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Equal Exchange

Episode 8: The Afterlife of Food

This month, we took The Stories Behind Our Food on the road. Danielle and Kate interviewed Igor Kharitonenkov of Bootstrap Compost at his home in Boston, where we checked out his garden and learned about all things compost!


Fast facts about Bootstrap’s impact since 2011

Waste diverted from landfills: 4.5 million pounds

Compost created:  2.2 million pounds 

Greenhouse gases offset: 3.2 million pounds 

That’s the equivalent of 24,366 trees or 1,734 acres of forest land. Looking at the offset another way, it represents 1.6 million pounds of coal or 165,800 gallons of gasoline that were not burned!


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Episode Transcript:

Intro: (00:01)
everyday 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 Robidoux — and I’m Kate Chess — and we’re your hosts. All right.

Kate: (00:29)
Hello. The stories behind our food is on the road this week. Danielle and Gary, our producer are being hosted right now by Igor Kharitonenkov of Bootstrap Compost. He’s the Co founder and chief operating officer. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Igor: (00:45)
Thank you for having me.

Kate: (00:46)
Thanks for hosting us and giving us pomegranate juice. Pretty awesome. I want to start out by asking you about your mission. Basically, I think composting isn’t super mainstream in the US. Why do you think that is?

Igor: (01:02)
Well, it takes a lot of time and effort to compost. You have to be genuinely interested in it to actually create a good nutrient rich soil. A lot of people try to compost in their backyard and what they do is they basically are just creating a mini landfill, because they’re just throwing food scraps, one on top of the other. you need a, you know, mix the compost, you need to water it. Occasionally you need to make sure it has access to sunlight so that all those microbes and macro and micro decomposers can have an environment where they thrive.

Kate: (01:35)
Yeah. I think you’re getting into this already, but if you can explain basically from a scientific perspective how composting works and how it’s different from a landfill.

Igor: (01:44)
Sure. Well, first of all, composting is a much better use of resources then than landfills are. according to the EPA, 14% of waste is compostable, but only 2.9% of that is actually composted. So we’re on average every day producing enough food waste to fill a stadium the size of Gillette, where the Patriots play full of food waste and that’s mostly going to the landfill. composting is good for a variety of reasons. first of all, of course you’re creating a, a soil out of it that can be used. It’s a nutrient rich soil amendment that can be used to grow and help grow and help create a really, a really positive sort of ecosystem for plants to thrive in. I put compost on my garden, you know, I have really beautiful Kale growing back there and tomatoes and it really helps create the proper kind of environment with the right kind of nutrients that a plant is supposed to have. But the other reason composting is so good is because of the fact that it actually offsets, greenhouse gases. So in a landfill, you are creating methane gas, methane gas. It’s, you know, we always say landfills are where food scraps go to die and methane gas is the byproduct of that. Methane gas is 14 to 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Kate: (03:17)
Where does it come from? It’s just being like, it’s coming out of the piles of an uncompensated scraps?

Igor: (03:25)
You know, I’m not a chemist, but I do know that food scraps and other stuff that’s just sitting there and rotting creates methane gas.

Kate: (03:33)

Igor: (03:34)
But with composting, you’re flipping that, that food waste, you’re adding water, you’re adding naturally heat as added through that process. And I believe it’s a combustion reaction, but essentially you’re taking methane gas and you’re converting it to carbon dioxide, which again is 14 times less potent in the environments you’re actually offseting greenhouse gases by, by composting. Take this, for example, every pound of food waste that you can post, you’re actually offsetting around 0.9 pounds of, of greenhouse, of greenhouse gases. to put that into terms, every mile you drive, you pump out one pound of carbon dioxide. So essentially, you could offset your whole footprint. You know, by composting, say, you know, I mean you’d have to compost a lot of food and maybe change your lifestyle a little bit, but you could really have a zero waste kind of neutral greenhouse gas lifestyle with the help of composting. So…

Kate: (04:38)
That’s pretty compelling. I think a lot of people don’t see what they can do as individuals, but this, especially when you’re doing it on large scale as your businesses and we’ll get into that. It’s got, it gives me a lot of hope. That’s neat.

Igor: (04:51)
And I think going back to why don’t more people compost? Well it does take a lot of work. People are busy here in Boston. People don’t have the space to do it. oftentimes they don’t have the time to do it themselves. So services like ours, really help. I just read a statistic that said that of non– 72% of people don’t compost. But of those 72%, 67% say they would compost if it was, if there was a convenient way to do it. Now convenient is a relative term to some people, convenient might mean buying a tumbler and putting it in their backyard instead of having a pile. A tumbler is a device that you essentially spin and rotate. And over time, those food scraps, you know, you add your carbon sources, your, your nitrogen sources, your, your browns and your greens essentially for a healthy compost pile, you need both a lot of leaves and carbon sources, even cardboard or you know, paper materials like that. And then you also need your, your food scraps, your banana peels, your leftovers. So that might be, that’s easy for someone, for other people, that means actually having a service like Bootstrap. So recently I was in New York City for the community composting, conference. And there are businesses starting up all over the country. We were one of the original community composting operations in America. and we’re one of the biggest ones now. People really look up to us and we frequently, frequently get inquiries from places in Florida or Alabama or California, Oregon. Across the board. There are, you know, hundreds of companies starting now that are looking up to us and looking up and seeing that people are starting to become more conscious with their food waste. So many years ago we became sort of conscious about how we eat. More and more people are buying organic. More and more people are buying local. I think more people are into even gardening. and now that same kind of clientele that is shopping at Whole Foods and is really buying into kind of the values that what they stand for, what they put in their body. They also want to put back into the planet via composting. So we started serving Jamaica Plain. That was our initial neighborhood. We had a few dozen clients and now we’re, you know, out in the Back Bay with, you know, what I would consider a higher end clientele. You know, the people that can afford, you know, the lattes and you know, the Yoga studio classes and, and now they have a composting bin too. So that’s a really cool revolution that I’ve seen over the, over the time of this business is that we’re not just reaching kind of this niche audience of, you know, I don’t want to put a label on it, but people that are just really, into the environment. Now we have people that are into a lot of things, but they also are into the environment as well.

Kate: (07:52)
Yeah. Make compost. Cool. Make compost mainstream. Yeah, that’s right. Can you explain — I’m seeing the obstacles here. People want to do this, they already want to do this more and more, but they don’t necessarily know how to do it and they don’t have the space. So how do you make it convenient for city dwellers here in Boston?

Danielle: (08:07)
Yeah. Admittedly I was one of those people that you were talking about earlier who by accidentally was making a mini landfill in my back yard. So I’d love to hear what, how it works for an individual

Igor: (08:18)
About starting your own compost pile or about signing up with Bootstrap?

Danielle: (08:21)
Signing up with Bootstrap. Didn’t work for me. Right?

Igor: (08:26)
So if you are interested in composting, and again, if you don’t have the space or time to do it or maybe you’re not creating the kind of soil that you wanted to, you can sign up with us. And what we do is we deliver a five gallon bucket to your house. if you’re, if you’re a resident, we also provide commercial services as well. but if you’re a resident, you can sign up and we give you that bucket. You can fill it with …basically anything that grows goes. So we accept produce, we accept meat products, you know, and then we, and then we come by and based on your needs, we can come by once a week or once every two weeks and pick up that bucket, swap it out, give you a fresh, clean bucket. We sanitize, we clean and sanitize every single bucket. We put a nice little compostable liner around it, so it’s really smell free, it’s hassle free. And on the day of your pickup, you just place it outside on your front porch. We swap it out and you get to start again.

Kate: (09:32)
Do you have to do a lot of educating? Do people know what they can compost and what they can’t? Or has that been a problem for you?

Igor: (09:40)
\It hasn’t been a problem, but it’s sometimes a little bit of an issue with our commercial accounts. So we serve a lot of, a lot of offices for example. And that’s another movement where I’ve seen, you know, it used to be just Nature Conservancy or Series and now we have Puma and Uber and Lyft and just these big brand names that are now part of, you know, having composting services at their office. I visit them frequently. Toast Boston for example, is a huge growing company and they have so many compost bins and they fill them all up. it’s, it’s pretty amazing to see and it’s a huge impact because at an office you are potentially reaching thousands of people and educating them about composting. But sometimes things can go wrong because not everybody understands what to put in the compost Bin and what not to put. Or maybe they’re in a hurry and they’re just kind of like, you know, throwing it wherever and the first empty bin. With our residential subscribers, it’s not a problem. Again, it’s a volunteer kind of service. You don’t have to sign up for it. You can if you want.

Kate: (10:49)
They’re highly motivated already. They already want to do it. So they probably know more.

Igor: (10:53)
Exactly. Yeah. So they already know how to do it. Plus we send them, you know, like a little leaflet little flyer that says what you can and can’t compost. We, there’s plenty of Info online about, so, so people are, you know, if they’re, if they’re buying into it, they’re usually gonna follow the rules. Yeah. That being said, we have had, you know, a bucket full of diapers delivered to us once. Staying on the theme of poop, we once had a lady that was throwing her dog poop in the compost bin. So we’ve had a few weird incidents along the way, but 99% of those buckets are really just good food waste.

Danielle: (11:32)
Yeah. So what is your personal area of expertise? I know you talked kind of being that bleeding heart environmentalist. What, what is your background and what gave you this idea and wanting to get into this?

Igor: (11:51)
That’s something I think about a lot. my background is actually in psychology and I moved to Boston to pursue a phd in neuropharmacology, which lasted all of eight months. I did not decided I did not want to, pursue on that career path and kind of be stuck in a lab and the academic environment just didn’t suit me. I think by nature I’ve always been a bit of a risk taker and a businessman, you know, I was that kid, you know, going around the neighborhood, mowing lawns for people, making a little money, shoveling snow, you know, any opportunity I could make a dollar, you know, like I tried. then after Grad school I kind of floated around. I did some media work for a little bit, I did some communications work, but my heart was always in, in the environment and how do we help the environment. So I, initially saw a flyer for Bootstrap Compost and I thought, hm, that’s a cool service. I want to, I want to be a part of that. And I profiled Andy in a video.

Kate: (13:03)
This is your cofounder, right?

Igor: (13:05)
Andy is, yeah, my co founder, and I, this was back when he had like, you know, 40, 50, 60 clients in Jamaica Plain. And after that video, he really liked the work that I did. I think the video had got a lot of views. so I did some more stuff for him for free and then he decided to, you know, take me on for a few hours a week just doing part time marketing. He needed help. He was doing all aspects of the business. and somewhere along the way I just kind of developed a business acumen for efficiency, for operations, for hiring, all these things that it takes to grow and scale a business. We now have 26 people working on our staff. we serve over 3000 clients. and all that took a bit of risk taking and a lot of management. And I guess over the years I’ve just realized that those are some skills that I have.

Kate: (14:03)
Bootstrap describes itself on its website as a social enterprise. What does that mean to you?

Igor: (14:09)
It means a lot of things. I have a whole hour talk about social enterprise and what it means to be a social enterprise. I’ve done talks at UMass and Tufts to a variety of students. I’m talking about social entrepreneurship. what it means to me is you’ve heard of the bottom, the triple bottom line. I mean, probably it’s the good for people, good for planet, good for profits. So I think that’s kind of like the basis of it. you know, for example, in house we invest in our workforce, so we give people above livable wages, we have health insurance, we’re now starting to unroll 401k plans. and we give bonuses and we always pay people and we put them on flexible schedules. We have several people who work remotely with us and they’re getting their job done and it’s treating each other with respect and treating each other with kindness, in house. So that’s what we do in house. outside of that we are big in the community. So we do a lot of education. We have a community outreach team that, is spearheaded by one of our employees who, together. Her and I designed a very robust K-6 sort of curriculum about composting a an hour long presentation essentially to that we can shop around and go to schools with and teach kids about, you know, the importance of composting, talking about soil health, talking about plant health, talking about some of these issues like the landfill stuff I was bringing about bringing, talking about, and methane and all that other stuff. And it really ties in a lot of like science, technology, math kind of stuff. We bring the worm bin too occasionally. The young kids really love the worms. They love to look into, you know, that compost bin. And we asked them to like find a, a warm egg or find a big worm finally. So we do a lot of that with kids. the service in itself is a social enterprise, I feel like because as I mentioned that offices, you’re reaching a lot of people and teaching them about, behaviors that are more favorable for the earth. the buckets out on the curb out on this front step make people wonder, Oh, what does bootstrap compost? They look it up to like, oh, composting made easy. Hmm. What’s that?

Kate: (16:41)
Yeah. If you look at their Instagram, you can see a lot of the buckets, but we’re talking about a branded bucket that has the name of the service on it. So people who see it will know right away. This isn’t just a random bucket. There’s a purpose for it.

Igor: (16:53)
Yeah, exactly. we hire, we hire folks with disabilities and they come into our warehouse through Triangle and they work with us four days a week. that’s something I’m extremely proud of that partnership and we’ve been able to keep it going now for I think coming up on three years. and it gives folks with disabilities a sense of purpose and meaning and an income, for a population that has historically been disenfranchised or misunderstood. And we love those guys. They come in and they just, they just, they just crush it. and then we have a community outreach team, which, goes back to the compost donations. We give out a lot of compost to community gardens. We just gave one a to a community garden that’s starting up in Chinatown. We delivered 20 buckets to another community garden. I can’t think of the name right now. but there’s a lot of compost that’s being given out. We have a budget. you know, we try to do 1% or more of our revenue goes back into causes we believe in. So not only do we donate compost, but we also do financial donations. So we’ve donated to the ACLU, the Hyde Square task force, among many other organizations that we believe in, that uphold the spirit of, you know, liberty and, and and, and doing something right.

Kate: (18:26)
It’s awfully efficient that you can advertise your own service and simultaneously be teaching people about good behaviors that are good for the earth. Even if they’re not, they don’t choose to go with Bootstrap, like, you can without feeling like it’s just an ad. You can talk about what you do and get new supporters. But also have people like really learn something useful that’s, that’s good for the world.

Igor: (18:48)
Yeah. It’s a win win. And we don’t try to be salesy. People come to us. We’ve grown tremendously this past year, especially in the commercial sector. And there’s just a little signup form or a little information form that people fill out and we get five inquiries a day, 10 inquiries a day of commercial clients who want to sign up with our service. So we’re just clearly getting out.

Kate: (19:09)
Can you talk about, we haven’t actually gotten to this yet. What happens to the food you pickup? What happens to the compost you make?

Igor: (19:15)
Yeah, so we work primarily with one farm where it gets turned into compost. They have, an in-vessel, system where they take the food waste and they put it into this giant sort of screener that is also, powered by I believe, diesel. and it runs for like a, I don’t know what the capacity is, but it’s massive. It’s the size of like a semi semi truck, like an 18 wheeler. and food waste gets put into that and they spin it around and they heat it. And within 24 hours, you have 90% finished compost. Actually 24 hours. Yeah. And the screener, the screen is actually able to separate, it’ll keep the like bad stuff in and the compost, it gets screened out. Then they take that compost and they put it into these large mountain sized piles. They’re not actually the size of mountains, but they’re pretty big. They’re probably the size of this house. so, and then that, that sits there and they come by with a tractor and turn it, you know, every, every couple of days. And, and we’ve tested their compost and it tests really, really well. in terms of testing low for heavy metals testing high for nutrients, we always test the compost before we, do our, you know, giveaways. so that’s one thing that happens. We work with another farm, which is much more agrarian if you want to put it that way. They just have a basic three, three, like it’s not a three bin system, but it’s like three areas.

Kate: (20:54)

Igor: (20:55)
Yeah. Three piles essentially. Yeah. And so they have one pile that’s like the act of pile where we would dump food scraps that gets turned in. The middle pile is when you’re no longer dumping, but it’s not fully finished than the last pilot’s to fully finished compost. So they have that kind of system would go there once a week. So they get maybe about, you know, a thousand pounds a week less than that.

Kate: (21:15)
And these farms are using the finished compost — other than what you donate, like you mentioned earlier that the compost — they’re using it for their food production?

Igor: (21:24)
So the first farm, they’re a commercial composting site. They sell the compost or they give compost back to us. And with our partnership they give us as much compost as we want, as, as much as we need to be able to do our donations to be able to, give back to our residents and even to do some sales. we mixed their compost actually with some of our own worm castings, which are, you know, the most potent kind of compost. So even just a little teaspoon of worm castings is enough for one plant. whereas with compost you’d want like a handful of compost for one plant. So we mix it in and we kind of branded as our own Bootstrap compost that we sell or give away or donate. But the other farm, they actually do use their compost on their crops.

Kate: (22:11)
Yeah. Cool. I’m seeing a lot of packaging, like food packaging recently that’s marketed as compostable anyway. Is that something that you can handle and do you have thoughts on that movement toward packaging food in compostable … I don’t know what it is. Bioplastic or something?

Igor: (22:27)
We can handle a limited amount. we’re fortunate enough that most of that stuff we, we don’t get a lot of that stuff. So most of our, I’d say 95 to 98% is food scraps. So we don’t have a lot of, compostable packaging that comes our way. My personal viewpoints on it are mixed. While it’s probably better than plastic. I still think it’s kind of contributes to a culture of a throw away culture, and a culture of waste. And, I’m not sure what even like what the ratios are for the amount of resources that you need to create, a compostable cup versus a plastic cup versus, so I probably need to do a little more research on that. But I do think generally speaking that it would be better if offices used, you know, people used water bottles or or plates like real plates and real forks and knives. But then again, I understand, I’ve been to some of these offices that have, you know, thousand employees running around with literally a cup of coffee in one hand, a laptop and the other. So convenience is a factor and it’s just something we’re dealing with. And I guess it’s better to have compostable plastics then than to not have them. But on the flip side, too many of those and farms can’t process them. And, and they have to go to digesters. And, and I know for a fact that that digester in Charlestown doesn’t accept, you can put them in, but it’ll grind them up and it won’t go into the slurry. It’ll just be thrown away with the stuff that’s, you know, that’s the byproduct. So it’s really hard to compost that stuff.

Kate: (24:19)
Ironic. But good to know.

Danielle: (24:23)
Yeah, it is ironic.

Kate: (24:24)

Danielle: (24:26)
I think another thing to think about, especially for a lot of our listeners is the individual behavior that we have and how that impacts what companies do. We have a lot of those compostable packaging now because it’s been demanded. You want the convenience, but you want, you know, the quote unquote environmentally friendly that turns out it’s not so environmentally friendly. And I think what I want to stress to our listeners and to individuals is to really own your individual behavior and how that impacts what companies do and that it’s important to buy whole foods. It’s important to buy bulk and your food and your grocery store. And when you buy packaged goods and you continue to buy packaged goods, that’s going to change the behavior of where you’re buying that. So, I don’t know if you have any thoughts on kind of how folks’ individual behavior kind of impacts maybe the way you do business and you know, the other folks you’re doing business with as well.

Igor: (25:25)
Well, it’s interesting you bring that up because 40% of our food is wasted across the board, whether it’s a restaurant, whether it’s a household. And that’s really sad because if food waste was a country, I believe it would be the second largest producer of energy and like the third largest use user of energy and the third largest user of water.

Danielle: (25:53)

Igor: (25:54)
And that’s globally speaking, that’s not just the US but in the US it’s 40%. And you’re right. I mean it’s, it’s, it’s like, you know, don’t go to Costco and buy six heads of lettuce because it’s gonna cost you $3 less, you’re going to end up wasting three of those heads of lettuce. Yeah. If you’re buying it for your family, you know, I go to Costco, I’ve completely stopped buying the produce there because I realized that it’s just half of it just goes bad. And I’m, I’m part of the problem when that happens. So, you know, with produce, just be very careful and mindful of what you buy and how much you buy. sSo that does come down to individual decisions, individual behaviors, eat your leftovers, you know, if you’re at a restaurant, take it home, eat it for lunch the next day. Try to be creative about your cooking. Try to not order out so much and you know, eat, eat, eat healthy and eat well. Try to do some gardening if you’ve, you know, got the interest and start to really appreciate food more than what it takes to grow it because it’s not easy. And as far as the industry goes, I think we’re coming up with more sophisticated ways of food packaging. There’s a company out in California called Apeel and they’re coming up with an organic sort of, by organic, I mean plant based, plant based coating that you can put on produce, which increases the shelf life from say, you know, a banana that would go bad in three days to like seven or eight days. And it’s that those are little technologies that are going to go a long way in the future, that are going to help us reduce food waste because it’s not just that, it’s also grocery stores. It’s also, you know, in the transportation of the food. It’s also at the farms. So I’m talking about big, big systemic issues that we have with food waste. And we at Bootstrap always say like, we sometimes open up a bucket and we see like a perfectly fine potato in there. We always wonder like, why didn’t you just eat that? Like, or it might have like a little smudge on it that you could just cut off. So like people have this idea that they’re, and as much as I love Whole Foods, I think Whole Foods has contributed, the company, to like this idea of like shiny, happy food. Yeah. their produce is very high quality, but it’s also like, you don’t need the perfect apple all the time. Yeah. You don’t need to have the perfect tomato. okay.

Kate: (28:31)
Food can be ugly and still be good and tasty and nutritious. It’s interesting to hear somebody who’s in the compost biz say that actually it’s better to not have too much food than it is to compost the extra. Reducing the amount of food that you buy and eating what you, what you buy rather than buying too much and putting it in the compost. It’s not actually a zero emission solution. Anything that you want to cover that we haven’t touched on?

Igor: (28:57)
Yeah, I mean, one thing that I talked about, was, well, one thing that we didn’t really cover was the impact that Bootstrap’s had. And that’s something that I, you know, I’m really proud of. So since 2011, we’ve kept four and a half million pounds of food waste out of landfills. We’ve created 2.2 million pounds of compost through the process of composting. We’ve offset 3 million, 3.2 million pounds of greenhouse gases, which, that number is not just fictitious. You can go online. EPA has a calculator. you can go in and plug your numbers, how much you drive and you know, how much our vehicles are on the road versus how much we collect. That’s the number we have 3.2 and that 3.2 million of greenhouse gases offset is the equivalence of planting 24,366 trees. Or creating 1,734 acres of forest land. To put that in perspective, that’s slightly larger than if you were to combine the Back Bay, the South End and the Fenway neighborhood and turn it all into a forest. We’ve kept 1.6 million pounds of coal from being burned. Again, that’s an equivalency. or if you look at gasoline, we’ve, we’ve prevented 165,800 gallons of gasoline from being burned and that is the equivalent of taking close to 1700 trips from Boston to LA and a car hundred trip and a 30 mile per gallon car.

Kate: (30:38)
Wow. Yeah. I’m going to, for people who don’t process numbers when they hear them, I’m going to put these numbers on our blog as well so you can look at them. I think that’s really impressive and really speaks to the good work Bootstrap’s doing. Thank you so much for joining us, Igor. I’ve definitely learned a lot and I know our listeners will as well. And if you are in the Boston area, I hope you’ll, you’ll give Bootstrap a thought for your composting needs.

Igor: (31:01)
Thank you for your time. I loved having you guys here.

Danielle: (31:05)
Thank you.

Outro: (31:08)
Thanks for listening to The Stories Behind Our Food, a podcast by Equal Exchange, inc a worker-owned cooperative. Love this episode? Please subscribe, rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit 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 Robidoux and sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the Stories Behind Our Food.

Organic Cacao: Bean to Bar

Do you know where chocolate comes from? Have you ever seen a cacao bean or a cacao pod? Most people have only experienced the end result, like a chocolate bar or a cup of hot cocoa. These divinely delicious products can be magical – inspiring our palates, bringing back fond memories, and simply making us happy.

The manufacturing of chocolate is a precise and scientific process, and yet, it still holds some of this magic and inspiration. From the cacao farms that can feel like enchanted forests, to the manufacturing plant, each step impacts the final quality of the chocolate and each step is a combination of science and art. Due to the great care and pride that our producers put into their work, these beans can be transformed into chocolate that will wow the senses and put a smile on your face.

So, sit back, bite into a delicious piece of Equal Exchange chocolate, and read about how it was crafted – from bean to bar.


Rows of cacao seedlings

Cacao or cocoa comes from the cacao tree or Theobroma cacao. Theobroma is a Greek word that means “food of the gods.” The cacao tree is an evergreen found in over 50 tropical countries, and estimated to be grown by 2 million to 2.5 million producers, 90% of whom are small-scale farmers with 12 acres or less.

The tree can grow up to 30 feet but is often pruned to make harvesting easier for the farmers. Once a tree is planted, it can take up to five years before it produces cacao pods, and it can continue to produce pods year round until it is 25 or 30 years old. Every year, cacao trees grow thousands of flowers on their trunks and branches. Only a small percentage (as low as 1%) of these flowers will actually produce a cacao pod or masorca. This pod, which is the fruit from the tree, can be similar to the size and shape of a football and grows out of the trunk and branches of the tree. Pods can be found in a range of colors from dark brown to orange, red, yellow, and green. A cacao pod will begin to ripen 5-6 months after it flowers. Each pod contains beans, the seeds of the fruit that are shaped like a flat almond, surrounded by a sweet pulp. There are roughly 30-50 beans in a typical pod. These beans are what ultimately get transformed into cocoa powder or chocolate.


Harvesting Cacao Pods

A smiling man cuts a cacao pod from the trunk of a tree

Once the pods are ripe, they are cut down from the trees, typically with machetes or, for the higher pods, using long poles with a cutting edge. They are cut with care so that the stalks are not damaged and can produce fruit the following year. Though pods can be harvested year round there are two major harvest times: the main harvest and the mid-harvest, which falls about six months after the main harvest.


Removing Beans

A group of people sit on the ground with piles of cacao pods. A man cuts into one.

Once on the ground, the pods are graded for quality and placed into piles. The pods are then opened with a machete or a wooden club by cracking the pod so that it can be split in half. The beans, still surrounded by the sweet pulp, are removed and piled on top of large leaves, often from banana trees.



Cacao beans ferment in cement bins, stirred with a giant wooden paddle.

Once the cacao beans have been removed from the pods, they are fermented to remove the mucilage, stop the bean from germinating, and to begin flavor development. Many farmers traditionally ferment the beans in a large pile on the ground in between banana leaves or sacks. Some producer groups, such as our producer partners in the Dominican Republic, the farmers of CONACADO Co-op, bring the beans to a central fermentation area where they are fermented in wooden boxes for a period up to six days. Fermentation is essential to the development of a high quality cacao bean that will be transformed into gourmet chocolate.



Caaco beans dry on beds inside a tent

After fermentation, the beans are dried, bringing the humidity of the beans down to between 6-8% for storage and export. Cacao beans are often dried in the sun, which can happen on tarps, mats, or patios. They are continually raked so that they will dry more evenly. The drying process can take up to a week. However, if the beans are dried too long, they will become brittle. If they are not dried long enough, they run the risk of becoming moldy. Some producers also have access to automatic driers, which are used when the weather is rainy or cloudy and they are unable to sun-dry the beans. Once dried, cacao beans can be stored for four to five years.


Roasting, Winnowing and Grinding

A stainless steel funnel and a machine with a lot of tubes in a chocolate processing facility

When the dried cacao beans arrive at the processing plant they are first cleaned to remove any debris. Next, the beans are roasted to darken the color and to further bring out the flavor characteristics of the cacao. The beans can be roasted at different temperatures and for different lengths of time, depending on different variables such as humidity, size of the beans, and the desired flavor.

After roasting, the beans are “winnowed” to remove the shells from around the bean, leaving only the roasted cocoa nib, which is the key ingredient for making chocolate.

Next, the cocoa nibs are ground into a paste called chocolate liquor, also sometimes called cocoa mass. Despite the name, chocolate liquor has absolutely no alcoholic content. Chocolate liquor can either be used directly in the production of chocolate bars or further processed to separate the fat, known as cocoa butter, from the cocoa solid, leaving cocoa presscake. Cocoa butter is used in chocolate bars and beauty products. Cocoa presscake is milled into cocoa powder to be used for baking cocoa and hot cocoa.



Chocolate is agitated within a conching machine

Once the beans are processed into chocolate liquor and cocoa butter, the manufacturing of finished products can begin. To make chocolate bars, chocolate liquor and cocoa butter are blended with other ingredients such as sugar, vanilla, and milk (for milk chocolate). These ingredients are then refined. For Equal Exchange chocolate bars, this means the particle size of the ingredients is refined to such a small size that they cannot be felt by the human tongue, giving the chocolate much of its smooth texture. This mixture is then “conched,” or mixed and aerated at high temperatures. This process thoroughly blends the ingredients, taking out some of the acidity of the cacao and further developing the flavors that will appear in the final bar.

Traditionally, conching has been an extended process of mixing the ingredients for long periods of time, often for days. It is now common for companies to use soy lecithin, an emulsifier, to help blend the ingredients, allowing them to drastically cut down on conching time and costs. We are proud to say that Equal Exchange does not use soy lecithin in any of our products. Instead, our bars are crafted using extended conching for a period of 24-72 hours depending on the bar. It is our belief that this method creates a superior chocolate that is both incredibly smooth and full of well-balanced flavors. Read more about soy-free chocolate.


Tempering and Molding

Finished chocolate bars roll out of a machine in their molds

After the conching is complete, the chocolate is then “tempered” through a slow, stepped decrease in temperature. During this process, the chocolate is cooled and then warmed, then cooled further and warmed once again, and so on until it reaches the correct temperature, creating an even crystallization of the ingredients throughout the chocolate. If done well, tempering is what gives the chocolate its smooth texture and snap when broken in two. After the chocolate is properly tempered, it is ready for additional ingredient inclusions such as almonds, coffee beans, or sea salt. The chocolate is then poured into molds, which form the shape of the bar. The chocolate cools until it becomes solid and is then removed from the molds as chocolate bars. Once the bars are cooled, they are wrapped in their inner wrapper to keep the chocolate fresh for 12-24 months. They are then labeled, packed in cases and stacked on pallets ready to be shipped to and eaten!


Quality Analysis

A man buries his face in a bowl to take in the aroma of a chocolate sample

We want to make sure every chocolate and cocoa product that leaves our warehouse is of the highest quality. Our Chocolate Tasting Panel meets weekly (and sometimes more) for intense product evaluation. Tasting Panel is a hand-picked group of the best mouths at Equal Exchange, from various departments. The members have undergone extensive sensory training and calibration as a group, honing their skills and continually developing their palates. Panel often compares a new shipment of chocolate to a previous shipment, to ensure consistency. Another task is to write a descriptive analysis of a product’s aromas, flavors, aftertaste, mouthfeel, and so on, using a special “intensity” scoring system.
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Organic Sugar: Cane to Table

The sugar we use in our chocolate and cocoa comes from fair trade and organic sugarcane! Our co-operative partners work hard to provide a quality product. From the farmers who plant the cane to the mill workers who package the sugar, the transformation from cane to table takes an incredible journey. So, mix up a cup of our hot cocoa, take a sip, and while you allow its subtle caramel sweetness to cover your senses, read about how this sugar was formed – from cane to table.


an illustration of organic sugarcane growing

Sugarcane is most commonly planted from using cuttings of the cane as seed. Each cutting segment contains a bud that will sprout the new cane. It takes about one year for the cane to reach maturity.


An illustration of harvesting organic sugarcane with oxen

As harvest season approaches, co-operative extensionists will test the sucrose level of the sugarcane. Once levels are high enough, the farmer is authorized to begin harvesting. Most of our farmer partners harvest their sugarcane by hand with machete, and gather the sugarcane into bundles. From the bundles, it is transported, often by ox teams, to a co-operative collection center. There, the bundles are weighed out, tagged with the farmer’s code, and the farmers are given a receipt which they can cash in at the co-op on a weekly basis. From the collection center, farmer members split the cost of transporting their cane collectively to the mill.


an illustration of organic sugarcane on a conveyer belt being milled

At the mill, the bundles are recorded by their tags, opened, and sent first through a chopper and shredder. From there, the sugarcane is passed through a series of 3-6 mills, often in the shape of rollers in order to squeeze out as much cane juice as possible.


An illustration of organic sugarcane being clarified in a tank

Cane juice is acidic which creates favorable conditions for the rapid decay of sucrose. In order to prevent this decay, limewater is added into the cane juice. Next, the juice is heated causing any dirt and sediments to chemically bond to the limewater and separate from the juice for easy extraction.


The clean cane juice is heated to evaporate excess water until it reaches the consistency of syrup.


Once the sugarcane reaches the right syrup consistency, a “seed” is introduced in the boiler. The “seed” is an established sugar crystal that begins the rapid growth of other sugar crystals until the whole boiler is full of sugar crystals.


The sugar crystals are then passed through a centrifuge which draws all of the liquids away from the sugar crystals. The liquids left over are a cane syrup called a “mother liquor.” This liquor typically is passed through a boiler two or three more times until all of its sucrose is extracted in the form of sugar crystals, and the syrup leftover is sold as molasses. After the centrifuge, the sugar crystals are passed through a dryer that lowers the temperature and humidity of the crystals.


The dry sugar crystals pass through several magnets to detect for further impurities before being packaged. Our partners package the majority of their sugar in bulk quantities from superpacks (one ton bags) to 50lb brown paper bags.


Quality Analysis

We test each incoming sugar shipment to ensure that it is of utmost quality. Our Chocolate Tasting Panel meets weekly (and sometimes more) for intense product evaluation. The members have undergone extensive sensory training and calibration as a group, honing their skills and continually developing their palates. Panel will compare an incoming shipment of sugar to a previous shipment to make certain that there are not any off flavors or problems with the new sugar.


And that’s how it’s done! Ready to taste the results?


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Shade-Grown Coffee

Shade-grown coffee is as natural as it comes — the low-to-the-ground plant thrives as part of a healthy ecosystem surrounded by other species of plants and wildlife.  Equal Exchange’s mission to work with small farmer cooperatives has led us to work in regions with extensive landscape degradation. The market access we provide to producers in these regions is critical to restoring these landscapes. Because we’ve been working with our co-op partners for so long, we’re able to source outstanding beans. And much of the coffee we buy is shade-grown. The plants that shade the coffee give shelter to birds and insects, sequester carbon and serve as a source of food for local communities. That’s not all. Shade actually helps make for a sweeter cup!

Shade-Grown and the Environment

Coffee is a shade-loving shrub. But in recent decades, people have developed sun-tolerant varieties of the coffee plant. These varieties, grown on plantations in a mono-culture system, do what they’re meant to — produce large yields. People clear forests of native plants to plant these large fields of coffee. And a growing environment without crop variety doesn’t support biodiversity. Over 98% of Equal Exchange coffees by volume are certified organic. (Our few non-organic coffees are clearly labeled.) The overwhelming majority of these organic coffees are shade-grown. Shade trees and various types of crops and plant-life are an important part of the ecosystem for birds and pollinators.

Some of the non shade-grown coffees that Equal Exchange sources are produced in locales where deforestation has occurred. The land in these areas is in transition; it’s still in the process of being restored with agroforestry systems using coffee as the principal crop.

Want to learn more? Watch our documentary about farmer partners who grow coffee in buffer zones around protected biospheres in Peru:

Shade and Sweetness

The coffee beans we roast are the seeds of the plant. They’re found in its small round fruit, its cherries. Some fruits, like bananas, can be picked when green; they’ll continue to ripen after harvest. Coffee is different. It will not ripen any more once the fruit is off the bush. For that reason, skillful growers wait until the cherries are mature, when they’ve developed as much sucrose as possible. The sucrose in the cherry flavors the coffee in the cup — and it depends on factors like altitude and shade cover. Coffee plants needs sunlight to develop, of course. But they thrive when they grow in partially shady conditions.  According to the Coffee Quality Institute, shade-grown coffee will have 3% more sugar than coffee that is grown in full sun.

What about Certified Shade-Grown?

While the shade-grown certification system is appropriate for some growers, it comes with costs.  We don’t believe it provides sufficient additional benefits for us to ask our producer partners to go through this process on top of the fair trade and organic standards they are already meeting. It’s important to note that both organic and fair trade standards have environmental components that cover much of what shade-grown certification requires. From our perspective, shade certification doesn’t alter in a significant way the practices of farms that are already fair trade and organic certified.

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Shade-grown coffee with conifer trees
Shade-gown in Honduras at the COMSA cooperative.

The Search for Sustainable Packaging

We’ve been selling organic, fairly traded coffee since 1986 and our coffee bags are without a doubt one of our most recognizable products. When you’re in the grocery aisle, those bright red mylar bags are hard to miss.

But those red mylar bags are single-use and destined for the landfill in every municipality we sell them in. We are on a mission to change that.

Seeking a Righteous Alternative

We’re not on this path alone. Packaging is a clear opportunity for companies wanting to offer more sustainable options. And for good reason — 30% of US household trash on average comes from product packaging (Allaway et al pg. 5). Equal Exchange’s Environmental Sustainability Committee has been tracking our impact on various environmental metrics since 2015 and because of that we know about 30% of our company’s solid waste tracked goes to a landfill, much in the form of mylar coffee bags. Unfortunately, in seeking a righteous alternative, we’ve discovered that there are no simple solutions.

Compostable options have been leading the way in terms of alternative coffee packaging, so we’ll focus on them. Biotrē, made by Pacific Bag, accounts for coffee’s need for shelf stability with paper-based bags that have a lining of PLA, a plastic made from plant materials instead of petroleum. There’s a good article on Biotrē here.

But based on our research, this material could be problematic for two reasons.

A worker puts bags of coffee into a box

The Downsides of Compostable Packaging

First, most of these bags never actually get composted. Yard debris compost facilities rarely if ever accept packaging. Facilities that accept food waste and yard waste together are more accommodating, but still about half of all food waste composters won’t accept compostable plastics, and only an estimated 4% of US households have access to pickup food waste composting collection (Platt et al, Allaway et al pg 17). For example, many of our worker-owners live in Portland, Ore. which is one of those municipalities that only accepts food waste for composting. So, if they bought a Biotrē bag they would either have to compost it in their own backyard heaps or put it in the landfill. Any compost made with compostable packaging or utensils cannot be used on organic farms according to USDA standards, because they are considered synthetic inputs — much of which is derived from GMO corn (Sullivan).

Second, there is the full life cycle of environmental impacts that packaging has (beyond just its disposal) to consider. In 2018 The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released a comprehensive review of academic studies on packaging covering the previous 20 years and concluded that “compostable packaging that is composted does not consistently fare better than non-compostable packaging that is either landfilled, incinerated or recycled” across a wide array of environmental criteria (Allaway et al pg 11-12). The report goes on to cite that “higher impacts for compostable options are due to several factors, including higher production-related emissions” (Allaway et al pg 12) and the fact that composting doesn’t enjoy the “higher benefits of recycling,” (Allaway et al pg 13) which reuses materials, thereby cutting down on resource extraction. Biotrē was not evaluated in any of the studies covered by the DEQ’s review and may have lower production-related emissions than the compostable packaging that was studied, but we do not know.

Even if it is, we come back to the limited infrastructure for composting.

Where Does it All Go?

Some companies and thinkers in this arena have been adopting a “build it and they will come” approach, suggesting that if more and more companies adopt compostable packaging, more composting facilities will be built to handle the demand. We don’t know if that will happen. We do know that recently several Pacific NW composting facilities have stopped accepting compostable food service ware (which is different from packaging, which this post is about, but still telling) and released this press release on why. Even if waste management caught up and most “compostable” packaging was able to be composted, we’d have the higher energy inputs for alternatives to consider. Furthermore, viewing this issue solely from a greenhouse gas emissions perspective, David Allaway (DEQ) says, “If Oregon could recycle or compost 95 percent of its waste (all waste, not just packaging), we’d reduce [Oregon’s] greenhouse gas emissions by about six percent” — driving home again the fact that the greatest energy impact of any packaging material is incurred upstream at the time of its manufacture, and that recycling and composting are helpful but insufficient by themselves.

There are well-intentioned people on both sides of the compostable packaging debate, but it is our view at Equal Exchange that we need to keep searching for a more environmentally sound solution, ideally one that is recyclable. We’re keeping an eye out for one, and will continue evaluating compostable options and considering any that turn out to be lower-impact at the production stage.


This article was co-written by Equal Exchange worker-owners Ellen Mickle and Lincoln Neal.  Questions? Email Ellen:

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Episode 7: Organizing for the Long Haul

In 40+ years as an activist pushing for a more equitable food system, Rob Everts has seen a lot. Now he’s one of Equal Exchange’s Executive Directors and he’s still fighting the good fight. In this episode, hear some organizing stories from back in the day, and learn about how you can take part in the upcoming Summit. (You can RSVP here.)

Want to attend the Summit? Make sure to RSVP by May 24th here.

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Episode Transcript

Everyday 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 insight or knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux — and I’m Kate Chess — and we’re your hosts.:
Hi folks. Today we’re here with Rob Everts, president of Equal Exchange.:
Good to be here.:
Thank you so much for joining us today, Rob. let’s get right into it. Let’s start with your craziest more story as an organizer.:
Yeah, there’s a lot of potential war stories to share. Of course. some are are tragic some are exhilarating, But let me go back to the beginning of my career, one that was actually humorous. So I had dropped out of college to join the United Farm Workers Union. I’m from California, but I got sent to Boston in the heyday of these consumer boycotts — we were boycotting grapes and Lettuce. And at that time, I had organized a group in a western suburb of Boston to hold signs over the Massachusetts Turnpike that said boycott grapes and Lettuce. And we had a lot of people out there. And pretty soon a state trooper pulled up and, told us to get off the bridge. And, I asked him why and bottom line was, he said, because I said, so. So then I said, well, you know, when I ask you a straightforward question, I can’t get a straightforward answer. I just have no respect for the state police. Boom, click, click back of the seat. So I’m in the back of the, of the, cruiser taken to jail. an activist bailed me out and the UFW then launched a, a kind of a tongue in cheek campaign: Free the Newton One. This was in Newton, Massachusetts, Free the Newton One. And, I asked the — I was 19, and so I’d been arrested now and so I asked the director of the office, so what do I do and what you, you got to go hustle a lawyer. So I went and where could I go? Well, you be resourceful. You’re an organizer. So, I uncovered a lawyer at Harvard law school who would work, pro bono. She took my case Jean Kettleson and bless her heart.:
Fast forward to the hearing. We’re in there. There’s a state trooper, there’s me, there’s the judge, there’s my lawyer and there’s the assistant DA for Middlesex County who is prosecuting me. And it’s John Kerry, John Kerry, early in his career, not too many years after he has been very public about his organizing with the Vietnam veterans against the war VVAW. So he does not have his heart in this case, but he’s representing the trooper. And so, so he’s going, yeah, this, that the other thing. And then you could just see that all these characters knew each other. and so the judge was toying with John Kerry and I can just almost hear him all these years later is saying, well, surely you of all people, Mr Kerry, you must appreciate the nature of the activity that Mr Everts engaged in nonviolent, if you will. You know, things like that. In any way. My lawyer proceeded to tie the poor trooper into knots. and the whole thing was thrown out. But it was a, it was a good baptism to early organizing. Having to be resourceful on my own to extract myself out of that difficulty.:
Sounds, sounds like a rite of passage. That’s a, that’s a really cool story. I, I’m interested Rob, so obviously I’m an organizer for Equal Exchange. what organizing looks like today is obviously really different from, you know, back on the mass pike and, you know, holding up a sign. So I’m curious as to, if you can kind of speak to your experience organizing then and organizing now in some of the major differences that you can see with such largely different contexts, but you know, some, some of the similar same problems.:
Yeah, I think in many ways it hasn’t changed all that much. it’s about organizing is still about building relationships. It’s still about a convincing people that if they are organized, they can build power, that they can have power. In some instances like union organizing, it’s still about combating fear. So in many ways a lot of what organizing hasn’t changed. One thing that has changed, are the tools available. So when you think about technology, I think most people would agree that you know clicks and likes don’t organize people. So that’s, that’s not, that’s not doing it. but when I think about what’s been achieved, I think the first group that I recall doing this was move when they would organize digitally, you know, online these meetups that would get people in the same neighborhoods and zip codes and to meet physically in someone’s living room to then talk with an agenda and, about, you know, a common problem in an organize a strategy together that the blend of some of the technology available with still not losing sight of the importance of being in person, is a real asset in this day and age.:
Yeah. That’s interesting. Kind of thinking the parallels and really the tools being what are different and thinking about how the problem is, how do I get people to care? How do I get people rallied over a specific issue. What, what do you think makes a good organizer in general, what do you think the best traits to a good organizer are? And you know, you’ve done organizing work then and even today, right? Some of our work is organizing. why are you drawn to this kind of work? Why is it exciting for you?:
I think first in some of the traits of a good organizer, it’s hard for me to put anything above persistence. It can be so slow and the victories can be so few and far between that you have to have a pilot light that is really flaming. and you need to be persistent. And beyond that, I think you need humility. You do need a strong sense of self, self respect. You need to have a love for people, not just tolerate them but like really want to engage. and I think you need to be able to take the long view. So I think all of those are really, critical. I first, you know, got involved in high school with the United Farm Workers when they were picketing a store in my hometown. And I believe that the organizers there, Nancy Elliott, she, she saw me as a potential live wire. There was something, I was pretty shy, but she’s, she, she saw something and so she literally took me under her wing and you know, let me show you how we do it and we walk up to cars and tell them why we’re asking people not to even shop at that store and to please turn around and go away. So it seemed a high bar as opposed to just don’t buy this product. But we did it. And, I got the bug. And so I think what motivates me in some way is, believing that it’s worthwhile and yet that it’s has to be effective. Like when you think about the scale of evil in the world and corporate corruption, I mean, it can be overwhelming. It can be and very disempowering. So it’s not just enough to be outraged at wrongs in the world. You have to believe that there is a path and that you personally can find a role to be effective in that work to effect change.:
I agree with that. You do need that sense of hope and I do think it’s a lot easier as an individual to kind of see what’s already been done and have this highly critical eye, oh why is it that way? It should be this way. It should be that way. But I think as an organizer you do really want to think about that solution based thinking and having hope and seeing that hey, this is a path forward. So I really liked that you said that here and I’m curious, I actually was a really shy person as well. And do you do just seem to be really articulate, really charismatic, which I do think that human connection and the way we can communicate our ideas to people is important as well. What brought you to that first activity and where you really scared? Did someone push you to go to that kind of first event?:
Yeah, it actually was a sense of, I saw my brother do it — like it was this, it was a liquor store. It was Gallo wine that we were picketing. And I would walk past it on the other side of the street every day thinking I should be able to, I should be there. I should be able to be in that. And you know, I was too shy and not confident enough that I would even know what to say. And one rainy day, my older brother went down to join the picket line for the first time and I just kind of believed, well if he can do it, I can do it as sibling rivalry challenge. And so, and then like, look who stuck with it. Right? So he lasted a few months and I’m doing this 35 years later, you know.:
That’s awesome.:
That speaks to the power of relationships. Like you were saying, at the foundation of organizing is building relationships with the folks you’re trying to organize. But also with people in the community of activists. Have you had mentors who are notable?:
Yeah. Let me say just one more thing about that, that as much as we think people are attracted to a cause, like it’s all about the cause. People are attracted to you, the organizer. I mean, people win people over. And when I talk about, you know, humility, and not, and not being too self righteous of which I was at that age, I really like anyone who wasn’t boycotting Gallo wine was a complete disaster. Right? Even if they’ve never even heard of the boycott, if they weren’t doing it, they were, I mean, I was really pretty insufferable probably in that age, but so, so you got to find the balance of not being too self righteous, but driven and motivated and engaging and, and with a winning personality because people are attracted to, to people. For a mentor after that first organizer, Nancy Elliott, I think the one who I look up to the most would be Fred Ross, man by the name of Fred Ross. and it’s probably not insignificant that there’s probably not a single person listening to this podcast who’s ever heard of him. and that’s one of the reasons I look up to him because Fred was the person who discovered — I’ll put in quotes — Cesar Chavez, when Fred was looking to organize Mexican Americans in California, he found Chavez in a, in a barrio in, in San Jose. and they worked together for many years before even starting to build the United Farm Workers Union. So Fred worked for probably 60, 65 years as an organizer. And I know him from initially having the story, you know, having trained Chavez, how to organiz, together. Building with Dolores Huerta, building up the United Farm Workers.:
Speaker 2:
And then I come along as a college dropout at 19. Fred’s there, Fred is leading trainings. He’s accompanying people like me to house meetings. We’re critiquing them at 10 o’clock at night afterwards, while it’s really fresh. 20 years after that he’s working with CISPES, you know, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador doing organizing drives. He’s working with the people who ran the boycott against Nestle’s for the infant formula. and so accompanying people into his eighties accompany people to house meetings and doing debriefs immediately after and never stop training. And so someone like that who had done so much and changed so many lives and someone that no one’s ever heard of it, it just strikes me as a power. For me, he’s always been a mentor.:
I’m glad to get his name out there:
Because it’s back to the humility piece. Maybe that’s why no one’s ever heard of him. Right. Yeah. And to kind of step back, I really did like what you had said about human connection and that kind of being the central point to being a successful organizer. That it is about connecting human to human. And that’s what I really like about Equal Exchange is that we are trying to elevate the stories of people who are a part of making our food, whatever that looks like. And as an organizer, I definitely find it more, I want to know about the people that I’m organizing. I want to know about their lives and their, and their families and why they care about this on a human level. And I think that genuineness of really getting there is, and people feel that, and I think you’re right. It, they’re, they’re gravitated to the person and they can feel that you actually care about then as a human being. So I liked that. I liked that you said that, right?:
Yeah, it really, it really matters.:
So as for Equal Exchange, you know, we’re an alternative trade organization. We sell coffee, we sell chocolate, we sell tea, we are this for profit business, right? What makes us different and why do you think that organizing is something that’s central to what Equal Exchange should be doing? And as we think about a path forward, what does an alternative trade organization look like, you know, in the next 30 years. Why do you see organizing as a central piece of that?:
I think Equal Exchange is a more unique than we wish. We wish there were many more alternative trade organizations, ATOs out there in the world. like us whose sole mission, right is to change the terms of trade to inject equity and more justice into the, into an international trade in our, in our sector. but I think for us in this era, especially, you could, you could make the case that we should have been organizing in this way with consumers from, from day one, we’ve always put a high premium on education, trying to demystify where people’s food comes from, encouraging people to ask us questions and challenges. But we never have invested in this way. And for us now, it actually feels like a, like a strategy of, survival because, because of market forces and consolidation, corporate change where we all, you know, attempt to sell our food in addition to alternative distribution channels and food coops and things. But they have more control than ever before and their leverage to extract lower prices out of suppliers — And in this case, you know, we are a supplier to stores — it forces us to build an alternative, right? A nonlinear response to that. And I think we need to be, looking at people who consume our products in a way that’s broader than just consumption, not just people who consume. Right? And that’s why we’ve invoked this, this phrase, citizen consumers, because we, we want to engage with actually hundreds of thousands of people around the country who, who, who buy our stuff, in the totality of their being, right? Their whole political beings as citizen consumers, not just, you know, how can I help buy her stuff? How can I help join us? , and I think that’s unique among businesses here where we’re actually inviting citizen consumers people into our, market based organisation, this commercial enterprise to play an extremely important role, ultimately possibly a governance role with a, with a form of membership in this cooperative, that they are influencing decisions that we make, perhaps some day on the board of directors. So that’s the vision, right? And I think we need that in order to be around, you know, for the next 33 years.:
I think that’s really powerful. And what is different about that is that you’re actually asking folks to — you’re bringing down the walls, you’re asking for shared responsibility and you’re asking folks to walk this path with you and not to kind of, you know, be seeing what Equal Exchange does from afar and maybe appreciating it until actually there isn’t enough support. And maybe in 20 years if you didn’t go down this path, that actually doesn’t exist because you know, you always see that a co op is going out of business and you know, in the final hour you have everyone running to the store, you know, trying to, you know, save the Co op. But where were you for the past three years when they were struggling showing up and saying, Hey, I care about this. I want to engage in this alternative model. And so I think that getting folks to walk that path with us in a totally different way that no — from what I know anyhow, that no for profit businesses doing to me is actually really powerful.:
And I think in this moment when, democracy around the world, you know, in this country and in many countries around the world is under extreme duress. We’re hedging that, democracy matters to a meaningful number of number of people. And we want to give meaning to democracy, within our world, within our, not just within our worker co op, which is extremely important. but extend it to the whole consumer base that we have an end and try to create a model that really is a democratic, brand in the marketplace.:
And, and democracy doesn’t work if you don’t have active participation. I mean, since working here, I think I actually might understand democracy more than being a citizen of my own country. You know, you show up on election day and where is your involvement for the rest of the year. And so I don’t want to someone who’s just going to show up on election day, I want someone who has this shared responsibility and accountability to this is our planet, right? This is our food system. This is the food that we’re eating. This is the food we’re feeding to our, to our kids, and how do I actually care about that on a different level and realize that I as an individual have power. Right. And I think that’s the power of an organizer is that’s what we’re here to tell you, that we are actually bringing you along this path and getting you to care.:
One thing I feel like I’m seeing a lot is defeatism. You’ve alluded to the magnitude of the problems that folks are facing and you’ve also talked about how essential it is that organizers have a path forward or have a vision of a hopeful future. But I think that might be one of the generational differences, as young people look back on what seems to be this golden age of protest and organizing in the sixties and seventies that we weren’t alive for. It seems like the problems today are bigger and therefore like, let’s not bother or, or something like that. Do you, do you this defeatism and do you have any advice for younger folks that are trying to get involved?:
I would be lying if I didn’t say I didn’t have my own moments like that. Right? Like, I’m thinking of the present moment democracy under duress in this country, right? Our president is, is trampling on democracy. And in my weakest moments, I think he might win the day, right? Can the public, can we, can we, the people rescue our democracy? I think it’s there. I think it’s … I think to deny it is not helpful. And so to acknowledge it, but then to try to, you know, turn the corner and look at it concrete ways that people can make change. There are so many examples, especially young people these days. when I look at, and it’s not just young people, but Black Lives Matter. When I look at the Parkland students, a lot of organizing around immigration. A lot is young people. A lot is effective, right? There’s challenges, but a lot of this is effective and, and young people, in a way they’re fearless. So I don’t deny that there’s this, there’s this backdrop or bigger context of, of defeatism and, and, and the, the warming planet and you know, it’s getting worse and things like, you know, there’s a lot, there’s a lot there, but there’s also a lot of examples of people doing really good work and being successful at what they’re doing. And so, I would try to steer people in that direction because it’s, it’s, it’s the path that we all need to take.:
Right. And I guess the overall point would be what does organizing among other organizations who are doing similar work, what does solidarity look like, there, on an organizational level and how can we think about that in the same way and what can we learn from what we do on an individual organizing level, but also, like you said, Rob, there is hope. There is a path, there are folks that are in other organizations doing really cool things and how can Equal Exchange, you know, tap in and connect to some of those and you know, really just pave a path forward that that is positive despite, you know, what Kate had alluded to and that all the things that are going wrong in this world and how can we band together as organizations to, you know, move forward.:
Equal exchange is a worker cooperative. You know, we, we buy from farmer cooperatives, we sell to consumer cooperatives. There are other worker cooperatives around. It’s ironic how difficult it is to cooperate despite the sixth coop principal: cooperation among cooperatives. It can be really hard. And I pull back to other organizing and organizing more often than not is issue oriented. It’s driven by issues. And whereas I really believe, that the overstated phrase, there’s more that unites us than divides us. I do believe that. And so the challenge is to be able to articulate that and to overcome suspicion and to relax assumptions and permit others to influence you. And more than anything to be willing to compromise, not your values, but maybe your priorities. Because there is, if we, if we let our, if we let that sink in, if we let ourselves believe that there truly is more that unites us, let’s name it, let’s name those things that unite us and let’s name the common, you know, I’ll say enemy for lack of a better word. and then let’s see where we can work together because it, it, it can be really difficult. But when it, when it does work, it’s a, it’s a beautiful thing.:
I’m actually interested to Rob just to think about, you know, clearing out the shelves of that. What are some of the tactics that you used as an organizer? You know, how, what are interesting ways to kind of get people to care? I know there’s, you know, different tactics that folks are using to try to get attention from people. Is there anything from your experience that you have seen that too bad an, you know, really successful?:
One of the most successful things at the pure tactical level was knowing that the media loves to cover itself. Now. Now I’ll take it to around 1980, 1990, the organization, Neighbor to Neighbor, which was, leading an effort, among many others to, end the US involvement in the war in El Salvador. And our focus had been on Congress. but here it’s still the cold war. And many Democrats were just as bad as Republicans in terms of supporting US aid to the butchers in El Salvador, the people who had assassinated Archbishop Romero and the six Jesuit priests later on, and the four American church women and 80,000 more peasants and union people and teachers whose names will never know. we, we wanted, we launched a boycott of their leading export, which was coffee. So it was, so, it was the, the governing party was the ARENA party, the party of the coffee growing elite, President Alfredo Christiani was a big plantation coffee plantation owner, and we said, Congress, the congressional strategy isn’t working. Let’s try something else. And many of us had been in the United Farm Workers Union. And so we looked around the room one day and realized we had a hundred years of collective consumer boycott experience in the room and said, there’s nothing to lose. Let’s go after him. And so we launched a boycott of Salvadoran coffee. We targeted Folgers as the leading user of Salvadoran beans in there blend. And the tactic that we used was we used many and, and I almost don’t have time to talk about them all here, but the role of the longshoreman on the West Coast was beautiful.:
But the one I want to say it was right here in Boston, when we made for $5,000 we made a TV commercial or a 30-second TV ad narrated by the actor Ed Asner that ended up with a Folgers’ coffee mug with blood seeping out of it. You know. And Ed Asner’s saying, boycott Folgers’ coffee: what it brews is misery and death. And we tried to shop this to local stations to run it and it was essentially banned in Boston, right? One station after another. Refused to run this ad. And finally, the local, the ABC affiliate, I believe it was at the time, channel seven here, actually agreed, called our bluff. Yeah. We’ll run that spot. And so we, I quickly had to go and hustle like 10,000 bucks to buy a couple of, you know, slots at non prime time, like 10 in the morning during Family Feud or something like that, just to follow through.:
That’s just when I feel like a cup of blood.:
And so we ran it. And then within minutes, practically, Procter & Gamble that owned Folgers revoked $1 million in ad money from channel seven because he had the audacity to run the Neighbor to Neighbor low budget TV spot. So we were able to convert that into a national story. Like this one was too hot — look at who got punished for, you know, running this ad, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And so we, because the media likes to cover itself, we’re able to get this on the front page of the New York Times, on CNN. It was like massive coverage of this, of this punishment by a multinational over a local station. that had dared run, this low budget, you know, ad for an advocacy organization. So like that’s just one of the tactics, but I also know that , controversy works, when you think about what to advocates have in their, in their toolkit, in a way it’s too bad, but controversy does work. When there ware other things on the Folgers boycott that we did right, that were, that were controversial and it got press coverage, right. And you don’t get press coverage for the sake of getting press coverage. You get press coverage to make the issue, a real life present day right here in this community or in this congressional district. It’s an issue. It’s not something 4,000 miles away that you don’t have to do with no. You have to deal with it.:
Yeah. Yeah. What about humor?:
Humor is a good, good asset. We, when I was with the United Farm Workers, there was a, actually a mushroom farm in California owned by Ralston Purina. And so all the different offices were asked, to start up a boycott of Purina thinking we could do this one pretty quickly. So we went out and rented a Snoopy costume and in front of the regional — you know, the local office of them. Right. We had, you know, Snoopy says — and who knows if we’re within our rights or we’re just breaking or all sorts of, laws, but we had a massive Snoopy snout, you know, on someone a Snoopy uniform — Snoopy Says Boycott Purina Dog Chow. That got covered by TV. It’s funny. You know, it got coverage and it was one of those things,:
It attracts people to your campaign, I think. You talked about making connections with people and yeah, no one wants to be part of a losing battle and no one wants to do something that’s just all like a horrible chore all the time. Like you want to be around people that are having fun.:
Exactly. Because if you’re in this for the long haul, you need to be the, we’re all han, you know, we’re not 100% serious all the time. Yeah. The issues that we’re talking about in grappling with are serious, often deadly serious. But, that’s not the kind of energy that attracts others to the cause and keeps them there for the long haul. And so humor I think is really vital as one of the things along the way that does not diminish the importance of any cause, whatsoever.:
Rob, thank you so much for all of your information. I definitely think that I could sit here and talk to you about organizing for days, but thinking about Equal Exchanges organizing now and I want to just talk to the listeners about how they can get involved and thinking about Equal Exchange, really being a part of that fair trade movement and the kind of vote with your dollar idea. How can we talk about what we’re doing now, how that’s different and that we’re building upon that story to kind of expand beyond conscious consumerism and how folks can get involved beyond just, hey, I’m buying Equal Exchange coffee. What, what else can can folks do and how can they get involved?:
Yeah. Good. I mean we obviously do ask people to vote with your dollar. We ask them to buy our stuff. But we also are very aware that that is just one layer, right? That that is vote with your fork, vote with your dollar. those are not the end. Those are big. Those are the points of entry. political engagement and involvement is really crucial here. So for us at Equal Exchange, we are, eagerly inviting, people who, who, who support what we do to engage with us and join us. In fact, this summer in June here in Massachusetts, we’re holding our third year of what we’re calling the summit of activists. and, and, eventually we believe members of Equal Exchange to come and engage with us. you know, if you go to our website, you will be steered quickly to, to this activity to how to join. but we, we need you, we need people engage in, in a deeper way than ever before. Doesn’t mean commit your life to Equal Exchange. It means we have a whole multiple, you know, multipart menu of ways you can get involved in help us from buying to talking to others, to talking to your local store, your, your, your church, any number of ways. So we need you and we’d like you, we’d love it for those who inspired sufficiently inspired after listening to this to go to the website and get in touch with us.:
We’ll put links in the show notes as well so you can find them there.:
I also think what’s powerful about the Equal Exchange summit, and I am one of the organizers of that event, is that you’re actually asking people to show up physically. It’s really a virtual worlds and folks are engaging in that way every day, every minute. And we actually want to see your face. We want to, for you to show up physically, we want to get to know you on a human level. And so that’s what’s really powerful to me is it’s really a gathering of all the folks in Equal Exchange’s, community, our worker-owners, our customers that we want to call citizen consumers. Right? You’re not just as much as your dollar is worth, you’re more and our producer partners. So really just getting folks around. all parts of our supply chain around one table. So just to talk a bit about the details. It’s going to be June 20th to June 22nd in Norton, Massachusetts at Wheaton College. So we would love you folks to come and we will have in the show notes, but in case you’re not going to look at the show notes, it’s Equal Exchange dot coop slash summit so we hope to see you there.:
Thanks again for joining us, Rob.:
Thank you.:
Thanks for listening to the Stories Behind Our Food, a podcast by Equal Exchange, Inc a workaround cooperative. Love this episode? Please subscribe rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit 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.

Why Two Kinds of Olive Oil?

Since 2011, Equal Exchange has carried organic olive oil from Palestinian farmers. West Bank families produce this special oil from olive trees that have been passed down from generation to generation. We’re pleased to be able to work with the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC) an NGO that helps to organize and assist farmers in order to test their oil’s quality, bottle it, and bring the product to market.

But true partnerships must weather ups and downs. In October and November 2018, the annual olive harvest in the West Bank was the smallest in over a decade. This was due to a number of factors such as climate change-induced drought and the presence of olive flies.  Some farmers had yields as low as 20% of normal, causing great economic hardship.

Agriculture has always been a risky business. If you’re an independent small-scale farmer, a bad season or two can shut you down. That’s why Equal Exchange acts in solidarity with our partners in 20 countries around the world — including PARC — by providing pre-harvest financing, paying higher than the fair trade minimum price, and being as consistent and transparent as we can. We do all this with your support!

Because of the poor harvest and lower total yields in the West Bank, less olive oil hit the threshold of Extra Virgin this year, so we weren’t able to buy as much as in years past.  And as is always the case with supply and demand, when supply is cut, prices go up. Despite these challenges, we’re proud to have been able to pay olive farmers more this year.

Two men and a woman reach up into the branches of an olive tree
Family farmers prune their olive trees in the West Bank


What’s the difference between Virgin and Extra Virgin Olive Oil?

Because of the limited supply of Organic Extra Virgin olive oil, Equal Exchange is offering a brand new product — Organic Virgin Olive Oil — at a slightly lower retail price.

But what’s the difference? Extra Virgin olive oil is the highest grade of virgin. It contains no more than 0.8% free acidity. Organic Virgin olive oil, in comparison, has a free acidity that ranges from 0.8-2.0%. Both kinds of olive oil we buy from PARC are 100% certified organic. Both grades are unrefined, derived from the olive fruit by cold mechanical extraction (“cold-pressed”) without fillers or chemicals.  Both can be used the same way — cooked or uncooked.  Let us know if you can even taste the difference!

Shop Olive Oil >>

 About PARC:

PARC is a leading Palestinian non-profit involved in rural development and women’s empowerment. It works with cooperatives and reaches more than 6,000 members. Our work with PARC fits with the larger Equal Exchange mission of providing assistance to small-scale farmers around the world so they can run businesses that help to sustain their families.  PARC offers these farmers an important economic opportunity, since markets for their goods are severely restricted due to the occupation.

This summer, we’re expanding the range of products from PARC that we carry. Starting this July, look for packages of maftoul, freekeh,  za’atar, and dates, all sourced from small-scale farmers in the West Bank.


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Earth Day Stories: Leaders in Sustainable Agriculture

It’s not a secret: due to human activity – particularly the activity of the most privileged – the Earth is in crisis. This year, to commemorate Earth Day, we are uplifting the work of those on the frontlines of healing the environment while feeding people, the producers who have spent their lives working towards sustainable agriculture. Read on for news from avocado and banana producers from Mexico and Ecuador.


By Ravdeep Jaidka, Sourcing Manager, Equal Exchange Produce

EL GUABO, ECUADOR – In Ecuador, the banana capital of the world, a small farmer coop is leading the charge on an exciting project that provides meaningful benefits to its farmer members, while having a positive impact on the environment. Through premium funds, AsoGuabo cooperative in El Guabo, Ecuador recently launched a biofábrica, or a bio-fertilizer plant. The idea emerged from a desire to increase the productivity on the banana farms of its members in a manner that mutually benefited the environment.

It is important to mention that one dollar per 40 lb. banana box is paid directly to farmer cooperatives in the form of Fair Trade Premium and farmer members democratically elect the projects to support with Premium funds. Since bananas are a volume game, the Premium can be sizable. In 2018, the three banana farmer cooperatives working with Equal Exchange received over $300,000 in the form of Fair Trade Premium. This is a tangible way in which Fair Trade is creating democracy and impact on small farmer communities.

The bio-fertilizer project began in January of 2019 with the construction of a warehouse. From there, the manufacturing process begins with two starters (an active starter and an inactive starter), resulting in 5 different types of bio-fertilizers, each with its own set of characteristics. While some contain nutrients and micro-organisms to promote the growth of the plant, others combat diseases plaguing the banana plant. Disbursements of bio-fertilizers to farmers members began in March. As of April, half of the 150 farmer members of AsoGuabo have already applied the bio-fertilizers on their farms, free of cost.

Farmer and producer

bio fertilizer


As you can see in the photos, each bio-fertilizer tank dons a sticker that reads “With healthy soils, we guarantee the quality of the environment.” This connection between soil health and environment is a tangible one, with research pointing to the benefits of a healthy topsoil in promoting water retention, biodiversity, disease control, and carbon sequestration, especially for organic farmers, who already have a limited toolbox for combating disease and promoting plant growth.

Avocados and Pollinators

By Meghan Bodo, Avocado Supply Chain Coordinator, Equal Exchange Produce

MICHOACÁN, MEXICO – Since its inception, Mexico-based avocado cooperative PRAGOR has built environmental sustainability into their heart of their business. PRAGOR sources only from small farmers who have been maintaining organic orchards for at least six years. This membership requirement is based on the cooperative’s desire to curtail deforestation, which is a problem of increasing concern as the global demand for avocados rises.

Beyond ensuring the integrity of the land of their members, PRAGOR has dedicated the use of some of their Fair Trade Premium Funds towards environmental causes. In 2016, PRAGOR started supporting a beekeeping initiative in conjunction with the local government. Five PRAGOR farmers agreed to host bee boxes on their farms, cared for by a group of women – Mujeres polinizadoras de Tingambato — many of whom are associated with the cooperative. The group received formal training; they breed queen bees in order to assist bee population growth in the area and also harvest honey. In 2017 the group reported production of more than 1000 liters of honey from over 80 bee boxes.

bee keeping

When asked about the roots of the project, one group member: “[Bees] help the environment a lot. They are fundamental. They pollinate – they pollinate the fruit in the field.” She is correct: according to Greenpeace, at least a third of our food depends on pollination from bees.

Both through growing organic avocados, and through supporting efforts like beekeeping initiatives, PRAGOR provides an inspiring example of a sustainable business.

bee keeping


by Angelica Hicks, Banana Supply Chain Coordinator, Equal Exchange Produce

EL ORO, ECUADOR – Whenever we’re asked about soil health and bananas, the first person who comes to mind is our friend Rubén Fernández, an agronomist who works for AgroFair, a Netherlands-based fair trade company. Rubén provides technical services to farmer-members of the Ecuadorian banana cooperative AsoGuabo. We’ve met with Rubén to learn about his work with agroforestry farms; though EE does not purchase fruit from these farms, we hope Rubén’s work has the potential to increase access to agroforestry practices for all small commercial farmers.

Rubén is now a formally trained agricultural specialist, but he has been involved in tropical agriculture since he was just a child.  “My dad taught me to do fieldwork. He used to tell me, an agricultural engineer is a person who likes to grow a plant.” He went to an agricultural high school, where he would spend half of the day in the classroom and half of the day in the field apprenticing. He then continued on to study at an agricultural college, completing his thesis on soil microorganisms.

Today, Rubén works as a general administrator for agroforestry projects with a focus on soil health and ecosystem maintenance, an area of work which he says can help boost small farmer productivity while reducing negative impacts of agriculture on the ecosystem. According to Rubén, the typical and conventional lowland monoculture banana farms, when compared with agroforestry systems, require more resource input, including more cycles of fumigation against the devastating plant disease Sigatoka, increased water usage, and higher costs for farmers.

In contrast, “In the agroforestry farms 500 meters above sea-level, the water drops don’t erode the soil. It is like a refuge for microorganisms.” In addition to diversity on a microbial level, the agroforestry farms “maintain native green cover crops and maintain biodiversity, not only with banana and cacao but also citrus and other fruits.”

EE Staff with Producer

While agroforestry is a traditional form of food production in tropical climes, it is also being studied for cutting-edge applications to improve commercial practices.  In 2016, Rubén’s team launched an experiment to observe the results of mycorrhiza application, taking samples of the fungus from agroforestry farms and inoculating lowland farm soils. The team preliminarily found that the plots inoculated with mycorrhiza showed increased root mass, assisting in nutrient uptake, reducing irrigation needs and resulting in larger offspring of the banana plant.

Agroforestry has another critical significance amid our collective global scramble for climate change solutions: its potential to sequester carbon at an impressive rate, both in above ground biomass (i.e., in plants themselves) and belowground (i.e., soil and roots; see Toensmeier and Herren, 2016). Per Rubén, the soil on the agroforestry farms is richer than on monoculture banana farms, with high levels of porosity and aeration, and more or less 40 centimeters of soil organic matter. “When carbon is captured, automatically the issue of climate becomes more favorable,” says Rubén, noting that in addition, healthy soils filter pollution and break down toxins.

Banana producer


One personal observation bears mentioning: while a conversation with Rubén can be science-heavy, his passion is inherently social: “Soil health – I define it as the soil’s ability to function as a living system to maintain biological production, promote environmental quality and maintain animal and human health.” That definition leads him to work towards the benefit of small farmers and their products as an integral part of a healthy and harmonious ecosystem.

Print References:

Toensmeier, E. and Herren, H. (2016). The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agricultural Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, pp.22-23, 32-33.


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Episode 6: Big Doesn’t Just Happen

Get ready for the most exciting episode of The Stories Behind Our Food we’ve done yet. We talked to Joe Maxwell about consolidation in the food system and why it’s a threat to American farmers, workers and consumers. “Big doesn’t just happen,” Joe told us. “Big is allowed to happen.”

Make sure to visit the Organization for Competitive Markets’ website to learn how you can get involved. It’s here:

A man and his hogs.

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Episode Transcript

Danielle :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 insight or knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux and I’m Kate Chess and we’re your hosts

Danielle :0:28Today. I’m excited to talk with Joe Maxwell about independent family farms. They’re going extinct. Corporations control everything from seeds to supply and prices while chipping away at regulations that inform and protect consumers. It has left the independent food economy, especially farmers devoid of oxygen. How can we change the rules of the game and this episode join myself, Kate and Joe Maxwell, the executive director for the Organization of competitive markets. We will explore how big food hurts American farmers, workers and shoppers. We will discuss how Joe’s history as a hog farmer and legislator has shaped his work in the food system and provide action steps so you can get involved too. Very excited to have Joe on the podcast here. If you had maybe one minute to tell the listeners what, what would be an elevator pitch on why you think this work is important? If you had one minute, what might you tell a listener?

Joe:1:31Absolutely. And I want to thank you all for the opportunity to be on and for all those listening in, it’s extremely important because today independent family agriculture and the family farmers and ranchers that operate within a independent agriculture are on the verge of going bankrupt and being made extinct, by the actions and policies at our state capitals and in Washington DC. And unfortunately their voice is drowned out by big agriculture, industrial agriculture and we need your help. We need it today and we need to join forces if the family farmers of America are gonna survive and they’re the ones that could have the ability and capacity to deliver the safe, healthy food that we know consumers like you are looking for.

Danielle :2:27Thank you, Joe. That’s, that’s awesome. I really love working with OCM, a organization for competitive markets. But maybe, maybe we’ll kind of get into what, what is OCM kind of, how did you become connected to them and your history there?

Joe:2:44Organization for competitive markets, OCM is a 20 year old organization, a that works with family, farmers and ranchers across the country. It’s a national organization and it strives to, reinforce policies and advocacy that support independent family agriculture. we pushed back against the power in the marketplace that multinational food companies now have a, in an effort to give a space, so that our farmers, the what we believe in history will show and does show. Are they good stewards of the land that the animals, our environment and their neighbors, I give them a space so they can operate, stay in business and deliver healthy, safe food, for America’s consumers.

Danielle :3:39That’s great. And I know that you folks are working on a few different projects obviously, as an organizer for equal exchange. I’m really excited about the project that we’re working on together. So, yeah, maybe can you talk a little bit about the food and agribusiness bill and kind of why you think this path is a good step forward for the u s food system specifically?

Joe:4:04Absolutely, and I know many folks that are probably listening are familiar with the recent mega mergers, such as Bayer, Monsanto. These mergers that came over the last several years have sold a concentrated, the, the power of the market and those that control, the very, inputs for the production of our food today after these Bayer, Monsanto type mega mergers, over 70% of seed corn, just as an example, is controlled by two companies. we see that as much as 95% of agricultural seed, now will bear the Monsanto traits, so that, additional roundup can be sprayed on the crops. and, so it’s linking the chemicals, to the actual seed and forcing farmers didn’t have no choice in the market to have the ability to produce a more sustainable, type grains. We also are looking right now, in your, in the protein side.

Joe:5:19folks like, Brazil’s JBS and Brazil’s Marfrig, are now two are the top four, beef producers in the United States that control over 80% of that market. We also see Smith China now own Smithfield and it controls over 25% of the pork production in this country. the problem with those statistics is not that we don’t want to support farmers and ranchers, across the globe. But the fact when these, dominating forces come into the U s market, they’re also in the world market and they’re dictating to every farmer and rancher, price or dictating to the consumer the choices that they’ll have in the grocery stores. And so, we see it’s time to hit the pause button on these mega mergers and these acquisitions within the agricultural sector, beverage and food manufacturing and retail. we believe that until we do, workers will not see justice. Farmers and ranchers will not see justice, nor will the consumer. So we’re working hard to get the u s congress and the Senate and the House, to stop these acquisitions and mergers and take a deep look at the harm that’s been caused to our economy, to the farmers and ranchers, the workers, the environment. Take a look at this and put in place the safeguards necessary to have a fair and open market that delivers health, healthy and safe foods, to, to consumers. Not only here in the u s but around the world.

Danielle :7:06Wow. That’s, that’s great. It sounds like, so it sounds to me like this bill is going to kind of give the economy a chance to pause, right. A chance to breathe. You know, a lot of the concentration, it’s almost like sucking oxygen out of the room for, for independent business. I’m just curious for like on an as an individual, what, what is, you know, why, why exactly is consolidation bad on an individual level? What is the impact on the human level of concentration? Right? Like all those statistics that you just mentioned. Wow. Like, that’s, you know, all those percentages. But what does that really mean on an individual level? You know, I’m a consumer. I’m shopping at my store. Why, why is consolidation bad for me?

Joe:7:54Right? Well, first you also mentioned businesses. this heavy concentration is driving out a small businesses and denying, men and women the opportunity to enter into the food sector. so, it, it denies individuals to fulfill their dream of having their own business, to processed foods, to package foods, and to deliver a high quality, healthy food to their neighbors. How does that reverse of that? Right. Is that we know that here in the US and, also globally, that individual eaters, care about where their food comes from. There’s a rising concern, legitimate concern already in, that, the way in which industrial agricultural globally is producing food. It’s killing. they, they have a care for their bottom line, but they don’t have a care, an equal care for the folks that they’re actually feeding. And so when you wake up in the morning and you think about what am I going to have for breakfast? And you think about how, what your kids and children, should have for breakfast, you, you go to your grocery store and you can’t find that healthy food because too few companies, as few as four companies, regardless of the number of brands or labels that’s on that grocery shelf, it’s really controlled by roughly four companies. And they’re not giving you the healthy choice. They’re giving you the choice that most efficiently produces that, calories in that box or on that shelf, that puts the most money in their pocket.

Danielle :9:53And so consumers wake up every day and are denied opportunities. We also know, especially in the U S and Europe, the, the consumers also trust the voice of those local farmers and ranchers. They trust that, that, that historical, traditional family farm type agriculture, cares about them. And, they not only want to do it for themselves, out of being able to have healthy choices for themselves and their families, but they want to help those farmers. And we are very, very thankful for everyone that has that position, that they are willing to step up and want justice, not only food justice for themselves, the justice for America’s family, farmers and ranchers, that there’ll be treated fairly in the marketplace, that they will have an opportunity to be the sixth or seventh generation. We have, all of us, the staff members, you’re a, Angela Huffman is our director of communications and research, always goof this up, but she, her and her family have been on their farm for over 190 years, who works for us.

Joe:11:12Her family still owns a multi century farm, in, in Europe. And, they, you know, we, we as farmers, I, I’m a fourth generation family farmer from Missouri and, you know, we care about our land. We want to hand it down to the next generation that will feed our neighbors, better than what we found it. we want to care for those animals and we’re not allowed to do that. And we know all those issues are of interest to the consumer, not just the fact that they want justice on the food shelves, but they want justice for those people that have that kind of value, that kind of caring spirit, as they till the soil or raise the, raise the animal.

Danielle :11:56That seems like a great thing about OCM, but folks who were involved with the organization have a personal stake. Can you tell us, Joe, a little bit about what your background is, a farmer, like how that affects this work that you’re doing?

Joe:12:09It’s extremely personal. In that I, have lived, the decline of independent family agriculture in the U s we were thriving in the late seventies, and then there were policy changes in Washington DC, that, began to erode the market opportunity, the fairness and equity, within the marketplace for farmers like myself. My great Granddad plowed the original prairie land under a in Missouri and my grandpa and my dad a farm that as do my brother and myself. Now I take my hat off. My brother is the true American farmer. I do a lot of this work more pretend I’m a farmer. So I want to take my hat off to my brother Steve. he is, the true spirit of what makes American agriculture great. But I have lived that in his early eighties, a this further concentration, these, lax enforcement of the antitrust laws.

Joe:13:25And we’ve allowed monopolies to begin to control the food sector, with that market power brings economic power to them, that economic power brings in political influence or political power. And so, they have now gained a lock of control over the policies, dictated by our elected officials in Washington DC. And so, over that 30 year span or so, I have seen us go from a thriving marketplace where consumers had choice and justice in their food system and we’re family farmers could thrive. The one now where we’re on the verge of bankruptcy and consumers being denied healthy, safe food. We, we strongly, OCM works every day and we all share as staff and as board members, those kinds of values. And that makes it not only personal but gives us a more momentum to get up every day and, and to work hard, for justice within our food system.

Danielle :14:37I think that’s really interesting too. And I’m just kind of looking at your background, right? You know, multigenerational hog farmer. Then you’re kind of talking about the impact of policy on farmers and how that was really real for your family, where you kind of always interested in that connection as a young person. Like where did that begin? That’s just like something that’s really interesting to me. Like did you feel the policy was kind of the next thing that you, the direction that you needed to go to find impact and then kind of what brought you from like multigenerational hog farmer legislator and then kind of taking a different path with OCM as a nonprofit organization? And how do you, you know, kind of exert power and influence in those different spheres and spaces? Just interested in that.

Joe:15:29Growing up? my Steve, I’ve mentioned my brother Steve, we’re twins. Our agreement with the farm who was a value set in us by my, probably more influenced by my granddad because my dad would be out, driving the tractors and we, my brother and I would be helping take care of the animals. And he instilled in us this sense of stewardship, this huge amount of responsibility that a independent family agriculture has as to the things that’s been given to care for. And so I had this deep seated value early in my life as extended by my Granddad and my dad. And all we wanted to do was far. Yeah. So growing up I never dreamed I would be doing this. One day, with changes in Washington d C it became evident that to two of us wasn’t going to be able to stay on the farm. I was going to, and my brother was married. And so I, I was not at the time. And so I, I decided I was going to do something and I got mad. I got furious, right?

Joe:16:43Hate to say that. But I would have been happy to, you know, set on my feed bucket on my prairie farm and watch the sun up come up in the sun, go down. But I became furious that people, policymakers are elected officials would work against my interest, and, and deny me what I grew up as a small child on that prairie farm wanting to do. And I recognize that they made choices. This wasn’t just natural occurrence, it’s just big. Just does it happen. Gig allowed to happen. They gag or culture has been a allowed to happen by our policymakers passing legislation that supports high heavy subsidies or their practices or their predatory retaliatory in discriminatory practices or their abuse of the land and the animals and the gruel communities and the farmers are policy makers make those choices daily. And so got mad.

Joe:17:51And I began to, I thought, well, the other thing I thought to be honest, well, I’m as smart as those elected officials know exactly, I would work. And ultimately ran for office, and and awesome. And I encourage everybody listening, get mad when you go to the grocery store, angry when you go to the grocery store, get angry when you see how little of someone in the food sector, wages are because of the concentration, the prey. Get angry when you could buy healthy food for your children. Get angry and sign up and do something about it because you can make a difference.

Danielle :18:30Yeah. I love what you said and I think that, you know, you do have this interesting experience of like, you know, growing up with your family, just having that farm experience and seeing how that influence that, how consolidation influences people on a human level. And I think that the system exists in a way where we’re really disconnected from our food and that’s the way that folks want it. Like you mentioned, you have this illusion of diversity, illusion of choice. You see hundreds and thousands of brands that are on the shelf as you walk through the grocery store. But like you said, it’s on by four companies and one for companies have that level of consolidation and abusive levels of power. What are they able to do and how are they able to influence the food that we eat? And it’s set up in that way, on purpose, right? To disconnect us from our food and how do we, how do we turn the table on that? How do we begin to start to connect people with their food and to all of these complexities? I think it’s a journey, but I, that’s definitely why I am really excited about this bill that equal exchange is working on with you. So thank you for all your work and I’m really, really great story.

Joe:19:38Thank you. The, the one thing that’s important to know is this legislation would just put a moratorium on these acquisitions and mergers and would establish a commission so that we can study these issues and the impact and the congress and all of us can come together to have the solutions that work. we’re, we believe it’s a low bar. It’s a benchmark. It’s the beginning. and we believe in a u s senator or any member of Congress that does not sign on to this bill and support this bill is really making a choice, a choice to support the demise of independent family agriculture. And the injustice on the grocery store shelves are the consumers of the United States.

Danielle :20:28So my understanding is that your organization is bipartisan. Can you speak to that a little bit? You say any legislators should be signing onto this bill. Do you feel like this is an issue for people across the political spectrum?

Joe:20:40Absolutely. This is, this is not a partisan issue. This is really an issue that affects Democrats, Republicans, independents. It’s an issue that’s impacting the economies, within all states. It’s an issue that’s impacting consumers in every state. And we do not find our organization is a nonpartisan, but we seek out bipartisanship on the support of the legislation. we understand that for some it’s a little tougher lift. but we believe this is a benchmark. This is a place to start so that at a bipartisan way, a the U s Congress House the Senate and come together and find the solutions together, that restore a stewardship within the marketplace, justice within the marketplace and justice on the grocery store shelves.

Danielle :21:46Awesome. Thanks. I have a question that I think a lot of times when you talk about monopolies, you know, thinking about the commission and what, what kinds of things they’ll be working on, you know, cause consolidation at the food system is such a huge topic and there’s so many different things that consolidation touches a lot of people. They kind of focus on price, right? What is the price for consumer? I think that’s definitely an important thing to think about. What, what other things can you imagine that the commission might focus on in regards to consolidation? Anything on like, you know, the, I know that the diversity of the food that we’re growing and you know, even if you look back, you know, not even a hundred years ago that the thousands of varietals of lettuce for instance. Right? And now how many, you know what, I think I had saw some national geographic chart, it was like down to 32 and you know, what is that doing also for the nutrition of our food? I just wasn’t sure if you thought that maybe the commission might focus on, you know, beyond price. What other types of things does consolidation touch that they might focus on?

Joe:22:50Yeah, absolutely. Well, first, um, big ag industrial ag will tell you that they are driving efficiencies on behalf of consumers.

Danielle :23:01Okay.

Joe:23:02To include price, lower prices. What we, what our evidence at, OCM shows is that what they’re driving is efficiencies that put money in their pockets. As we’ve seen fewer and fewer companies, process buying a agricultural goods, processing them into foods for consumers have, there has been fewer and fewer within that food chain. we have seen consumer prices go up and farmer prices go down. Okay. there is not a direct supply and demand fundamentals in operation. They’re extracting the wealth from both the farmer and their rural communities as well as from the pocket of the consumer. So we know the evidence is there. We w we are calling on Congress to take that evidence. So they, consumers are afraid that if it gets, if we move back to more local and regional food systems, that their grocery prices are gonna go up where they can’t afford it.

Danielle :24:15Okay.

Joe:24:16What else needs to be looked at? That is the fact that farmers, back when my dad was farming, we’re getting over 50% of the retail food dollar today farmers are getting less than 15%.

Danielle :24:34Wow. Yeah. I had seen that statistic too, and that was, that was jarring.

Joe:24:40And the other thing that we want to look at is the harm that’s caused when you have so few companies like the Bayer, Monsanto’s the Dow, Dupont, the Syngenta’s, with Kim China, the controlling of the seed, we’re coming to words becoming more monolithic type production, but within that we’re getting fewer and fewer varieties of seed.

Danielle :25:11Yeah.

Joe:25:11Yeah. Which is opening us up to a disease to come in and having no food produced in the United States.

Danielle :25:21Yeah.

Joe:25:22We are very concerned at the shortage of research and development, specially with the climate change. And whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, that you look out your window, you have to admit there’s extreme weather and farmers are on the front line of that. And with these fewer companies, there’s getting to be less and less research and development on a, on variety development, that can withstand the weather. So both threat of disease, the threat, the changes that we see out there with our climate as we’re trying to produce the food to feed our neighbors. And these companies have zero incentive because there’s no competition because there’s too few of them. They just carve up the country into sectors and they’re the only one you can buy from. Wow. And so it’s a threat to our national security. It’s a threat to our future food security. and, so we want them to also take a look at that from a national security or a food security for this country. Look, we also want to look at the concentration. The Roosevelt Institute did a great study, that shows with this heavy concentrating, these fewer and fewer companies controlling the food system, that they now are controlling wages in depressing wages. and, our, whether you’re a UFC, WWE, member or any a union member, you can attest that a, you see the pressure on, on your wages and the threats that those companies bring even against the, organized labor in this country and workers that are organized that find themselves making less and less. I processing food processing, meat processing worker, make significantly less than a manufacturing worker because of this heavy concentration. You get to take the job or you don’t. And we only paying this and is really depressed wages across the country.

Kate:27:31Yeah, we’re the only game in town. So take it or leave it. Yeah.

Joe:27:35Take it or leave it, and a poultry contract grower. the pilgrims, the puritans, the others control the broiler industry. And that farmer no longer is even raising their own animals or feeding the animals their own feet. They just become a landlord or an owner of a building. They got millions dollars borrowed, for the Tysons, the puritans, the pilgrims, any of those companies. And, and then there’s no one else, they’ll rip that building. And taxpayers are subsidizing that industry either through SBA, there’s a government report out on how I SBA, but one point $8 billion into the poultry industry to, to benefit these large monopolies. There’s tax dollars that underwrite the loans so that the banks have no risks. The taxpayer take on the risk if that company stops leasing that building from the farmer. So the farmer, is on the line with consumer and taxpayers on the line and we think it Oughta, they’ll take a look about fair, arrangements with these contract poultry growers and contract a pig growers.

Kate:28:57I find this extremely sobering and convincing and I think anybody listening probably will as well. But it seems to me like a big challenge here, Joe, is just misinformation or lack of information when there are multiple labels out there, you feel like you have a choice in the grocery store. A lot of brands are trying to cast themselves as being, you know, local farmers in some way, despite the fact that they’re not. How can — what can people do to tell their neighbors about this? How can we — I’m not sure everybody recognizes this is the problem that it is.

Joe:29:28Well first of all, they should go to and take a look. We, Angela, I’ve been on our team as director of communications and research is a master at taking some of these complex issues and drilling it down where it can be comprehended and that’s extremely important. I get a little too much in the weeds unfortunately, but she does a great job on that page and I think anyone will find it a digestible and understandable. the second thing is, is that we find is it sounds so bad. No one believes, not we hear all the time. Well that can’t be happening here in America. Oh yes. It is land of the free anymore. And the opportunity to start your small business in your rural community or in your urban or suburban community. It’s, it’s not, we don’t, we have lost freedom. There’s grave injustices within our economic system. Okay.

Joe:30:30Oh, OCM believes what is important is not a, as some try to get caught up in this concept of redistribution of wealth. No, we need a fair and equitable distribution of the opportunity for prosperity that represents America.

Joe:30:49When we help build that prosperity, whether you’re the worker, the farmer or the business owner, we help build that prosperity. Everyone deserves — has a right to share in that prosperity. And we’re all being denied that today and this work, putting a stop on, on these mega mergers, taking a look at our economic system and ensuring that there’s a fair and equitable distribution, to all. One of the notes — I want to put a big note on this one. You know the communities of color in agriculture have suffered for generations and had been denied opportunity. And as we take a look at this, we need to make sure that when we say economic opportunity for all or justice for all we really mean this time in America for all.

Kate:31:51Thank you for saying that. I find that incredibly powerful.

Danielle :31:56Thanks Joe. This is just all these things are swirling around in my mind. Really excited to be working with OCM on some of the campaigns and I’m going to put a lot of this information that Joe has talked about in the show notes so you can stay connected, stay informed. I definitely, We’d love, folks to, you know, join us, right? Like did get involved in this campaign like Joe saying like get mad. So definitely a stay tuned, Equal Exchange is going to be working on this campaign if you want to get involved so you can join organizing with equal exchange and we work with OCM a lot. You can connect with OCM directly. And I would also like to say that equal exchange is having an annual summit and that will be June 20th to 22nd at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. And we’ll be doing a lot of this work and how it’s, it’s important to stay in form. It’s important to really be in tune with the conversation that Joe and I have had today. But I think that would equal exchange wants to do is to connect individuals to what they can actually do and empower them to feel as though they actually can create change in the food system and that year it’s not just your dollar that matters, it’s your voice that matters. It’s your, your political voice. And we want to try to elevate that and encourage folks to use that as much as possible. And I just want to thank you so much Joe and I dunno if there’s anything you have to add in like how folks can stay connected but, we’ll definitely put any resources or information that you suggest in our show notes.

Joe:33:33Well we appreciate your partnership in this effort. We would suggest that folks go to learn more and sign up. There’s petitions on there. Let’s work together. Let’s put our voices together and unite or, an economic, change, in, in the way of which we approach our food system. And let’s ensure it’s justice for all.

Kate:33:59You’ve been a fantastic gas or so have you on here. Thank you very much.

Danielle :34:05Thanks Joe.

Kate:34:10Thanks for listening to the stories behind our food. A podcast by equal exchange, inc a worker owned cooperative. Love this episode. Please subscribe rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit equal op 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 Robidoux, sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of The Stories Behind our Food.

Pairing New Chocolate with Coffee

Pairing flavors is an art. Which coffees taste best with Equal Exchange’s newest chocolate bars? We went to an expert to find out.

A woman in a summer dress sips from a paper coffee cup with the Equal Exchange logo

Meaghan Holmes is our Chocolate Supply Chain and Quality Control Coordinator. In the four years she’s worked for the Chocolate Team, she’s done sensory analysis on hundreds of samples in order to make sure the quality and characteristics of Equal Exchange chocolate are always consistent.

Meaghan is extremely passionate about chocolate and coffee! She says “When considering possible pairing combinations for our products, I am looking for products that consistently have flavors that compliment each other, or strongly enhance a particular flavor.”

She found a pairing for each of the three new bars. Read on to discover Meaghan’s flavor recommendations, as well as the rationale behind why they work.


Pairing the Organic Dark Chocolate Almond & Sea Salt bar with Mind Body & Soul

Almond & Sea Salt bar with a bag of coffee, a cup, almonds, and cocoa and coffee beans.

How Meaghan came up with it: The saltiness of this bar can make it difficult to pair with coffee. Certain light roast bright and fruity coffees would clash with the salt and create an unpleasant acidity, whereas a very dark roast can intensify the salt and feel really astringent. I knew immediately that I’d need a mellow and straight forward coffee to pair well with this complex chocolate bar.

Why she thinks you’ll like it: Mind Body & Soul is a wonderfully mellow coffee, it’s nutty and chocolatey with brown spices which makes it a perfect match to round out the sweet and salty richness of the Whole Almond & Sea Salt bar.

What else you might try with Dark Chocolate Almond & Sea Salt: Breakfast Blend. Also a mellow and sweet coffee, this pairing will complement this salty nutty bar nicely.


Pairing the Organic Chocolate with Coconut Milk bar with Ethiopian Full City coffee

Coconut Milk bar with a bag of coffee, a cup, a coconut and shavings, and cocoa and coffee beans.

Why Meaghan thinks you’ll like it: The sweetness and creaminess of the Coconut Milk chocolate is wonderful when washed down with the smooth creamy mouthfeel and milk chocolatey  full bodied Ethiopian. The sweet fruity berry characteristics coming from this naturally processed coffee really enhance the toasted coconut.

What else you might try with Organic Chocolate with Coconut Milk: African Roots. Ethiopian beans blended with beans from Congo in a lighter roast than the Ethiopian Full City, this bright and juicy coffee balances the caramelized sweet notes coming from the coconut sugar.


Pairing the Total Eclipse 92% Dark Chocolate bar with Midnight Sun coffee

Total Eclipse bar with a bag of coffee, a cup, and cocoa and coffee beans.

Why Meaghan thinks you’ll like it: Midnight Sun is a fan favorite coffee known for its rich chocolatey flavor, and the 92% is also a dominantly chocolate profile. When the two are combined it is a true total eclipse! The robust flavors coming from both coffee and chocolate are surprisingly harmonious. The subtle sweetness from the coffee smooths out the intensities of this dark chocolate.

What else you might try with Total Eclipse: Ethiopian Full City. Creamy milk chocolate plus dark chocolate combine to taste like chocolate chip cookies and other brown sugar spiced baked goods, a straightforward but delicious combination.

Shop Chocolate Bars >>

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Can you taste the harmony of the flavors? Try Meaghan’s pairings and let us know what you think!

Episode 5: Total Eclipse of the Heart

It’s time for The Stories Behind Our Food. We’ve just released a brand-new episode of our interview-style podcast, and hope you’ll give it a listen.

You can hear #StoriesBehindOurFood on:

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or wherever you enjoy online audio!

Got that song in your head now? Don’t forget to subscribe to The Stories Behind Our Food and leave a review.

Episode Transcript

Intro:0:02Every day 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 insight or knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robideau — and I’m Kate Chess — and we’re your hosts.

Danielle:0:27The majority of the world’s chocolate comes from Africa, but Equal Exchange has historically always sourced its chocolate from Latin America. Dary, Kate and I engage in a conversation about the chocolate bar, the Total Eclipse, the story behind that partnership. And beginning to work in Togo. We unpack the complexity of child labor and the chocolate industry. We hope you enjoy it. So who, who are you, Dary, and what do you do for Equal Exchange? what exactly is like a day in the life?

Dary:0:58Hi. Yeah, my name is Dary Goodrich. I am Equal Exchange’s Chocolate Products Manager. And I’ve actually been at Equal Exchange probably over 15 years now. Quite a while, working in various roles. and, I manage our chocolate team and all of our chocolate products. So what does a day in the life look like? Well, I have to say every day is definitely different. The chocolate team is really responsible for managing our chocolate and cocoa products and that’s really kind of all the behind the scenes work to develop and procure products to build and manage relationships with our farmer partners and suppliers to share that knowledge that we have with our teams and our sales team to go out and get the hands in the product of our customers. So entails a whole lot of different work, from product research and development and purchasing and inventory management, and development of packaging and marketing materials to building relationships with our farmer partners and working to share their stories.

Dary:1:58So, yeah, every day is totally different. you know, a day, often there are meetings involved, and you know, connecting with manufacturing partners about our production orders, things that arise, as they’re producing or thinking about future productions. you know, looking at sales numbers, seeing how this compares to what we thought was gonna happen and how this might impact our needs for future inventory. And, you know, we have a team of four of us, so a lot of my work too is supporting my team as we kind of navigate, you know, various inventory or product issues that come up, or responding to customers. and, hopefully in there I can always kind of find time to carve out some project time and think about, kind of goals and, and future projects that we can work on for our team, to kind of always improve what we’re doing. I do actually work remotely. I’m located in Birmingham, Alabama. I was in Massachusetts at our main office for about 10 years, but since I do work remotely, sadly I don’t participate on our sensory panels, so I don’t get to do a lot of the quality work on a day to day. but of course, and I still love to eat chocolate.

Kate:3:19That is so sad. You’ve given us a real sense of the complexity of your job. And I think that Danielle and I were talking about how a lot of people have a pretty simplistic and rosy picture of what it might be like to work in chocolate. It just involves eating a lot of chocolate. Can you tell us about, if you can, about what some of that fun stuff is? We’re really curious about the process for deciding on a new chocolate product, for instance.

Dary:3:47Yeah. Well, you know, it’s a pretty sweet job. Ha! See what I did there. I actually began my time at Equal Exchange in our interfaith program back in 2001 and around 2005, 2006, at that time, you know, we were very much focused on coffee, which is still the largest part of what we do. But we realized, you know, we had other products and wanted to put more energy into chocolate and tea actually, and there was no kind of dedicated staff for either of those products. and I was like, I can’t pass up this opportunity when Equal Exchange decided to actually create positions for a chocolate products manager and tea products manager. And I was like, ah, I need to work at chocolate.

Kate:4:29So you didn’t have any chocolate experience formally at that time?

Dary:4:30No, other than selling chocolate through our interfaith program at the time. but, that was really it. so, it’s been just a great learning experience for me and just kind of building this whole program and growing it, every year and kind of new and different ways. and you know, it is super fun especially to develop products. and that’s a really kind of a fun part of, of what we do in a creative part of what we do. and you know, what Equal Exchange, I think we really try and be strategic about how many products we have. Right? There’s just a lot about, how many products you have and what that means for kind of fewer your capacity as a team to manage those. of course your inventory and your carrying costs are all those things. and, and we want to make sure we’re really offering the right products for our customers, that people are excited about.

Dary:5:25And so we know when we think about developing new products, we, we look at what’s happening out there in the market. we look at market data. our team is out there. I’m getting samples from, the market on the shelf and seeing what’s happening on the shelf. and also thinking about kind of larger food trends. and then kind of reflecting on what are we kind of, what are we missing or what might be good opportunities for us in terms of new products. and you know, out there in the food world, especially chocolate, there’s always a lot of trendy stuff that happens in the market. and for us, we want to launch a product that, at times kind of meet some of those trends, but also kind of at times meets some of those trends, but we want to do something that’s going to be more long lasting, right?

Dary:6:09That’s going to actually build a product that can build volume for our producer partners. and so a lot of of my kind of thinking behind product strategy is, is kind of combining trends with something classic so that it can actually, have more long term success. and so once we kind of looked out there and all the things that are going on and we kind of brainstorm different categories or products we might want to launch or a specific products that feel like really good possibilities from, for us. and then from there we work with our manufacturing partners to develop the recipes through a process that really kind of narrows down. A lot of times we just throw stuff up at the wall in terms of the categories we think are, are good places for us to be. and say, hey, we want to try a bunch of these, you know, three or four different things within this category., and then we, from there do a lot of sampling and would’ve like down and narrowing down to ones that we actually feel like are the right, right match and that our customers will be excited about. and then, yeah,

Kate:7:11So, if I’m understanding correctly, you would choose some ingredients perhaps and then ask manufacturing partners to play around with those? And then try them and see which ones work best?

Dary:7:19Correct. Exactly. Yup. and so, a lot of it is saying, hey, here are the ingredients we want. Here’s kind of the, the, a few different, , chocolate, percentages are recipes that we might want to try those ingredients. And, and then once we get those say, Whoa, that really didn’t work with the 55%. , so let’s try it a 65%. , and then really kind of tweaking around, the recipes to really get the best balance between, the, the ingredients and the chocolate. And I think one of the surprising things, you know, is how much inclusions, right? So the, the different ingredients we put in bars at side of just the chocolate, right? So the almonds and sea salt and lemon and ginger and things like that. How, how those really play with the chocolate. sometimes they work really well and pair where it really well and sometimes they don’t and they can really overwhelm the chocolate or make the chocolate. you know, some cases super sour when you added salty note, and like, that just doesn’t work. And so there’s a lot of back and forth and a lot of work to get to really that perfect balance that we’re excited to, launch.

Kate:8:29Yeah, that’s really interesting. Are you fumbling in the dark about that stuff or do you have more of a sense now that you’ve been doing it for a long time? What might work well, playing with the notes of the chocolate?

Dary:8:40I think we have a good starting point, but you always learn as you do it, like, Well that actually didn’t work as much. and so a lot of it is just being open, and saying, hey, we’re going to start with a few different starting points and see really where it, which direction is the right one to go in. But I do feel, you know, I feel like we’ve had some, some really good success with some product launches. I think we’re, we’re pretty good at that. We’ve also had some failures, right? Which is also how you learn and you have to do that. and, but I feel like we’re, we are good at really getting to kind of what’s up with the final product that we’re excited about it and we, we believe that customers are gonna be excited about.

Kate:9:22Well, speaking of new products, we have three new bars coming out, but we’re especially interested in talking to you about the Total Eclipse bar. We were hoping you could tell us what’s special about it and a little about that.

Dary:9:33Sure. Yeah. We are excited that we’re launching three new bars coming up here soon and the Total Eclipse is one of those, the 92% dark bar. and you know, we know more and more people, right, are looking for products with less sugar. And I think when I started in this position, you know, dark chocolate people was in the 60 to 70% range. And then years later, it was in 70 to 80% range. And you know, more recently the 80, 90% range, right? We launched an 88%. That’s done incredibly well and people are looking for that. and so we’re really excited to launch this 92%, which, has only three grams of sugar but is also, you know, for us, that’s a, that’s a super dark bar, right?

Speaker 3:10:19So we want something that, that can be challenging to get a product that actually has good flavor at that percentage, you’ve got to really have good beans, a good process to make sure that the product is not overly bitter or astringent or that they’re kind of off notes in that product. and you know, we’ve worked hard to come up with a bar that, is, you know, just a really nice chocolate bar. and just a lot of chocolate notes in it. And that sounds a little funny, talking about, chocolate because it’s chocolate, but different origins have very different flavor profiles. Right? And some are going to be more nutty. Some are going to have floral notes, some are going to be more sour. and, we are actually super excited with this bar to begin working in Africa to source some beans for this bar.

Dary:11:14This is, is not a single origin bar, but some of the beans will be coming from farmers in the country of Togo, which is located in west Africa. and up to this point, we’ve been working in Latin America. We love working with our partners in Latin America, but we are excited to begin partnering and working with, some organizations in Togo for these beans and bringing it back. The, you know, West Africa is very much known for it’s chocolatey notes in the beans. And so this bar kind of is illustrating a kind of the chocolateiness, of some of the beans that are in there.

Danielle:11:46The question that I had, it seems that, discourse around kind of labor abuses in the chocolate industry, child labor, focuses a lot on west Africa. traditionally Equal Exchange seems to have source chocolate from Latin America. can you talk about why that was chosen and how did some of those initial relationships come about?

Dary:12:17Yeah, a really good question. And you know, throughout its history, Equal Exchange has focused mainly on supporting organic farming, right and kind of more environmentally friendly farming practices. and that’s been a key part of kind of, who we are as an organization. and when we launched our chocolate program back in 2002, we started with an organic product. we actually, our first, chocolate product was actually a cocoa product. It was a cocoa mix. So we launched in 2002, which is just a great product. It’s just combining organic cocoa powder, organic sugar and actually organic milk powder. and when we started at the time, the only place where you could actually source organic cocoa or cacao was in Latin America. and so in a lot of the kind of the, the fair trade organic cacao sourcing and origins were in Latin America.

Dary:13:19And that’s, where we’ve focused a lot of our work, in Dominican Republic. And Peru and Panama, Ecuador. and for a long time really Latin America has been the leader in organic and traceable, kind of high quality and more specialty, cacao beans. And it’s really been interesting, I think to watch the cacao industry in Latin America follow the specialty coffee industry. and so a bunch of the countries in Latin America have done a really good job of supporting co ops and they’re kind of growing industries to focus on quality and provide, kind of unique flavors and higher quality caco for the chocolate industry.

Danielle:13:59Very cool. And, so, going back to the very beginning, how did some of those, where did you find those connections and how did you know, which farmers to work with and you know, were you involved in that process? Was it kind of driving around different countries to find farmers? I mean, how does, how does that work?

Dary:14:23Okay. it was actually before my time. I’m in the chocolate world. so that, that happened before me. but, really it was connection with people who were, who were doing some of this work already. And we actually ended up launching our first product in conjunction with a, a worker co op in Canada who was a hundred percent fair trade organization. They were focused on cocoa, their name is La Siembra, who’s now a close kind of partner, sister organization of ours. And and they were the ones doing it. And then, you know, we were excited about kind of the origins they were working with, which was, the Dominican Republic for the cocoa powder cooperative called CONACADO. and then also at the same time, organic and fair trade sugar coming out of Paraguay which is kind of the leading country in terms of organic sugar at the time. And working with several co ops.

Danielle:15:16Very cool. So now it seems like the direction maybe is beginning to shift a little bit with kind of your mention of a new partnership and Togo. Can you talk a little bit about that partnership and kind of where the thinking behind that came about?

Dary:15:37So, we were approached by an organization that’s been working in Togo, a fair trade organization named Gabana Togo, who’s been there for since 2015 I believe now. And, they’re working with two different cooperatives. One is named Scoops Procab, which was founded in 2013. and the second cooperative is named scoops IKPA. And they were founded in 2018 and they were originally actually, one co op, but they realized they were very far apart. And so it made more sense to split up the structures of the organizations to make it function better. and combined between the two cooperatives, there’s over 850 members and they’re located, and the regions around the cities of Kpalime and Badou, which are in the south western part of Togo, close, pretty close to the border of Ghana. And so really much, very much in the what’s called the cocoa belt of West Africa.

Dary:16:37in terms of a little bit more about them, their average farm sizes are about half a hectare to one and a half hectares. And so, just to give you a little comparison, it’s quite small. we work, traditionally with small scale farmers, for our cocoa, but in Latin America, a lot of our producers are averaging in the two to three hectares range. And they’re probably producing about 400 kilos or over 800 pounds of cocoa per hectare. And that’s also below kind of the, the world kind of average of cocoa production. I think a lot of older farms, and also older farmers, kind of the average age of farmers there is 50. and actually the life expectancy and Togo is probably about 60 years old. so yeah.

Dary:17:23But they are really investing in kind of new trees and investing in the farms. They actually I think in 2017 replanted about 80,000 new cocoa trees. and you know, I think what’s really exciting, is that they are doing organic and I think, this, you know, they’ve actually been producing cocoa in Togo, for, over a hundred years for a long time. and the industry kind of grew and then declined because there just wasn’t a lot of investment there. And so, I don’t have exact figures, but I’m guessing they’re producing, globally in Togo, for all production, maybe 5,000 to 10,000 metric tons. And to compare to two countries over in Ivory Coast, they’re producing roughly 1.8 million metric tons of cocoa. So very, very small scale. And I think what’s exciting is this is allowed these organizations to do organic, which is not, kind of, traditional in West Africa.

Dary:18:41And it’s traceable cocoa. and so, you know, we’re excited to work with organizations that are really trying to do things differently and set a different standard or an industry in this country that’s, that’s really kind of being reborn, and I think can be reborn in a really positive way. so for us, there’s still a lot to learn, right? We, we, it’s totally different context, in West Africa. So, that’s part of, part of why we would want to do this and make this step and get kind of in there and see what we can learn.

Danielle:19:16And so just to ask a little bit more about, why, why this decision, do you think that it’s more of a business decision, more of an ethical decision and why is it meaningful for Equal Exchange to, you know, to move forward with this partnership to you?

Dary:19:37Yeah, really good question. And I think, with Equal Exchange, these kinds of decisions are always often both of those things. and you know, why did we want to get into West Africa? Like I said before, it’s really the, the, the heart of the kind of major part of the industry. All right, 60 to 70% of the world’s cocoa is coming from there. so it’s, it plays a major role in the entire chocolate in industry. and beyond this, as a lot of people listening will probably know. Right. And as I previously mentioned, there has been a major focus on the problem of child labor in West Africa. and, and I want to talk about that, just kind of clarify that a little bit. what do you mean by child labor? Because I think there’s a lot of times kind of misconceptions out there about kind of how do we define that or what does that mean?

Dary:20:27And at the first level, right, it’s kids working on farms with their families, right? And so that’s, that’s something that’s normal, right. And is happens in the U S on farms. Right? and they’re helping their families out on the weekends. Outside of school. I’m doing, you know, just, safe tasks around the farm. Like, you know, my kids do chores around my house. and then there’s what’s known as the worst forms of child labor. and the International Labor Organization kind of, states this as a quote work, which by its nature or the circumstances in which is carried out, is it likely to harm the health, safety or moral slept children, unquote. Right? So, that’s really, what people are talking about. And that’s when kids are not able to go to school. When kids are working long hours, when they’re working in unsafe and I hope the conditions, and then there’s another level, which is children that are actually trafficked and ended up in slave conditions.

Dary:21:32And that’s, that’s a far smaller number, but it’s still exists. And, and I think something that’s kind of unfair to West Africa is to, it’s often, you know, explained as this is it it or it seems or is perceived as is only happening in West Africa. And this is not just happening in West Africa. It’s happening around the world that’s happening, not just in cocoa but, all sorts of crops. So sadly today, this is just a major widespread problem that still continues around the world. and even in the US and so, but that said, you know, in West Africa, because it is such a large part of the industry and it provides the most beans for the industry. There has been that focus and you know, just to give some numbers in some context, the United States government hired a Tulane University to really look at this and provide research and reporting on this issue. And they published a few different reports. Their final report was in 2015 and they compare data from the 2008-2009 harvest to the 2013-2014 harvest. And they found an overall increase in, in, children working in hazardous conditions, in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. and they wrote that over 2 million children are found in hazardous, work, during that 2013, 2014 and harvest season. So it’s, it’s a major at a, at a huge scale.

Kate:22:59Right. And my understanding is that in the chocolate industry, there’s been conversations and more light shed on this and people, big players have said that they’re going to be making improvements, but so it’s disheartening to hear that in fact, there are MORE children working in this industry than there were.

Dary:23:13Yeah. I mean there’s, there’s been a lot of conversations for a long time. and there’s, there has been some action, but I think what everyone, still believes is that it’s far, far, far from enough. and a lot of that too is it’s it’s action that, is not the right action. and, you know, from Equal Exchange’s perspective, you know, a lot of this needs to be paying farmers more. and part of the fair trade system is that there is a floor price and they were paying higher than the price. but, in 2017, the market dropped, basically by over 30%. Right. And so for farmers to lose that, and have no control over that, has a huge impact and that forces them to take drastic measures, and which can be how they, you know, aren’t, aren’t even able to pay their labor or maybe it actually stopped growing cocoa altogether. Right. it’s, it’s hard choice.

Kate:24:08Right, they’re forced out of the industry, or they hire laborers — or get laborers that aren’t being paid fairly.

Dary:24:11Correct. Yeah.

Danielle:24:23And Dary, do you see any specific difficulties around this partnership in particular? And anything that you can foresee that could be difficult for Equal Exchange in this partnership?

Dary:24:39Yeah. So, I think we’re learning that, right? I think, I think time will tell, but you’ll let us know. well, you know, of course we kind of think about these things. and you know, a few things that come to mind is, is you know, many countries in Latin America, Co ops are, well defined, they’ve been around for a long time. and they’re sometimes decently supported by the government, sometimes they’re not, it depends on the country and the context. and I think in Africa this is less true, right? So, kind of our understanding is that these organizations are learning to be co ops and, and are starting at a very different place. and so I think that’ll be something that’s for us to learn and engage with them. And I’m understand what does that really mean and what’s that look like as we progress with this relationship.

Dary:25:32You know, I know they’ve also, right now they’re doing fermentation on the farms. rather than kind of central post-harvest fermentation, and, and what that means is right, cocoa beans go through a process once they’re harvested. they actually are fermented, which goes to your process, really kind of develop the flavor of the bean and doing it on the farm. How you have less control over that, right? So there’s, the quality can be really good, but it also can be inconsistent, right? So I think that’s something that we want and I know they’re thinking about that there as well. obviously the size of the farms are very small, so, that plays a, a role in how much impact you can have, if there’s only so much land to produce on. so kind of trying to understand that piece and the other pieces that were on our side, you know, we’re, we’re only launching right now this product with these beans and it’s, it’s blended.

Dary:26:27So, yeah, it, it’s a new product, right? And so we hope it does really well. but it’s a new product and you don’t know that. And so, you know, we hope we can buy a whole bunch of beans from this operative. but, with only being in one product, it’s time will tell. Right? And so we hope we can, provides, a more kind of consistent purchasing partner for them. but time will tell. And of course we can also think about other strategies.

Kate:26:56It sounds like our listeners need to make sure to buy some chocolate. That’s the Total Eclipse bar, for folks listening at home. It’s delicious, I hear. Actually, I’ve tried it; it is delicious.

Dary:27:07It is delicious. Yeah. And we think it will do well, but, but again, it’s a new product and they’re always unknown. and there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of challenges between us and even just getting a product to the shelf and to customers. Right? It’s just not always a straight path. So those are a few things I think that we’re, we’re thinking about. But you know, I am really excited that we’re taking this step and as I said, it’s, it’s new for us and it gives us the ability to move into West Africa and learn. And really see what the reality is and how much it lines up with kind of what we hear out there in the news and and what it is on the ground and how we can potentially play a role in having, yeah. Real positive, impact along with these organizations that are doing good work in Togo.

Kate:28:00Yeah, that’s a powerful thing.

Dary:28:02Yeah, for sure.

Kate:28:02So go back to the fluffy questions. Can you tell us how you came up with the name Total Eclipse? I’m really struck by that. I’m a fiction writer and I like words.

Dary:28:14Nice. Yeah. I mean a lot of chocolate bars are pretty straightforward names. Like one of the other bars we’re launching, it’s just Almond and Sea Salt, right. So, pretty straightforward. But, with this one, we wanted to get a little bit more creative and we actually, so the process, like I was talking about before, kind of going through iterations and thinking about what’s good out in the market and we actually in this case had a team, a committee that was, a few of my colleagues from our chocolate team as well as a few folks from our sales team, working together through this whole process to come up. But these products and, that committee, we a had a few brainstorm sessions and I know some folks on the committee also got some ideas from people outside of our committee. and we had a lot of, you know, we, we’re thinking super dark, right? What are fun ways to represent that. And of course, a lot of us came back with kind of nighttime moon themes. and I believe actually a total eclipse. The name came from one of our designers, Greta Merrick, who was working on the, the labels when we were thinking about, names. And, and we all kind of took that big list and did a few rounds of voting and narrowed it down and got down to a couple of names, and let people kind of sit with it and think about, kind of does this fit with our current line? Will people understand what the product actually is, are reasons we shouldn’t use the name right. And, kind of see if the final ones made sense and worked in that. We all were definitely in love with the Total Eclipse concept and a, it was also super fun again because our designer was working on this and she got whimsical and put in an eclipse moon above the cacao tree on the top. So that’s pretty fun.

Kate:30:02An Easter egg.

Dary:30:03And then the bar is just a, you know, it’s a kind of, it’s a black label and we just are super excited about the whole concept and bringing that out in the market. We think people enjoy that.

Danielle:30:22Great. Thank you so much. Dary, for meeting with us. maybe just one last question. What’s, what’s up for, the Equal Exchange chocolate team coming in 2019.

Dary:30:35Okay, sure, of course working on a whole bunch of things. A lot of it just making sure we have products for people to purchase. and of course a lot of our energy will be focused on supporting the launch of our new bars. and a lot of our work is behind the scenes, so we’ll kind of be doing projects to kind of continue to improve how we do things logistically and, and move our product ground and get it to folks out there, the market. continuing to build our relationship with our precert partners, and do trips to origin, as well as connect our customers and farmers through trips. And so last year we did a delegation to Peru and we’re actually looking at doing several delegations this year for staff and hopefully some, some of our accounts, which is always kind of a main goal of ours to just tell those stories but also connecting. Cool. and so people can see live and, and time what it really means, both to be a farmer, but also so farmers can hear what’s happening in the US right around the chocolate, aisle. So yeah, that should be pretty exciting.

Danielle:31:43Awesome. Thanks so much. Dary, and yeah, maybe there’s a followup podcasts. How does this partnership go? I’m definitely interested in the follow up. Thank you for joining us today. Yeah, thanks for having me.

Outro:31:56Thanks for listening to the stories behind our food. How podcast by Equal Exchange inc or work around cooperative. Love this episode. Please subscribe rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit Equal op 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, Cape Chests and Danielle Robidoux. Sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the stories behind our food.

Humanizing the Food System

By Danielle Robidoux, Organizer, Equal Exchange

Time, it is something the modern-day shopper is not likely to have in abundance. Walking through the aisles at a grocery store, our senses are inundated. Everyone is trying to get our attention, our dollar, our buying patterns or demographics to add to their marketing research, so we can be placed in a box, minimized to a mere statistic. When we pluck a product off of a shelf, it usually ends there. Who out there really wants to take the time to get to know us, find out who we are? Turn customers into humans, statistics into conversations, aggregate data into community, and dollars into real change?

As one of the leaders in Equal Exchange’s organizing initiative that started a few years ago, my job has been to do just that. Humanize the food system, you. My job has been to imagine, in a world that idealizes technology over human interaction, self-interest over community, productivity over sustainability, and profit margins over our planet, that despite all odds, we can build something real. We can at least exist in this corporately dominated space as an authentic organization, with people behind it.

Our first year of this organizing work was a lot of learning, mistakes, missed flights, and late night conversations debating what the hell we were doing. It also included, for some reason–a lot of pizza. We spent this first year clarifying and developing what we were building. Our second year focused on our community, who are the folks who have been drinking Equal Exchange coffee and buying our products for all these years? We created spaces for them to engage in peer-to-peer learning, we showed up physically and virtually across the United States. We gathered together, some events with just a few people, others with hundreds. Each encounter left us inspired by everything folks were doing in their communities to build a better world, brick-by-brick.

EE Event

Danielle pictured left at an organizing event this past October at Equal Exchange’s cafe in Boston.

Now, going into our third year of this work, in addition to opening up our own democracy as a worker cooperative to active citizen-consumers, we are organizing this community into campaign work. Work that we not only see as vital to the future survival of Equal Exchange, but to an independent food system more generally. Large food conglomerates are changing the rules of the game, they have been for years. In recent years, this continued shift has seemingly left the independent food world devoid of oxygen. Independent companies are being bought everyday by larger companies that undermine their original vision, water down standards and practices, and negotiate terms that adhere to their own interests, solely in the name of power and profit.

This has led Equal Exchange to endorse the Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2018(A tongue-twister for sure). Sponsored by Senator Cory Booker and Representative Mark Pocan, this bill would essentially act as a pause on mergers in the food economy, allowing it a moment to breathe. It would then formulate a commission that would for 18 months evaluate the impact of consolidation on the food system, and carve a path forward.

The bill is in the process of being reintroduced in the first-half of this year. New conditions have led the group working on this bill to believe there is a greater chance for it to pass, at least in the House, with your help. Consolidation across the board has increased prices for consumers, decreased wages and benefits for workers, strangled rural communities, while simultaneously setting record breaking profit margins. Power has shifted so drastically we believe power needs to be shifted back into the hands of the independent food economy, an economy that can no longer exist without your participation.

While we all seem to have a scarcity of time in our lives, time is necessary to accept our shared responsibility of this planet, this food system, and the families and communities of which we are a part. This work is not easy, it is complex, and time and energy is what it will require. I invite you to email me, get angry, get curious, whatever you do, get involved.

The Dairy Crisis: Intertwining the World of Trade, Livelihoods and Consumers

By Emily Ambrose, Equal Exchange

In early January, I wrote a piece highlighting my experience as a dairy farmer and the path that led to my work at Equal Exchange. In this piece below, I hope to dig into elements of the dairy crisis and raise awareness of the consequences of building a food system for large corporations and commodity markets.

The dairy industry is a world in its own.The issues in dairy spread far and wide, intertwining the world of trade, the livelihoods of small farmers and farm-workers, the resilience of rural communities, and lives of consumers. It is a complex and very challenging industry and supply chain to follow unless you’re deeply and actively linked into it as a farmer, marketer, processor, or grocery industry insider. A key driver is the compounding nature of the dairy crisis; each problem exacerbates and drives the other; and to a huge extent this componding is a direct effect of a historic US policy structure that has benefited large agribusiness, the corporatization of agriculture, and facilitated agricultural “dumping” into other countries.

It’s important to know milk like other crops are traded as a global commodity, which means that milk price is subject to market fluctuations. Dairy farmers in the U.S., conventional and organic, get paid for their “fluid milk” per every 100/pounds of milk. Dairy farmers are subject to the market and contracts with milk buyers who are usually processors. Processors, vertically integrated retailers (like Aldi and Walmart), and large distributors control where a majority of the profit is made with the production of bottled milk, cheeses, yogurts, and miscellaneous milk by-products (i.e. protein isolates).

Another issue is in the rise of mega-dairies throughout this country. On an average mega-dairy there is usually a few thousand cows who are milked two-to-three times a day and typically live most of their lives in a barn rotating into a milking parlor; these mega dairies usually are defined as “confined animal feeding operations, CAFOs.” In conjunction with the low market prices, is this surplus of milk coming from these mega-dairies (both conventional and organic). The surplus of milk has no demand ready to absorb it and is flooding out the conventional and organic markets to a new level. In addition to this surplus, CAFO systems typically deny basic human and animal rights by their design, intent, and demand in my opinion. Trade relations also play a role to this part of the supply chain. The U.S. dairy industry is increasingly reliant on flooding and dumping their milk into foreign markets to stay afloat (if you recall the negotiations of the new NAFTA in late 2018 to include opening of both Canada’s dairy market); something that is not an unfamiliar practice historically for US surplus’.

The effects of low prices to farmers also comes with low and inadequate pay and benefits for laborers. It’s surprising, however, the cost of dairy processed products is increasing. The corporate ownership and consolidation of the seed, fuel, equipment, processing, and retail industries are all factors affecting the livelihoods of dairy farmers and farm-workers throughout this country. I’d like to also note that this view of the dairy crisis does not include a full actualization of an aging farm population, farm-worker injustices, migrant laborer challenges, markets without entry for new dairy farmers, and direct-sale restrictions ; all hyper-crucial issues in dairy that need addressing.

In midst of the grim outlook for dairy, progress is being made in trying to reform the industry and create viable markets and policy that protects farmers, farm-workers, and consumers.Three strong initiatives that address different issues in dairy, reinforcing the industries own challenges and complexity are Wisconsin Farmers Union Dairy Together initiative, Migrant Justice Milk with Dignity Campaign, and the National Organic Coalition “Restore Fairness in Organic Dairy”.

Some solutions include the creation of value-added enterprises for dairy; however, distribution and supply chain logistics into conventional retail spaces can be a challenge. Part of this solution rests in policy which happens through changing laws, breaking monopolies, restructuring markets, and like many issues in the world: redistribution of wealth equitably. A large part of how I see the solution is us waking up to the realities of our food system and being vocal, intentional, and curious to change them. In the weeks to come, look out for a piece from Equal Exchange’s cheese team who are working domestically to explore new supply chains for small dairy farmers and producer groups.

Looking Behind the Barcodes

Next week, the Equal Exchange organizing deparment will be cohosting a webinar with Oxfam America on their Behind the Barcodes Campaign. Join us on Tuesday, January 29th from 4-5pm EST by emailing

Reposted from June 22, 2018 from Oxfam

By: Becky Davis, Oxfam

whole foods banner

Activists demonstrate outside a Whole Foods in Boston as part of the launch of Oxfam’s Behind the Barcodes campaign. (Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam)

An estimated 22 million people around the world work for food manufacturing companies alone. But that number is just the tip of the iceberg. Millions more work in formal or informal roles, such as seasonal labor on plantations or on fishing vessels at sea.

And while supermarkets earn big profits, many of these workers, year-round or seasonal, face harsh and dangerous working conditions, earn low wages and live in poverty, struggle to feed their own families. From forced labor aboard fishing boats in Southeast Asia, to poverty wages on Indian tea plantations, and hunger among fruit and vegetable pickers in Southern Italy, human rights abuses are widespread among the women and men who produce the food that we buy from supermarkets around the world.

The global food industry generates billions in revenue every year, but the rewards are increasingly skewed toward the powerful. The eight largest publicly-owned supermarket chains in the world generate trillions in sales and billions in profits, and are keeping a growing share of the money we spend in the checkout line – while the small-scale farmers and workers producing the food get less and less. Human suffering should never be an ingredient in the food we eat. That’s why Oxfam launched a new campaign this week seeking to expose the economic exploitation of millions of small-scale farmers and workers face in food supply chains and to mobilize the power of the people around the world to help end it.

In our research, we found that:

  • The average earnings of small-scale farmers and workers in the supply chains of 12 common products—from South African grapes, to Peruvian avocados, to Indian tea—is not enough for a decent standard of living, and where women make up most of the workforce, the gap is greater.
  • Supermarkets have kept an increasing share of the money their consumers spend, while the share that reaches workers and food producers has fallen, sometimes to less than 5 percent.
  • The eight largest publicly-owned supermarket chains generated nearly a trillion dollars in sales, $22 billion in profit, and returned $15 billion to shareholders in 2016.
  • Food insecurity is common, according to surveys of hundreds of small-scale farmers and workers across five different countries working in the supply chains of supermarkets.

As part of the campaign, Oxfam looked at the policies and practices of some of the biggest and fastest growing supermarkets in the US and Europe, focusing on four themes: women equality, worker’s rights, small-scale producers, and transparency.

In the US, Oxfam assessed and ranked six of the biggest retailers, including Walmart, Kroger, Albertsons, Costco, Whole Foods and Ahold Delhaize, the parent company to retailers such as Food Lion, Giant, and Stop & Shop. In general, US supermarkets scored very low across all four themes assessed, demonstrating that they have little awareness on these issues and have not yet chosen to prioritize human rights, due diligence, supply chain traceability, living wages, and gender inequality issues.

Oxfam and the Sustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia looked specifically at working conditions in seafood processing in Southeast Asia, interviewing workers from some of the biggest shrimp processors and exporters in Thailand and Indonesia that supply to supermarkets like Whole Foods, Ahold Delhaize, Kroger, Costco, Albertsons and Walmart. Through the interviews, we found that wages are so low that 60 percent of women workers surveyed in Thailand were severely food insecure, workers in both countries struggled with controlled access to drinking water and toilet breaks, and were forced to put up with routine verbal abuse by supervisors.

One woman, Melati, told us that she was trained to peel 600 shrimps per hour but was never able to attain that goal. The conditions she was working in at the processing plant in Indonesia were dangerous and she struggled to breathe and burned her hands because she didn’t have proper protective equipment when handling cleaning chemicals like chlorine.

Melati and women like her toil in processing plants in Indonesia and Thailand for little pay. In fact, we calculated that it would take women like Melati 4,000 years to earn what the chief executive at a top US supermarket earns in a year.

Our analysis found that US supermarkets can do much more to support the millions of workers, small-holder farmers, and fisherfolk who grow and produce our food every day. And it isn’t just about paying a higher price, though that would help. As supermarkets have gotten bigger so too has their power. This allows them to set the terms for how they will source their food, from quality and timing to price and risk. Throughout supply chains, more and more risk is being placed on farmers and suppliers and the pressure to produce quality products under extreme time pressures is being borne by workers as well. As our US Supermarket Scorecard shows, the industry has more to do to take the human suffering out of our food.

You and I spend enough at the grocery store to ensure women like Melati have decent working conditions and earn a living wage. Supermarkets depend on us, their customers, so they have to listen. Call on supermarkets to help end the human suffering behind the barcodes by taking action and joining the Behind the Barcode campaign today!

To learn more about how you can be an integral part of Behind the Barcodes join our webinar on January 29th from 4-5pm by emailing

Guacamole Recipe

Time for guacamole! Our favorite recipe comes from our friend Scarlett de la Vega Ochoa, a native of Puebla, Mexico. Here’s how she makes it!

Bowls of food, including fresh guacamole and corn chips, crowd a table
5 from 1 vote

Scarlett's Guacamole

Try a guacamole recipe from Mexico! This creamy dip is sure to delight you and your party guests. Fair trade avocados = perfection.

Course Appetizer
Cuisine Mexican
Keyword Avocado
Servings 6


  • 4 avocados
  • 1 small white onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped
  • 2 plum tomatoes, diced
  • 1-2 limes, juiced
  • 1 tablespoon Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • salt and pepper, to taste


  1. Finely chop the garlic, onion and cilantro and juice the limes.

  2. Cut avocados in half, remove the pit and slice. Detach avocado from peel with spoon and place fruit in a bowl.

  3. Pour juice of one lime along with the garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper. With a fork, smash the avocados until all ingredients are mixed.

  4. Add onion (if it's too strong, rinse with warm water first), cilantro, and tomatoes.
  5. Mix and taste it. If it needs more lime, add the other one and mix again.

A single avocado hangs on a long stem from a tree

Equal Exchange proudly works with PRAGOR, a group of small-scale avocado farmers in Michoacán Mexico. Corporate interests have made it difficult for small-scale farmers to compete in the market. But the farmers of PRAGOR organized to control the entire process, from growing to exporting.

Ask the produce department at your local grocery store to carry fairly traded avocados from Equal Exchange!


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