making crazy returns, when we’re making crazy profits, it’s at a certain point, it’s a zero sum game. You’re, you’re, you’re making profits on the back of the farmers. You’re making profits on the back of the workers, you know, if, if everybody keeps their expectations reasonable than everyone can come away better off.
Kate Chess:13:46Yeah. It seems like we’re talking about money here, but we’re also talking about power and control. Um, and those are some of the strings that seems to be attached when you use a more traditional way of raising capital. Can you talk about how Equal Exchange has raised capital without giving up control? How we’ve stayed independent and democratic?
Daniel Fireside:14:06Yeah, absolutely. That’s really, besides that expectation of crazy profits, what companies, entrepreneurs, whoever are giving up when they’re dealing with these so called angel investors is control more and what those people in control are always demanding is increased profits at whatever. Hey, if you can do it and put a happy face on it and you know, not not exploit the farmers, that’s great, but when it comes down to it between the farmers and me always going to pick me and I’ve just heard so many stories of Oh, even successful companies, so six out of those seven are going to fail and the investors are fine with that. Well that seventh guess what does founders got pushed out anyway? Maybe they got some money but they lost their company because they weren’t making money fast enough or it sold out and general mills didn’t want you or starbucks didn’t want you. And, and you know, some people walk away with like a million dollars and they’re really unhappy and that just seems crazy. So equal said we need to raise money and it’s been a real problem for Co ops more than any other business because a cooperative, whether it’s a consumer co op or a producer or a worker co op it control stays with the members, the farmers, the producers of the customers, the, the workers, and you can’t give it up. So it’s been really limiting, uh, in cooperatives business, a cooperative businesses ability to raise capital. What equal figured out was you can offer a kind of investment vehicle that doesn’t give up power and you can offer a financial return. We’re not a charity, but the way we wrote the rules said, you, uh, you, the investor, don’t get to say how we run the company. And I often say like, look, if you invest in the conventional stock market, you bought some Microsoft, you might get a proxy statement in the mail asking you to vote on something. No one’s counting your proxy statement. Bill Gates out votes you a trillion to one, a google. They have special shares where they don’t even count outside shareholders. So it’s a myth that shareholders, the average shareholder actually has some say in how companies are run. We sort of say, first off, we don’t think just because you have money, you should get to say how you run the company. If you work here and you’re a member here and you get voted in and you contribute your labor and your time and your energy. Yeah, you have a say an equal say, but you don’t get to sell the company. If you’re an outsider, you can be a partner, you can be a stakeholder and we’ll offer return. It’s a variable return between zero and eight percent. So any given year will give you zero percent. And that’s part of the deal. Uh, we say the target is five and if everything goes right and we’re treating everyone well in the businesses in good shape, we’ll, we’ll pay you five, but it’s decided by the workers on the board. Um, if things are going gangbuster, we’ll, we’ll pay a little more and we’ve treated everyone else, right? Um, things are going terribly. You’ll get less and maybe zero. And that’s, it seems pretty reasonable. And over the long haul, uh, we’ve done really well, we’ve done well by our investors. And what I tell people is, look, we can’t guarantee you’re going to make any money. I can’t guarantee you’re not going to lose your money. I can guarantee whether you made it or lost money. You feel good about it. And you can’t really say that about anything else you invest in.
Kate Chess:17:54So you were saying that investors don’t actually have a say in traditional businesses either.
Daniel Fireside:18:00Yeah, I think that’s a real myth Uh, it’s, there’s two myths. One is that companies, publicly traded companies are democratic because shareholders get to vote, one share, one vote, and whoever has the most shares gets the most votes. So that’s already a kind of anti democratic thing. Then the way companies are structured, it’s incredibly hard to vote on companies and change them. There’s a whole industry of social activist organizations and really wonderful places that have pushed companies to enact a environmental goals or social goals through shareholder resolutions. And whenever they’re successful, the company’s just changed the rules to. They say, Oh, you need higher and higher threshold.
Kate Chess:18:48Yeah. So
Daniel Fireside:18:50I, I love those groups that are doing that, but it’s a real myth that, that is democracy and that it’s possible. And then the other sort of myth that everyone believes so much that it’s basically become true is that the only focus accompany can legally have is to increase its profits for shareholders. And there, there’s a great writer who just passed away recently. She was a law professor at Cornell Lynn Stout who, uh, wrote some. She looked into that and said it’s a myth. Actually. Case Law doesn’t back it up. Uh, companies have great discretion in terms of what they consider their longterm, uh, a greater good. You know, they can say, no, we’re not going to maximize profits this quarter because we’re thinking in the next 10 years or something. But the reality is people have bought into that so much that they just say, whenever a company faces a dilemma, where on one side is making more money and the other side is any kind of social good, you have to go with the money. And so we say, look, we’re not going to be pressured by shareholders. Ben and Jerry’s was forced to sell out because shareholders were saying, uh, if you don’t sell to Unilever, we’re going, sue you. Other companies have seen that and they’ve just, they’ve capitulated without even a fight. Uh, we said we’re writing it into our bylaws were making sure nobody invests with any thought that we’re ever going to sell. We basically created a rule that said, if we ever sold, we have to give all the profits away.
Kate Chess:20:24Do you have to set this up from the start? When you’re, when you’re starting a business, do you think that companies that have this kind of motivation can transition to a similar structure?
Daniel Fireside:20:35It’s tricky. It’s definitely easier before there’s piles of money on the table. Everybody always, you know, easier to be generous. You don’t have anyone, you don’t have any money there. Uh, and then change as everybody knows when there’s piles of money. Wait a second. I worked hard for that. Um, should be up to me. I came up with the idea. So I always advise people, set up the rules before you’re profitable, set up to the game plan, you know, and you can set a different ways. A solar company in Colorado, namaste solar that, that I helped convert to being a co op. They said if they ever sold a part of the money has to be given away. Part of it has to go back to the outside shareholders. Part of it goes back to the workers in the company. Uh, you, you can, you know, we’re the more extreme version. We said 100 percent of the assets have to be given away. I think as long as you put some roadblocks in there, that just takes away that incentive and it doesn’t depend on people being good. The other thing is, if you’ve taken some of that early, you know, it’s a fallen angel money, let’s call it. They often write in, um, uh, protections for them against you, changing the rules. So be careful with that money. We actually just a w we have, you know, a great story where there was one point when we were about to get into coffee roasting. We used to outsource everything and we want, wanted to ramp up the business. We needed some big infusions of cash to be able to, to go into roasting and, and expand on our own. And one of these self-styled social investors came up and said, well, you’ve been doing all this great hippie stuff for so long and that’s fine, but now you’re talking real money. You want my big investment, a quarter million dollars a, I need a special sheriff, a special class of stock where I get a special return. Uh, I’m protected from any losses and I want to see it on the board. And he was just changing the whole roles. And I know it was before my time, but I saw the document and I’ve talked a lot of people who are around. When that offer came through and there was a lot of people were like, well, is this what we’re supposed to do? We need to grow. This is our big shot. And I saw some, some other letters that went when they were passing it around that said, you know, it’s because of people like this that I got out of Wall Street and they use a little more colorful language than that. I’m sorry, who were the letters? Friends? Well, they were from advisors that we had internal people who, you know, the founders and the board. Whereas like you know, we don’t know is this what you’re supposed to do when you get to a certain scale? And so we asked them some, some more wiser financial hands and they said, these are the terms that will under your business if you take this money, you’ve, you might succeed financially but you’ll have failed and all your other goals. And that was really one of the missions of the company was to show you could succeed in a different path. And here’s what happened. It took us a lot longer. We could have, we could be a much bigger company. We could have grown a lot faster if we had just cut all the corners and taken that quick money and cut all the social stuff. But we decided that doesn’t prove anything that, that we ended up being the idiot who made money in coffee. And so we took the harder road and here we are over $70,000,000. We’ve been profitable for almost our entire history. We’re doing right by everybody. And we have over $17,000,000 in outside investment. We have millions of dollars in loans from alternative lenders and everybody, you know, if, if we started returning crazy returns, 10 percent returns, our investors would go, wait, this is too much money. Who are you shortchanging who you’re exploiting like that. We’ve built up this whole community and now these people are out there. They’re like, what else is out there? Whereas the next Equal Exchange. So that’s really exciting. Now we have companies coming to us saying, how can we copy your model? It’s taken awhile to be an overnight success, but 30 years. But, um, I, I think, you know, the, the Wall Street crash 10 years ago was really a big turning point because people used to think, oh, you guys, I don’t know, how are you a charity? Are you a business? I can’t quite figure it out and, but you know, my smart money goes in Wall Street and goes into my 401k into. I’ll close my eyes. I don’t know how that money’s made. Well, what happens, you know, 2007, 2008. The whole system collapses. People’s portfolios disappear. Uh, the bastards on Wall Street and made out like bandits anyway. And we kept chugging out, our little five percent returns it because it was based in our actual sales and our profits and how we were treating everybody. And people were like, oh my God, this is a real thing. I was able to send my kids to college because you guys. And uh, I think that woke up a lot of people that actually the system really is rigged and we are building something much more sustainable that is built for the long term and is built for all the stakeholders.
Kate Chess:25:43In a way you can actually appeal to people’s self interests because this can be, like you said, more sustainable and a steadier way to.
Daniel Fireside:25:50Yeah, I mean, I think, look, people need to save money. People need to invest, then they need to park there. They’re extra money and earn some kind of return that beats inflation for future longterm goals, retirement, college houses. Uh, I, that’s how our system is built. We don’t have a real effect of safety net in this country. So, um, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to do that, that’s reasonable. It’s reasonable for equal change to be using other people’s money to help build our business and to pay a cost for that. But that shouldn’t be the focus of the entire economy of just turning money into more money and not paying attention about all the costs that are passed off onto people and the planet that can least afford it.
Kate Chess:26:41Now, that Equal Exchange has become at long last and overnight success. What I mean you, you were talking about how people approach you and they, they ask you where else can I invest? Or they ask you, how can my business use this model? Do you have answers for those questions?
Daniel Fireside:26:58It’s tricky because a lot of the securities law, it’s still built around a treating every company that wants to reach out to the general public as potential crooks and every person who isn’t a millionaire as some dupe waiting to be ripped off and you know, and a certain level, that’s great because there are a lot of crooks out there and a lot of people who could get ripped off, but you know, they don’t mind if you go to the casino or spend all your money on the parable. So there needs to be some sort of a middle ground and you know, whenever we offer stocks, so the company I would work with, there’s full disclosure that all the financials, we’re not guaranteeing anybody anything. We’re saying this is the risk, you know, it’s like when you look at your lottery ticket and here are the odds. Okay? Um, you know, we can also say, look, besides even if you didn’t make money, here’s all the good things that you’ve accomplished with this investment. And we’ve tried really hard and an equal. We actually, the workers in the company put half of our profit sharing or patronage into back invested into the company, so we have a lot of money tied up. So the problem is a, it’s very hard to. You can’t just slap labels on your products and say, hey, invest in us. There’s restrictions and, and roadblocks. Some of them are coming down. The hard truth is you have to do a little homework. You have to research, you have to talk to the companies that you’re really like. You have to sort of network. You have to.
Kate Chess:28:29You’re saying as an investor, you’d recommend talking to companies that you think are doing good.
Daniel Fireside:28:32Yeah. And you know, talk to me, talk to other places, talk to your local food co op. Um, you know, like it would be nice if you could just go down the supermarket and look at the labels and go, oh, these are the good guys or bad guys. Here’s the easy thing to do. I fill up my shopping cart and what we’ve learned. The sad truth is the labels only went so far that you can say anything on your package. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t some really great companies out there like Equal Exchange, but you got to do some digging, um, to, to really learn about it. So
Kate Chess:29:04yeah, same thing with this analogy, with this investing stuff.
Daniel Fireside:29:08You know, what the hard part is, you got to do some research, you got to dig in, really look at what the companies are talking about, what are the terms say what happens if you succeed or you going to sell out to big whatever, you know. Um, and if they say no, then that’s a really good sign.
Kate Chess:29:27Yeah. So, um, companies that, it seems like it would be difficult to distinguish as an investor between companies that are genuinely, that have built protections the way that Equal Exchange has that are still doing good and companies that are sort of now owned by someone else and not like that at all. Uh, is it easy to distinguish if you, if you’re willing to put in the time and do the research?
Daniel Fireside:29:53Well, cooperatives are a great start and you know, I’m out there working with cooperatives all the time when you to say, hey, you don’t have to. If you don’t, if you want to stay small, that’s great, but if you want to get bigger and you need to raise capital, follow our model because you’re not giving up control and you’re signaling to people out there that are really hungry for this kind of stuff. I would say in the public stock markets, the publicly traded stocks, you’re going to be really hard pressed to find anything that is really good. If you. Even if you look at these socially responsible mutual funds, so called look at what they’re actually investing in and nine times out of 10 it’s Microsoft and apple and comcast and they pick one bad thing. We don’t do that, but that doesn’t mean we’re not doing all these other bad things. So it’s, it’s really frustrating because that, that people want to do good and there’s a lot of money in those funds, but they’re, they’re just not quite doing what you want. So, you know, a lot of cooperators are starting to go out there and raised in this way. Um, these direct public offerings actually you can advertise in your own state, you can open it up to people who are not millionaires and if other bigger companies are following our model, there’s always space for, for average investors as well. Uh, there’s also a couple of loan funds that kind of do it for you. So the cooperative funding New England is one where you can put money in with them, they pay you a return on it and then they loan the money out to cooperatives all throughout the Northeast. There’s a, the impact capital cooperative and uh, the Midwest and they lend all over the place. The same thing also RSF social finance. They have our mortgage and you can put money in with them. They’ll pay a return and then they loan money out to really cool businesses. One other is a calvert social impact. They, they created a fund with us, a special program where you can put in as little as $20 or many thousands if you want and direct that that money backs Equal Exchange and they will loan all of the money that’s directed that way to Equal Exchange for us to help with our coffee buying. Um, they, they take a little, make a little profit on the difference between what they’re paying out in interest and what they’re charging us. But it’s really very minimal. They want to open this stuff up. And so these loan funds are one way to sort of consolidate these things. If you want to go deeper. It’s really about building relationships. We don’t necessarily want money from people who don’t know about us and are just saying five percent and I don’t have to worry about it. No, that’s not the deal. We want, we love the investors who, you know, sell our coffee, their church or synagogue basement who, uh, by our chocolate for all their family. Or we had one guy up in Vermont who bought a, one of our bulk bags of minis, you know, 888 pieces and gave it away to everybody in the neighborhood to give out to trick or treaters. So those are what we call committed participants. People who are really in it, they get excited and we feel good about paying interest and dividends to those folks because we know that they’re putting their money back into the same things that, that we believe in.
Kate Chess:33:17What I’m getting out of this is that there’s no shortcuts that work. There’s no easy way out whether you’re a company or whether you’re an individual is looking to invest. You sort of, you can’t get around informing yourself and thinking about eventualities and even protecting yourself from yourself in the future.
Daniel Fireside:33:35Not Shortcuts, uh, you know, equal. We make, I sort of think of us just having a lot of planned to inefficiencies. And that’s, that’s where our strength is. We don’t run our coffee roasters 24 slash seven in part because it’s really not good for people to be working in the middle of the night.
Kate Chess:33:50Do some people do that?
Daniel Fireside:33:51Sure. You know, um, and, and some efficiency expert would probably tell us, you know, we’re wasting all this capacity, but we’d also have a ghost workforce that would never be able to participate in our meetings. We shut the whole company down when we have all company meetings. We shut the cafe down. We, um, we say, you know, what, we’d rather lose some money, lose some profits, and pay people to not be working to help actually be co owners and run the company and sit and collectively make really important decisions. So often the things that are, you know, like many things in life that the best ones take a little more effort and time. Um, but that’s, that’s how we’re going to change thing is yeah, there is no quick fix, but there are longer fixes that are really much more satisfying.
Kate Chess:34:42It’s nice to know that people are out there looking for that.
Daniel Fireside:34:44Oh, I see a huge potential for this. I, I talked to investors all the time. I mean, and I see all these people putting their money into these socially responsible mutual funds and they’re not getting what they think they’re getting, but they want that. I see all these companies that are trying to do really wonderful things there, you know, have this crazy entrepreneurial spirit they’re seeing, hey, what if we just sold this product and got this stuff from here and we could help all these people that’s, you know, this real dynamism and they’re dying to get money from investors who believe in what they believe in the. So it’s a market that needs to happen. What we’re slowly seeing are some regulation changing. We’re seeing some lawyers that you can go to that understand this. You’re seeing some financial advisors that can help people shift money with larger amounts or family foundations. Um, so I’m seeing sort of ecosystem in creation. You need all these different elements to come together at equal. We’re doing our part, uh, and it, it’s, it’s happening, it’s there. There are dozens and dozens more companies today that are following this path. And there were when I started nine years ago, so that’s exciting, but there should be, you know, I, I talked to rick about it, our co founder Co president, and he said, well why aren’t there thousands? I’m just like, oh, you’re right. Why aren’t there so that, that’s our challenge to make this the norm.
Kate Chess:36:10Very cool. Anything else that you wanted to talk about or want to say that you didn’t get a chance to?
Daniel Fireside:36:16You know, it just, if you’re thinking about starting a company or you have one with a social mission, think about carefully about how you’re getting your money. If you’re investing, think about what happens if this company is successful, is it going to sell out to big whatever and lose all of its social mission? How can we protect that from happening and still make it financially viable? If you’re supporting companies, find the ones that are doing the harder thing and figure out how to support them and buy their stuff, even if it’s maybe a nickel more than than the product next to it. If we want these kinds of changes, we have to think strategically about having different outcomes and you know, we’re, we’re the proof that it can happen.
Kate Chess:37:00All good things to keep in mind. We want to thank you again for joining us today. Daniel.
Daniel Fireside:37:05Thanks for having me.
Kate Chess:37:06Yeah, thanks.
Daniel Fireside:37:07It’s really helpful to have you break all that down and it sounds like you do have one more message for our listeners.
Daniel Fireside:37:12Well, our lawyers say that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that all the descriptions of the company performance and the securities that we’ve offered and how they’ve done all relate to the past. As we know, past performance is no guarantee of future results. We’re not offering any stock at the moment. If we were, there would be all sorts of, uh, extensive disclosures. So don’t make any financial decisions based on a quick podcast or radio description.
Kate Chess:37:43Thanks for listening to the stories behind our food, a podcast by Equal Exchange inc. A worker owned cooperative. Loved this episode. Please subscribe, rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit Equal Exchange.coop to join the conversation. Purchase products. And learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode was produced by Equal Exchange with hosts, Kate Chess and danielle rabickow. Sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the stories behind our food.
Distribution day is the day your participants and supporters have been waiting for! They’ve been anxious to see – and finally taste – the delicious, organic and fairly traded goodies that they purchased during your catalog fundraising campaign.
You’ve wrapped up your fundraiser and submitted your master order form. Now, it’s time to prepare space to receive your group’s shipment so that you — and any helpers you’ve recruited — can separate individual orders and package them up for supporters to take home! If you set up tables before the shipment arrives, you can avoid handling all the products twice by simply placing them where they need to be for distribution as you check them in. In order to accomplish this, you need to know the sizes of the products to make a spot for them all. This kind of visual guide for product placement is called a plan-o-gram or a schematic.
Fundraising orders that are approximately $2,000 will require at least four tables that are four feet in length or longer. Larger orders will likely need more space. If you can, avoid placing your tables against the wall as you may need the room behind (and under) them to stack extra cases of product. Also, leave enough room between the tables so you can comfortably walk around them during distribution.
Allocate one table per product category and place them in the same order as they appear in the fundraising catalog:
Using separate pieces of paper, write the name of each product in the fundraising catalog (products may vary from example below) and place them, in the same order, on the matching product tables. (In the unlikely event an item was not ordered, still place a note to mark its place so people can follow along the order form with ease.)
Once every product is indicated, use the diagrams below to plan the space on the table tops so everything fits. Arranging things in the same order as the catalog will expedite distribution and help eliminate mistakes. This is true whether you and your helpers prepare orders for each participant or whether you plan an assembly-line for distribution day where supporters pick up the products themselves. Should you choose the latter, be aware that more errors can occur –plan extra supervision to ensure all products go home with the correct people!
All measurements below are approximate. Products are measured from left to right.
Chocolate needs approximately 40” of table space.
We hope this guide helps you prepare enough space so you can have your best distribution day ever!
Do you have tips or photos to share from your distribution day? If so, please help others by sharing them in our small group of Equal Exchange Fundraising Coordinators on Facebook.
If you’re in the early stages planning your campaign, here are tips on Logistics and Collecting Orders. Also, we provide insights for schools to distribute their orders per class room which are helpful for any fundraising organizer.
By Rob Everts, Equal Exchange Co-Director
While we take stock in the still-incomplete election results of last week, a more “evergreen” threat to American democracy is busy working 24/7 to thwart the will of the people.That is the corrupting influence of big money in politics. In fact, spending on the mid-term elections topped $5 billion—much of that from “dark money” groups who don’t need to disclose who is behind them.Taking a stand in favor of democracy, Equal Exchange recently endorsed the direction of American Promise.
The fundamental premise of American Promise is the need to pass a 28th amendment to the Constitution in order to curtail the destructive role big money has had for too long in quashing the wishes of the people. While it is no secret that our country is dangerously divided politically, polls show remarkable support among voters of all stripes for this approach to leveling the playing field. In other words, it is not a pure pipedream but a potentially viable strategy to achieve this important goal.
Why has Equal Exchange taken a stand on this issue? To us, democracy is more than a political system. It is our governance structure at work. Imperfect as our own worker cooperative may be, it is profoundly important that the highest-level decisions this organization makes are the domain of those who work here, the worker-owners. We are proud of this structure and work hard to give it meaning every day.
Furthermore, our supply chains are grounded in the solidarity between cooperatives. On the product side, we don’t buy coffee or tea or cacao from individual farmers. Rather, we support their institutions, democratic farmer cooperatives, because we believe the only way to help marginalized farmers gain more political power is to support their efforts once they have organized.
We also face the disproportionate influence of corporate power in the market. Massive consolidation in every sector—coffee, chocolate, bananas, grocery, distribution—makes it increasingly difficult for independent businesses to compete and succeed in the market. Consumer choices are ultimately limited, profits accrue to faceless, distant corporations, and control is lost by local communities.
One challenge Equal Exchange doesn’t have that American democracy is confronting is the outsized influence of corporate shareholders. In the political sphere, corporations and wealthy individuals have influence far disproportionate to their numbers. As described in The Sacramento Bee last year, “The problem can be traced back to 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in elections, money is the same as speech, and thus it’s unconstitutional for the government to limit election spending. That decision opened the door to corporations, unions, and the super-wealthy to wield immense influence.” This is the problem a 28th amendment would correct.
There are currently several versions already pending in Congress. The one with the strongest support so far (it received 54 votes in the US Senate in the last Congress, and was reintroduced in the House (167 co-sponsors) and Senate (44 co-sponsors) contains the following principles:
Section 1. To advance democratic self-government and political equality for all, and to protect the integrity of government and the electoral process, Congress and the States may regulate and set limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.
Section 2. Congress and the States shall have power to implement this article by appropriate legislation, and may distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections.
Section 3. Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress or the States the power to abridge the freedom of the press.
In other words, a 28th Amendment along these lines would enable the federal and state governments to no longer grant corporations equal status with human persons and in turn, no longer equate spending with free speech. While other measures are surely needed to restore faith in our democracy and combat the relentless efforts to suppress voting by minorities and the poor, such an amendment would be an enormous confidence builder that our democratic system can indeed work for all of us.