read more posts by

Kate Chess

Decaf Coffee: We Remove Caffeine, Not Flavor

Experimenting with ways to eliminate those too-much-coffee jitters or sleep better at night? You don’t necessarily need to give up coffee. Decaf can be a satisfying substitute — especially when you choose a decaf made through an all-natural process that leaves the flavor intact.

 

What is Caffeine, Anyway?

Go-juice. Caffeine fix. Jolt of joe. Day-starter. Jet fuel. All these nicknames for a cup of coffee refer to properties that come from caffeine. But what is caffeine? It’s a substance that naturally occurs in coffee beans — likely the reason why humans domesticated the coffee plant in the first place. Speaking more precisely, caffeine is an organic compound, a stimulant chemically derived from xanthine. It temporarily blocks adenosine receptors in the brain and stimulates parts of the central nervous system.

So, caffeine is a drug — a legal and popular one. It wakes you up, makes you feel more alert. It keeps you up, staving off drowsiness. But what if you don’t want that?

If you’re trying to cut out caffeine, one option would be to simply stop drinking coffee.  But if you’ve come to truly love the taste and smell of coffee, the way I do? If you appreciate the feel of a warm mug in the hand? If you look forward to the morning ritual of brewing a pot at home or sipping a cup in a cafe with a friend? Well, quitting can be hard to do.

A better option: you could switch to decaf.

 

Why Try Decaf? (Or the True Story of a New Decaf Drinker)

Decaf gets a bad rap. Before I ever tried it, I heard lots of negative things about how it tasted. But when I decided to switch to decaf, I was pleasantly surprised. True confession time: I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between my old regular coffee and the new decaf varieties I tried.

One explanation for this is that the decaf I was drinking was high-quality coffee — 100% organic Arabica beans, sourced from farmer co-ops in direct trading relationships. It had been roasted by people who really knew what they were doing and it was freshly ground. The all-natural decaffeination process probably also helped. Still, I was surprised how little I missed what I’d always thought was an essential component to coffee.

When you think about it, though, there are all kinds of ways we modify our coffee already. Many people add milk or sweeteners or both. We serve it over ice. We experiment with different brewing methods. And we all have different sensory equipment — different taste buds, different receptors. Why not give decaf a spin and see what YOU think?

Shop Decaf >>

 

Equal Exchange’s Decaffeination Process

Equal Exchange’s decaf coffee is decaffeinated with a process called CR3 Natural Liquid Carbon Dioxide Decaffeination, first patented in Germany in 1970. Here’s how it works:

  1. Unroasted (green) coffee beans are moistened with water and pressurized in a chamber with liquid carbon dioxide, which draws the caffeine out of the bean.
  2. The CO2 is circulated through an evaporator to separate the caffeine from the CO2.
  3. The CO2 is then recondensed and recirculated through the coffee. This cycle repeats until the decaffeination is complete.
  4. The coffee is dried to return it to its original moisture content.

The use of carbon dioxide and water poses no risk to your health (think of carbonated water – it contains the same natural liquid carbon dioxide). This process removes 99.9% of the caffeine, yet leaves the bean and its natural oils intact.. These are the two reasons why Equal Exchange switched from offering Swiss Water Process in 1996 to the CO2 process — more caffeine is removed and the taste is fantastic!

 

Stay up-to-date with all things coffee.

By providing Equal Exchange with your email, you’re giving us permission to communicate with you electronically. Read our Privacy Policy for more details.

Terri’s Pasta Salad

This savory staple is great for picnics, barbecues, or an easy dinner on a warm night. Stop yourself from eating it all in one sitting — we think it tastes even better the next day.

 

a bowl of pasta salad with vegelables sits on a wooden table next to a fork
4.5 from 4 votes
Print

Terri's Pasta Salad

This is the best version of the classic American pasta salad we've ever had. We used fair trade Organic Olive Oil from our partners at PARC in the West Bank in the dressing.

Course Salad, Side Dish
Cuisine American
Servings 6

Ingredients

  • 1 lb short pasta, like radiatori
  • 4 pieces bacon
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes
  • 2 cucumbers
  • 1/2 red onion
  • salt to taste

Dressing

  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/8 cup grated parmesan or other hard cheese
  • 1 tsp basil
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 4 tsp sugar
  • salt to taste
  • fresh ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Boil the pasta in salted water according to package directions. Drain and allow to cool.

  2. Cook bacon until crisp, then chop.

  3. Quarter tomatoes and slice cucumber.

  4. Dice onion into tiny pieces. Soak in cold water to reduce its bite. Drain well.

  5. Mix pasta with vegetables and bacon. Salt to taste.

  6. Blend all dressing ingredients and toss with pasta. Add more salt and pepper to taste.

 

 

Eggplant Boats with Pomegranate

In this Mediterranean-inspired recipe, smokey roasted eggplant pairs perfectly with a tart, creamy sauce while the sweetness of pomegranate seeds bursts on the tongue.

It’s a beautiful dish, too —  testers here were in such a rush to eat, we had trouble snapping a pic that did it justice! Maybe you can do better …

Roasted eggplants topped with creamy sauce and bright pomegranate seeds
5 from 1 vote
Print

Eggplant Boats with Pomegranate

We used fair trade olive oil from our partners in the West Bank to roast the eggplants. We also mixed it into the sauce. Za'atar seasoning and pomegranate seeds set this vegetarian side dish apart from the pack.

Course Side Dish
Cuisine Mediterranean, Middle Eastern
Keyword Eggplant, Olive Oil, Pomegranate, za'atar
Servings 4

Ingredients

Roasted eggplant:

  • 2 eggplants
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp fresh thyme
  • Sea salt to taste
  • Black pepper to taste

Sauce:

  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small garlic clove crushed
  • Pinch of salt

Garnish:

  • 1 pomegranate
  • 1 tsp za'atar

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

  2. Slice eggplant in half lengthwise, then score each half with a sharp knife in a diamond pattern.
  3. Brush eggplant halves with olive oil and lay, skin side down, on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with thyme, salt and pepper.
  4. Roast for 35-40 minutes until flesh is soft and beginning to brown. Allow to cool. (Having a cookout? Grill the eggplants instead!)
  5. While eggplants are in the oven or on the grill, remove the seeds from pomegranate. Stir together all sauce ingredients.
  6. Spoon a generous amount of sauce over each cooled eggplant half. Sprinkle with za-atar and pomegranate seeds and an extra drizzle of olive oil.

Recipe Notes

Adapted from a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi.

 

Podcast 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:

Stitcher (on both Apple and Android.)

Apple Podcasts (Apple devices only.)

Google Podcasts (Android devices only.)

Spotify

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 Exchange.co 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.

Podcast Episode 4: Farmers Sharing Knowledge for Better Chocolate — and Better Outcomes

Hey, it’s another episode of The Stories Behind Our Food, live and ready for you to listen! Here it is!


You can hear #StoriesBehindOurFood on:

Stitcher (on both Apple and Android.)

Apple Podcasts (Apple devices only.)

Google Podcasts (Android devices only.)

Spotify

or wherever you enjoy online audio!


We hope you learned something new! Don’t forget to subscribe to The Stories Behind Our Food and leave a review.


Episode Transcript

Intro: 0:02 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.

Kate: 0:28 Danielle and I are here today with Cristina Liberati, who administers grants that support farmer cooperatives as they improve their quality, productivity and financial stability. Cristina deals with an astonishing variety of people, small scale farmers in a number of countries, plus agronomists, tasting professionals, folks who work for the u s government and more. And all of these people are working toward the same goals. Let’s hear more about how that works. Thanks for joining us, Cristina. Thanks for having me. Your job is clearly very complicated. How would you explain to a stranger what it is that you do for a living?

Cristina: 1:03 Well, I’ll start with my job title. I am the grant projects manager at equal exchange. So, what is the grant projects manager do at equal exchange? There’s really kind of two scenarios. One of them is your average come to the office, write emails, the usual have meetings. The other scenario is I’m in the field visiting with farmer cooperatives and, supporting educational workshops or giving workshops. All of this is related to managing this grant project that we have.

Kate: 1:39 Can you tell us about the scope of the grant?

Cristina: 1:42 Yes. So it’s actually, we, we have in the past had more than one grant, but the one that I’m referring to mainly is the USAID. So that’s the U S agency for International Development Cooperative Development Program. So it’s a multi year project where we applied for funding to do special projects with our farmer cooperative partners in three countries originally, Ecuador, Peru and Dominican Republic. And we work on lots of different activities related to strengthening our cooperative partners.

Kate: 2:21 Is there anyone else involved in this besides equal exchange?

Cristina: 2:29 So USA ID has many different funds. One of them being the cooperative development program. And within the cooperative development program we were one of nine, grantees. So some of the other grantees include the land o’ Lakes International Development Program. Another group called National Cooperative Business Association, specifically their arm that does is international projects called Clusa.

Kate: 2:57 Cool. Yeah, that sounds like so much. It’s kind of hard to wrap my mind around. What is it like, I guess we can all imagine sitting in an office and answering emails. Some of us might do that ourselves, but what’s it really like? Can you describe what it, what it’s like when you’re visiting producers in Ecuador or Peru?

Cristina: 3:17 Sure.  well first Ecuador and Peru are, are fairly different, but sure. Yeah. My mainly in a project activity would involve, you know, flying down there and that always takes longer than, and then you’d like to thank, but oh, depending on where you’re going, I’ll take one or two days to get to your destination. At this point, you know, we’ve had such great relationships with our cooperatives that we can kind of call them up and say, I’m arriving at the airport at this time. Will you come pick me up? And they’re great about that. Usually pick us up, we’d go visit the offices of the cooperative and say hello. And, and one thing you kind of forget when you work in a US based office is physical contact is almost uh, discouraged. But if you go to Latin America and you are saying hello to someone, especially if you haven’t seen them for a long time and you don’t do the kiss on the cheek, it’s actually offensive. So there’s a lot of kisses and hellos. And how are you and this time of year happy new year, happy new year old lasts at least to like February.

Cristina: 4:30 Usually there’s some kind of meetings scheduled. If, they have a processing plant. Say if I’m going to visit NORANDINO in northern Peru, they have a coffee processing plant. We usually kind of tour the plant a little bit or do a little walk around as things change. We’ve worked on project activities to implement, you know, kind of new kinds of laboratory equipment in, in a co op like Nora and you know, and so want to see how it’s working, chat with staff about how it’s going, say hello to folks and then sit down and have meetings specifically around what was your work plan for the project this year, how’s it going, how can we support you? Is there anything we need to troubleshoot? Then you usually go for a nice leisurely lunch, uh, in a place like, uh, where NORANDINO is Savi Che is the most popular lunch and you know, that’s also, it’s a working lunch. You kind of continue to update each other on what’s going on. We try to provide as much information as we can about what’s happening on the u s market side or with equal exchange changes that are happening here.

Cristina: 5:40 And then, I’ll oftentimes you will have a field visit either the same day or the following day where you go visit with individual farmers. And again, it’s part of, it’s just going there and sitting and having a chat. And some facetime and  you know, accepting graciously whatever find beverage they offer you. In Peru, sometimes it’s Chicho, which is a fermented corn drink.

Cristina: 6:09 I was recently in Paraguay and they offered us ted today, which is a kind of herbal concoction that they serve cold and you drink through a straw. But the generosity of our farmer partners is always astounds me and they’ll, they will give you anything they have and a lot of times they have beautiful fruits and things from the farm that they offer you as well. And then you know, if we implemented specific project activities with that farmer, we talk about that, you know, if they tried, uh, you know, a new Pr, uh, compost or went to a workshop around how to improve their pest management of the bugs that were eating their crops. So we, you know, we talk about that and how, how it went and what they, what suggestions they might have. So that’s, that’s in a nutshell that, that could repeat itself over a couple of days. And sometimes I go and we do workshops. If we’re workshop coming up in Peru to train more people in a capitalization, education program curriculum that we have so that we can offer that education program to more cooperatives in the future.

Kate: 7:28 That’s such a great picture of a sort of daily process of what this might be like. Thanks for that.  Just like as a basic 101, what is a producer co-op in the context of Latin America?

Cristina: 7:42 Yeah, so again, Latin America is pretty large and produce our co op could mean a lot of things. My experience is mainly with coffee and get cow small farmer, producer, co-ops in Peru and Ecuador and Dominican Republic. So but given that, I think there are some generalizations we can make, the most essential function that these cooperatives provide is purchasing the raw product that the farmers are producing.

Cristina: 8:12 And a lot of times they’re aggregating it and providing a service of a postharvest processing they call it. So taking the raw product and turning it into a semi-finished product for export. So in the case of cacao for example, it needs to be fermented and then dried. And often you have better quality control and if you do that for many farmers at once versus the farmers doing individually. So the co op serves that function and also they’re the ones out there looking for international markets and clients and you know they serve as the face of the farmers in the kind of international market at the same also they invest some money back into the co ops and services for the farmers. Sometimes that takes the form of like a health campaign where they have an optimologist come and fit people for eyeglasses and or a lot of times it involves them hiring a agricultural technicians to go and support the work on the farms on a daily basis. Just those are just some small examples.

Danielle: 9:24 I have a question specifically on scale and how big some of these cooperatives are. I know you work in a few different countries and kind of what’s the range of how many families are in each cooperative. And I don’t know if you have any opinions on like is there a too big or what’s like the right size for how many family farms are in the cooperative? What your thoughts are on that?

Cristina: 9:51 Yeah, it’s a really interesting question. I work with cooperatives that range from a couple hundred producers up to almost 10,000. Wow. And there are, it’s a big one, although in, you know, there’s a cacao co op in Ghana that has I think something like 80,000 members, I mean massive. So it makes, uh, some of the 10,000 member Coopa Look, look small. I wouldn’t say that there’s a right or wrong answer here. I think that each scenario provides different challenges and also different benefits. So when you’re really small, oftentimes the cooperative is like a tight knit family for better or for worse. Right. So, yeah, and it makes sense like if you love your family, but you need a little space from them sometimes. And in those scenarios, often if you are introducing a new technology or a new idea, it’ll be adopted by everyone pretty quickly. And that’s, as long as it’s a good piece of information, that’s a good thing. On the other hand, there can be a lot of infighting and politics that the organizations don’t always mature to the level where they can handle that. And so I think you have a lot of vulnerability at that size sometimes. They also, you know, might not be able to access the same kind of markets that a larger co-op would because they just aren’t producing at a scale that some clients find efficient to buy from.

Cristina: 11:28 But you know, there are successful co-ops at every size, I think. And the larger co-ops you’re able to, they often develop into multifunctional businesses. So they’ll have an arm that does part raw processing. Like they might have a factory where they turn the cacao into cacao powder. They might have their own bank or credit union that serves the members, but also the rest of the community. The challenge with those large cooperatives I’ve seen is they often lose contact with their membership. And so that’s risky. Also, it’s sort of the opposite of a tight-knit family. You just have this loose aggregation of folks that it doesn’t really matter to them that they are a member of this particular co-op. It’s just the one that’s everywhere, you know, it doesn’t feel personal anymore. Yes. Yeah, yeah. To talk about individual farms now, the farms that make up these are the farmers that make up these producer co-ops.

Kate: 12:27 One of the aims of this program, it sounds like focuses on quality. What our issues are about quality when we’re talking about organic farming.

Cristina: 12:38  Yeah. I think issues with quality can range from organic to nonorganic. some of the challenges specifically with quality for organic farmers are they can’t use the same chemicals to combat like insects and different diseases that, conventional farmers are able to access. And so sometimes they can be much more success susceptible to those things and that will, of course, affect your quality and your productivity. On the flip side, I think organic farmers tend to have more diversity of, of product and of, uh, crops within their farm. And that from a flavor perspective and a variety of perspective is usually a benefit. And so, you know, I work in part in,it’s kind of like the specialty good cacao, area and you have more diversity and interesting flavors that can come from organic farms usually then it conventional farm in. That’s a generalization.

Kate: 13:54 When you say diversity, you mean like they might be planting more than one variety will have this of cacao or different kinds of things other than cacao as well or both?

Cristina: 14:03 Yeah. And cacao has thousands upon thousands of varieties and it’s one of the most complex foods on earth in terms of variety of flavors. There’s like 6,000 aromatic compounds. Weight might be 600 beyond that a lot. Yeah. I’m, it’s up there with wine and coffee and those other products that people really like to save her and look for a flavor notes and having a different varieties of cacao on one farm can give you more complexity of flavor and also other crops are going to interact and, have an impact on what people call sometimes terroir, which is the taste of a place or a unique flavor of a product.

Kate: 14:53 I’ve heard that before. Referring to other kinds of products like wine. What is … are farmers … Is this sort of coincidence or is it something farmers are deliberately working to develop?

Cristina: 15:06 Often it’s just a circumstance. You know, you inherit a farm that’s got a mess of varieties and it can be a challenge because if you don’t know, you know, what those, what the potential is of those varieties. It, you know, what good is it to you. And also in terms of farm management, sometimes the trees aren’t planted in rows. They’re just kind of scattered all over the place. They’ve been pollinated by who knows what. And you have, you don’t know exactly what varieties you have. So it can be messy, but if you know what you’re doing, you can really benefit from, from that diversity and complexity

Kate: 15:51 People on the consumer end. And certainly, people in the middle, people who are buying these commodities have sophisticated ideas about what qualities are desirable or what tastes delicious or what can get the most money. Are Farmers included in those conversations.?

Cristina: 16:43 We talked a little bit about wine a second ago and that is, is a crop where farmers are very often included in those conversations. The products that equal exchange works with and as of yet we don’t work with wine but someday maybe. Yeah. Here’s to that! The answer is no. Farmers aren’t always included in those conversations. I’d take, coffee has come a really long way in that aspect and Equal Exchange was really a pioneer in that movement to include farmer’s in conversations about quality. And my office mate is the green coffee buyer and she was just looking at hundreds of reports of quality analysis that they’ve done in our lab here that she’s bringing down to Peru to talk to the farmers. About next week. So this is very much an ongoing thing. And in it’s been a lot slower, that development, but it’s happening now and I’d like to think our project has played some part in that.

Kate: 17:17 Yeah. What are, what are the advantages, just to break it down, why would a farmer who’s really good at growing plants need to know how the finished product is gonna Taste?

Cristina: 17:28 So a product like cacao is the prices generally determined by the New York Stock Exchange and not by the quality of the product that they’re offering. And having some knowledge about the quality of your product gives you a voice and power in negotiations around its value in a way that many farmers typically have not been included in before or given before.

Kate: 18:00 So how does it work? How do they, how do they get included?

Cristina: 18:05 Good question. Yeah, I think, first and foremost starting to ask the question, you know, oh, I didn’t know I could, you know, that there was more than one price for cacao. Our work has focused on in the project, really collaborating with some of the star co-ops in our supply chain who had already made some advances in this area too. Generally work at the Co-op level, but we worked with TCho chocolate in San Francisco to, uh, install little mini-factories, which we call the TCho calls, flavor labs at the cooperatives so that they can process small amounts of the Ra or the fermented and dried cow beans into chocolate or with or without sugar. That’s the way that most chocolate makers evaluate the quality of a product and make decisions about whether or not to buy. But many farmers had never even tasted their own beans and chocolate form. And so,

Kate: 19:07 wow. I just want to stop and think about that. That’s crazy.

Cristina: 19:11 Yeah, it’s a, it is a little bit mind-blowing, you know. So just even the gotten of leveling the playing field with the tools that are available was, was a huge step. And then from there it’s really sitting down at, at the table and tasting together and Cho and equal exchange. And our farmer producers got together a few times a year and we’re tasting chocolate or unsweetened chocolate together and trying to see if we were coming up with similar flavor characteristics and qualities and from there developing written documents that would help people speak the same language when they were discussing their results. So we worked together on a tasting form for Cocoa. And you know, related things to help people have, have a universal tool to look at and speak the same language. Yeah, that’s really inspiring. It’s easy to see how that can make a big difference.

Danielle: 20:20 Can I ask one question, thinking about some farmers for the first time tasting their own chocolate, is there any kind of funny experience that you can think of a reaction to that and you know, folks being excited or, wow, I didn’t know that, you know, when I was growing, could, you know how it tasted? I don’t know. I’m just interested in that like kind of reaction that they might’ve had to taste their own chocolate for the first time. It seems like it could really cool.

Cristina: 20:48 Yeah. You know it’s really fun, but in fun in the way that looking, I’ve, I’ve been, I’ve been a participant in tastings like this also, but often what we would advise the coops to do, or they came up with this idea on their own was create a chocolate and unsweetened chocolate made from beans that were processed really badly and one that was processed really well. And right away the farmers can tell the difference in the flavor and the quality of off, you know, uh, fermentation changes the flavor dramatically and it reduces the bitterness and the stringency of the cacao. And so if you don’t ferment properly, you taste that right away and you just want to spit it out. So and on the other hand, it really good, good cow. That is the process. Well, even without sugar is going to taste really nice. And so I’ve, I’ve been at workshops where they offer, you know, kind of a good example and a bad example, but they don’t tell you. And the faces on the of the participants are just kind of priceless. And I, yeah, I’ve seen that many times. It’s, to be honest, but it’s a, it’s a really great educational tool and I know that some of the farmer co-op quality managers have taken the beans from a particular farmer back to that farmer and said, you know how you’re harvesting all those underwrite pods. Yeah, here’s what you’re giving us and we can’t sell this to clients or we get penalized for it. And once they taste it, they understand.

Danielle: 22:33 Kind of going off of that in regards to this project, how much of it is kind of producer-led? And do you kind of feel as though small scale farmers are either represented underrepresented and the scope of this and what are your thoughts on that?

Cristina: 22:56 Yeah, you know, it occasionally we get together with other grantees from the cooperative development program and every time we go to these meetings, people are kind of astonished by the, by the way, our project seems to work and I’m always astonished by the way their projects work. But they’re like, you give the money directly to the co-ops and then they do the work. I’m like, what are you doing? This is the cooperative development program. A lot of them work through third parties or consultants to deliver services to the Co-op, but never deposit the money directly to the ops themselves.

Cristina: 23:38 But I think we have the advantage of working with co-ops that are developed to the point where they’re able to export. I mean they’re, they’re fairly sophisticated in the world and the co-op world. Yeah. But we also trust them and they, you know, we have the good fortune of them often trusting us. And so we establish a very clear work plan in a very clear budget. And then we make deposits and then they have to send us receipts on all those deposits. And if they don’t, they don’t get another disbursement. They also know that it, that their performance on the grant affects the commercial relationship and our, you know, if they do really poorly on the grant, it’s not going to necessarily damage the commercial relationship, but it’s not gonna improve it either. So we, we don’t, we don’t, uh, use one to leverage the other and that’s not what I’m trying to say, but it’s, it’s like engaging with a family member on a business project.

Kate: 24:36 If one thing goes poorly than the other one, it’d be awkward at Thanksgiving.

Cristina: 24:39 Right, exactly. Yes. Well spoken. And so I think, I don’t know if that answers your question, but it’s, I would say yes, it’s, it’s very much producer led in the design and the execution and the ownership. And One, one statistic I can give you, cause we were just evaluating our project, is I don’t know many times when people look at what charity to donate to, they look at how much goes to overhead. And I actually calculated that equal exchange has taken of 100% of the funds available to us, 3% to execute this project. And 97% of the funds went directly to the co-ops or services that directly benefited the co-ops. And so I think that’s pretty good. Yeah.

Danielle: 25:39 Yeah. I just, just ask that question and I have an international relations background and a lot of times that would be something that folks were concerned about. People just kind of going in and having their perspective telling people how to do things, but having a different energy around it saying, no, actually, you know, this, it’s important for the involvement to be produced led and having feeling that feeling of ownership and control over your own projects and that changes the energy behind it to me. But

Kate: 26:08 yeah, you also alluded to the fact that we’re talking about very different countries here. Something that’s going on in Peru with, you know, cacao is going to be different from something that’s going on in the Dominican Republic. Do people in the cooperatives decide what’s important for their specific group?

Cristina: 26:29 Yeah. I mean it’s kind of a balance, right? Sometimes you learn about something that’s going really well and you want to be able to share that with, with a cooperative that’s having a different challenge, even if they’re in a different space. But it, wherever possible, we try to have the producers tell those stories directly to other producers rather than saying, well in, you know, use Becca, Stan, I saw they did this and you should try this. You know, it’s, it’s very different than bringing someone from Uzbekistan together with someone from Honduras to share that experience.

Kate: 27:04 Yeah, cut out the middleman.

Cristina: 27:05 Yeah. Well, and it just, it has more impact if it, if you hear it from someone who you can relate to in their experience and goodness knows they don’t grow any cacao in Uzbekistan.

Kate: 27:16 Yet.

Cristina: 27:17 But that said like producer co-ops around the world, tend to face some similar challenges or I mean, and we even find we have similar challenges as Equal Exchange. The worker co-op with some of our producer co-op partners. Like, how do you get people to run for the board? How do you get them educated to run for the board? This is a question that I see here and we were just talking about it today actually. And it, I’ll be talking about it with a producer co-op, the Banana Co-op in Peru that I’m visiting next week. Same problem.

Kate: 27:49 That’s great. Yeah.

Danielle: 27:50 Yeah. Even thinking about having a cooperative that are geographically dispersed and trying to still honor that connection of the members together and how that can be more challenging as cooperatives grow. And I know that’s a problem. And that equal exchange has that, you know, you would kind of alluded to before talking about the different scale of the

Kate: 28:11 yeah. Big Cops that don’t see each other that much, where farmers might feel isolated or less connected. Makes Sense. Yeah. Yeah. Can you talk about information sharing that seems to be an ethos of this program?

Cristina: 28:23 Yeah, I would say it’s an ethos of equal exchange to I and I, my colleague Beth Ann Casperson, who I think did a previous podcast, which everyone should listen to, is really, such a proponent of this and you know, in the coffee world, equal exchange has shared a lot of information about how we roast or how we work with our partner co-ops. And that philosophy I think works its way into many things that we do include this project. And so one area I already highlighted was trying to have producers share information with other producers. So we organized over 15 different coop exchanges through the previous project, bringing together all of the representatives from all of the cops in their project to talk about specific issues related to quality productivity or financial management of the co-ops .

Danielle: 29:20 And kind of thinking, taking a step back, thinking about a timeline. And you know, originally the project was supposed to be five years and it’s kind of had three extensions, right? So that’s a huge difference in longevity and creating a longterm relationship. How have you been because of these extensions? How have you been able to see some of the, of the project directly?

Kate: 29:44 And if I can jump in, what’s next?

Cristina: 29:46 Yeah, sure. the, the extensions of time, we’re kind of a blessing and a curse. I mean you, when you think you plan for a five-year project and then it turns into eight, sometimes you’re running out of ideas or you know, it’s at what point do your teammates from other cops go and work on other things. But on the plus side, I would say, you know, trees take a long time to grow. So I’m, and cacao trees planted from seed, we’ll take about five years to mature and eve if, so, if you start right away on a productivity project, you may or may not see the results at the end of your project term. And this project has allowed us to really see some of those developments in productivity. You know, we did a bunch of what they call model farms.

Cristina: 30:39 So you know, kind of demonstrative farms within certain areas of the Co-op that do all of the improvements to the farm and they are supposed to serve as, as a model for their neighbors at those, model farms. The productivity went up by, you know, on average in some places like 496%. Wow. And so being able to see that is really satisfying and then you’re able to really share that knowledge. And, and I think with this extension of time, we’ve been able to much more kind of systematically and intentionally create records and tools that we can then use going forward. And that hopefully, you know, in the spirit of sharing are available on a wide scale to whoever finds them useful. All of these are products that we’ve created or tools, resources are actually on the equal exchange website. So feel free to check out the cooperative development page —

Kate: 31:43 –if you’re planning to start a cacao farm yeah.

Cristina: 31:46 Or you want to learn how to taste chocolate.

Kate: 31:49 Yeah, all right. You’re speaking my language. Yeah, yeah.

Cristina: 31:52 And what’s next?  Equal Exchange applied for and received funding for another cooperative development project that started in 2018 and we’ll go to her until 2023 or 2026 or who knows how many extents. Yeah. Yeah. That has to do with the government not knowing how much money to allocate at a particular time. Something that the shutdown is highlighting. Maybe they could use some financial management training.

Kate: 32:23 Great. Thank you so much, Cristina. You’ve been awesome. It’s really fun to talk with you and learn about what is going on.

Danielle: 32:32 Yeah. Thanks for chatting so much.

Kate: 32:37 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 equal exchange.co 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.

Natural Process Coffee

Have you ever tried natural process coffee? If you have, you probably noticed a difference! Known as “naturals” in the specialty coffee industry, these coffees impart a heavy, expansive mouthfeel and flavor notes that are fruity and complex. Equal Exchange now offers natural process coffee — and fans of this style are devoted. But what makes naturals so distinct?

 

Drying Coffee with the Natural Process

Coffee beans are the seeds of the coffee plant. Like other seeds, they’re found within the fruit. In coffee-growing regions around the world, farmers wait for this fruit to ripen. Once the sugars are fully developed and the cherries are mature, it’s time to harvest them from the bushes where they grow. But what happens next? That depends.

Hundreds of small round coffee cherries are gathered on a cloth
These coffee cherries have just been harvested in Honduras.

 

Often, farmers remove the pulp that surrounds the seeds. Because this is commonly done with water, the method is called wet processing. But in some cases, the de-pulping step is skipped entirely. The coffee bean is processed within its cherry. The result is dry-processed – or natural-processed – coffee.

After farmers harvest the cherries, they spread them out on raised drying beds or bamboo mats to dry, with the beans still inside the fruit. The flesh shrinks down, making the beans resemble large raisins. They lose moisture over the course of the drying period, creating a dense sweetness. The process may sounds simple, but it takes skill. Workers must carefully remove unripe or defective beans by hand. They must also turn the coffee cherries regularly so that they dry evenly in the sun. Once drying is complete, which can take anywhere from twelve days to three weeks, beans are put through a hulling machine. This removes the dried pulp, parchment and silverskin. The green beans are now ready to be roasted.

Natural process coffee fruit dries in the sun on raised platforms
Ethiopian coffee farmers dry their beans as part of the natural process.

Environmentally Friendly – and Innovative

Natural processing is the most environmentally friendly method of processing coffee. Unlike with wet processing methods, there is no wastewater that must be evaporated in soak pits or filtered before it can be safely returned to rivers and streams. And when access to water is limited, as it is in many parts of the world, natural processing is especially practical. It makes sense that this method is very common in Ethiopia, where the coffee plant originated!  Equal Exchange works with small-scale farmer partners at SCFCU, located in the Sidama region of the country, to source the natural process beans we use in our popular Organic Ethiopian coffee.

The success of the dry-processing method in Ethiopia has encouraged coffee farmers in other parts of the world to turn to natural process coffee, too. Experimenting with processing is a one way to improve quality. Farmers at the COMSA co-op in Honduras are leaders in innovation. They’ve discovered that beans from the same lot can sometimes garner a higher score on the Specialty Coffee Associations of America’s 100-point scale when processed naturally, as opposed to with the wet process. COMSA’s willingness to try new things and their commitment to quality results in a final product that tastes phenomenal! In Fall 2018, a limited-edition seasonal in Equal Exchange’s Women in Coffee series featured natural-processed beans from COMSA.

Want to learn more about the fair trade products you love? Subscribe to our bi-weekly newsletter.

By providing Equal Exchange with your email, you’re giving us permission to communicate with you electronically. Read our Privacy Policy for more details.

A group of twenty five people pose together under tropical trees.
A group of coffee farmers with their families and EE visitors at COMSA in Honduras.

Super-Savory Snack Mix

Party animals won’t be able to stop reaching for this snack on game day — it’s tangy, salty and a little spicy!

 

A close up of a snack mix containing fair trade nuts
5 from 1 vote
Print

Super-Savory Snack Mix

A twist on an old favorite, using fair trade cashews and almonds, this mix pairs well with iced tea or ice cold beer!
Course Appetizer
Cuisine American
Keyword Nuts
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Total Time 25 minutes
Servings 6

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 250.
  2. Melt butter on stovetop or in microwave.
  3. Pour into a large bowl, stirring in sesame oil, hot sauce and soy sauce. Add the spices, tasting and adjusting to suit your preferences.
  4. Break pita chips into bite-sized bits.
  5. Add pita chips, nuts and popcorn and stir to coat everything with the butter mixture. Spread out on a rimmed baking sheet.
  6. Bake 10 minutes, stir, then bake another 10 minutes.

Stay up-to-date with fair trade recipes!

By providing Equal Exchange with your email, you’re giving us permission to communicate with you electronically. Read our Privacy Policy for more details.

Hot Chocolate Bar With Toppings!

Winter days and bad weather mean … hot chocolate season! Share a steaming cup of cocoa with friends, dressed up with custom toppings. Line up your favorite fixings and gather a group for a DIY hot chocolate bar. This is a fun, hands-on activity —  and an effective way to raise money or raise awareness. We’ll show you how!

 

First, you’ll need the cocoa!

You can’t have a roof without a foundation. And you can’t have toppings without a good cup of hot chocolate! Mix up one huge batch of cocoa for everyone, keeping it warm in a carafe or thermos. Or give each person the opportunity to pair their own dairy or plant-based milk with the cocoa of their choice.

Milk, soy miilk, almond milk and pother options

Equal Exchange offers a variety of amazing organic and fair trade cocoa options. Traditional Hot Cocoa keeps it super-simple, with powdered milk from Organic Valley right in the canister. This simple mix can be stirred with hot water for instant satisfaction. Looking for more adventure — or a dairy-free option? Our Spicy Hot Cocoa adds a touch of cayenne and cinnamon for a Mexican-inspired kick. And our special Dark Hot Chocolate includes shaved chocolate as well as cocoa for double the rich, chocolatey goodness. These two are Vegan and contain no dairy ingredients. Prepare them with skim, whole, soy, almond — whatever you like best.

For a truly gourmet experience, you can mix up hot chocolate from scratch, the European way. Just combine one tablespoon of Organic Baking Cocoa with 8oz of heated milk and a sweetener like sugar, honey, or agave, and blend it all together. Or try this decadent recipe for Rosemary Drinking Chocolate that calls for baking cocoa and chopped chocolate. Yum!

cups and organic hot chocolate

Set Up Your Hot Chocolate Bar

Here are some set-up ideas for your Hot Chocolate Bar. Ask members of your group to bring in mugs and arrange them all at one end of a long table. Then, line up toppings in low dishes or clear jars, so everyone can see what’s up for grabs and add what they like. Don’t forget serving spoons — and something to stir with.  Make sure to label the toppings, including allergen information for safety.  If different people are bringing in toppings, you might want blank labels and pens. This activity can get messy, so we recommend a tablecloth and napkins.

Cocoa Topping Inspiration

What will you put in your cup? Think outside the box! Once you’ve heated up the cocoa — one serving at a time or in batches — and poured it into people’s mugs, give them lots of treats to choose from.

a linke of toppings in jars

SWEET: marshmallows, fluff, candy hearts, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, sprinkles, candy canes, truffles, shaved or crushed chocolate bars (try our top picks, Dark Chocolate Mint Crunch or Dark Chocolate Orange), ice cream, whipped cream

SAVORY: pretzels, sea salt (or perhaps a Caramel Crunch and Sea Salt chocolate bar in Milk or Dark), peanut butter topping, peanuts, almonds, coconut shavings, churros, waffle bits

SPICY: Cinnamon sticks, peppermint sticks, peppermint drops, candied ginger, shakers of ground cinnamon, cayenne, nutmeg or allspice

ADULTS ONLY: Try spiking your cocoa with a shot of whiskey, rum, or the flavored liqueur of your choice. Or add in fresh-brewed fair trade coffee — our favorite thing!

Make This Work For Your Group, Cause or Event!

A hot chocolate bar is truly DIY and customizable. We think it’s a great activity for people of any age who like to have fun together — whether you’re a scout troop, an underground dance collective, a book club or a religious study group! DIY cocoa is also fun for parties and class celebrations. Just make sure to provide appropriate toppings for the size and tastes of your group.

A hot cocoa bar with finished cups of cocoa

Maybe you’d like to raise some money for a local charity, a school trip, an adoption or medical fundraiser, or some other good cause. This is a great way to do that! Ask for a donation for each cup of cocoa. Make sure it’s enough to cover the cost of the toppings — we recommend $2-3 a cup. Earn even more cash by ordering Equal Exchange cocoa at low wholesale case prices and selling it to folks for home use. We find people are willing to pay $7-8 per canister — a markup from the $5.30 per canister cost — when they know the profits are dedicated to a worthy purpose. (Especially once they’ve experienced how delicious it is!) This is called a table sale. Learn more about how do run one here.

Stacked of cocoa cans with a sign pricing them at $7 each

A hot chocolate bar is attention-grabbing and fun. So it’s a perfect way to get attention for an upcoming event. Invite your supporters over for some cocoa and tell them about the concert or book launch you’re planning. Combine it with an informal training or use it as an icebreaker at a meeting. Planning to run an Equal Exchange catalog fundraiser? Kick off your campaign with a hot cocoa bar — use it as an opportunity to let potential supporters taste the great fair trade products you’ll be selling.

toppings with a sign that says "try before you buy"


 

Ideas we didn’t cover?

We’d love to hear from you! If you tried this, let us know how it went. We’ll share our favorite pictures and tips on social media.

Join us for more fair trade fun!

By providing Equal Exchange with your email, you’re giving us permission to communicate with you electronically. Read our Privacy Policy for more details.

A Holiday Party Around the World

As the days get shorter in the northern hemisphere and the winter solstice draws near, people all over are gathering close to share food, burn candles, and celebrate. Equal Exchange works with producer groups on four continents — and our coworkers here in the U.S. hail from many different lands, too. We checked in with three Equal Exchange worker-owners to learn about Christmas and New Year holiday traditions in their home countries.

A Peruvian Holiday

Gladys Minaya comes from Peru. There, she says, Christmas is the biggest holiday of the year — a birthday party for the Baby Jesus. They begin preparations with an advent wreath, lighting a new candle on each of the four Sundays before Christmas.

The main celebration takes place on Christmas Eve, when it’s common to attend midnight Mass, Misa de Gallo. Afterward, family members gather at home to eat different kinds of salad, lamb, and desserts. They set up a Nativity and play music for the Baby Jesus, Villancicos de Navidad. To emphasize giving, not receiving, they also collect for people who are less fortunate. On Christmas day, it’s traditional to eat a turkey dinner and visit friends in the neighborhood, bringing cookies!

And after Christmas, on January 6th, they bless their home for the New Year, praying and writing with blessed chalk on the front door of the house C+M+B. This stands for Christ Might Bless and is also is the initials of the traditional Magi: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.

A multi-generational Peruvian family gathers at a holiday table taden with food.
Gladys’s family gets ready to eat a festive meal together. (She must have taken this picture — she’s not in it!)

A German Holiday

Martha Griem was born in the US, but both of her parents are German, so she grew up celebrating German traditions alongside American ones.

December 6th in Germany is Nikolaustag. Before going to bed the night before, children leave their shoes out to be filled with goodies by St. Nikolaus. Sometimes in the days that follow, St. Nikolaus himself will visit a group of neighborhood kids. As he passes out gifts to each girl or boy in front of all the others, he’ll tell them (thanks to intelligence provided by their parents) what they did well that year and what aspects of their behavior need improvement.  Advent calendars and Adventskränze — advent wreaths — are popular ways to count down to the holidays. People decorate their homes with trees and Weihnachtspyramide, spinning wooden carousels powered by candle-heat, depicting nativity figures.

The big celebration — once again — happens on December 24th. Germans share Christmas Eve dinner with neighbors and extended family. Martha’s family eats beef fondue. After the festive meal, the Christ Child personally visits each house! Children are made to hide while the adults meet with him in the living room. He leaves behind presents and sparkly things — glitter or small bells — as evidence for the skeptics.

A 1970s album cover shows three men in a sleigh with snow in their hair.
Merry Christmas from the Flippers — Martha’s family plays this album every year!

A Guatemalan Holiday

Marlon Cifuentes hails from San Felipe Reu on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. Just like in Peru and Germany, here it’s also traditional to celebrate on the night of the 24th, a Catholic observance that has become so popular that even the non-religious join in. Guatemalans spend Christmas with siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts uncles and cousins. If you go out with friends beforehand, you’d better be back home for a dinner with your family by the stroke of midnight! Typical foods include tamales, apples, grapes, and perhaps a turkey. They enjoy ponche de frutas, a sweet drink made from fruits and cinnamon — usually non-alcoholic, so the kids can try it, too — and exchange gifts. And they share food with neighbors.

Because the holiday is so family-oriented, Marlon says that it reminds him more of American Thanksgiving than of Christmas. At midnight, you can see and hear fireworks going off everywhere. In small towns, they close off the streets for singing and dancing.

Here in Rhode Island, where he lives now, Marlon usually celebrates with friends. This year, he’ll go to the house of a friend — also a Guatemalan — so they can pretend they’re at home!

A smiling old woman holds her dog in her lap next to lights and holiday decorations.
Gladys’s mother and a canine companion with their Christmas decorations.

¡Feliz Navidad!

Fröhliche Weihnachten!

¡Feliz Año Nuevo!

 


Don’t be a stranger in 2019! Sign up to receive our bi-weekly newsletter:

By providing Equal Exchange with your email, you’re giving us permission to communicate with you electronically. Read our Privacy Policy for more details.

Podcast Episode 3: Conflict, Coffee Farmers, and the Nobel Peace Prize

The Stories Behind Our Food has a new episode! Here it is.

 

 


You can hear #StoriesBehindOurFood on:

Stitcher (on both Apple and Android.)

Apple Podcasts (Apple devices only.)

Google Podcasts (Android devices only.)

Spotify

or wherever you enjoy online audio!


Did you like this episode? Don’t forget to subscribe to The Stories Behind Our Food and leave a review!


Episode Transcript

Intro:0:05Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee — these are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is The Stories Behind Out Food Podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux — and I’m Kate Chess — and we’re your hosts.

Danielle R.:0:30Sexual violence as a tactic of war is a huge problem worldwide. We’re here today to talk about the Democratic Republic of Congo. Maybe you heard recently that Dr. Denis Mukwege is the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Panzi Hospital and survivors of sexual violence. We’re here today with Beth Ann Caspersen, the coffee quality control manager at Equal Exchange and cofounder of the Congo Coffee Project. She’ll be giving an important background on the political situation in the DRC and steps that you can take as an individual to make a difference.

Beth Ann:1:07Hi everyone. Great to be here.

Danielle R.:1:10Beth Ann, can you give us just like a brief landscape of the history and overview of this problem?

Beth Ann:1:20The problem we’re working to address is the sexual violence in Democratic Republic of Congo, the DRC, which it’s known as, is the second largest country in central Africa and it’s located in an area known as the Great Lakes region. It’s surrounded by nine countries and it occupies this great expanse of land and resources. So there are countries like Rwanda, Central African Republic, Uganda, all around the DRC and there are more than 78 million people. It’s rich in biodiversity. It has these vast natural resources. But there’s this history that’s really important to understand. First you need to understand that the Belgians colonized the DR Congo in the 1880s, and in 1885, King Leopold II declared it his private property and he named it the Congo Free State. This is where colonization begins bringing with it, unfortunately, death and disease. And in the 1900s it became the Belgian Congo. You’ll see a variety of name changes throughout the history.

Beth Ann:2:26And during this period of Belgian rule, the Belgians are just extracting resources and there’s very little development. and it really wasn’t until 1960 that they achieved independence. The first president — this might be getting down into the details, but it’s an important to understand about the presidents as well — was Joseph Kasa-Vubu, however, conflict arose over the administration of the territory which became known as the Congo Crisis, and so he was ousted. The Republic of Congo — and it’s also known now as the Republic of Congo. So here we go through our name changes. Through this, you see another leader rise and take power through a coup and he’s called Mobutu Sese Seko, and he was a military dictator. And this is going on from 1965 to 1997. At this point in 1970, the country again is renamed Zaire. So again, we’re seeing this, this theme, what we know is that there’s conflict warring groups and continual fighting for land and resources.

Beth Ann:3:33And this persists throughout the history of Congo. Mobutu begins to lose power in the 1990s. And then we see in 1994 the Rwandan genocide. This is a war between two ethnic groups and the Rwanda is right again on the border of DRC and it’s the Tutsis and Hutus and this unfortunate event claimed more than 800,000 lives in a very short period of time in 100 days, they say. So there’s a lot of warring happening there. There’s this political strife and then the Congo goes into its first war. It’s called the first Congo War and this is in 1996 where there’s a foreign invasion of Zaire that is led by Rwanda and that replaces President Mobutu with the rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila, and he is the first Kabila. There is another Kabila that comes along a little later in our story. Mobutu flees and Kabila becomes president.

Beth Ann:4:36Unfortunately, his reign is very short because there are tensions between President Kabila and the Rwandan and Tutsi presence in the country and this led to unfortunately the second Congo War and that was from 1998 to 2003. This war involved all of the neighboring countries, so all nine countries and around 20 armed groups. And ultimately it resulted in the deaths of what is estimated to be 5.4 million people. Let me repeat that. Five point 4 million people. So what happens next? President Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in 2001. And then he was succeeded. Some people say eight days, some people say 10 days later by his son Joseph Kabila. And so this happens and he’s not officially president or becomes elected as president until 2006 of which he is then reelected in 2011. And so you have this series of presidents and rulers and power and this president that is in power right now, Joseph Kabila, he has been in the … they were supposed to have elections in 2016. Here we are in December of 2018, they still have not elections. And there’s definitely political instability surrounding this. Um, yeah. So the DRC is this large country with what I would call small pockets of development. So I’ll give a little bit of the, the difficult sides of the DRC, but also some of the more positive, but first you need to understand there is overall very poor infrastructure. There are no roads in between, in the interior of the country. People are out in the streets protesting. They want a new, a new president. They want a new election cycle. There’s distrust of the government right now, and then you have denial by the government that people are actually protesting and that people actually have been harmed over over many over the last few years in particular. Meanwhile, you have these armed groups — and I’m building up to why sexual violence is actually such an issue — and these armed groups are now being labeled as terrorists by the DRC government and they’re fighting for land, arms and precious resources and there are a couple of precious resources that everyone needs to understand. In particular, they’re tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold, and they are all found in things that you’ll be very familiar with — your laptop and your cell phone. So all of these minerals are used again to make cell phones and laptops, but they, the mines are what the military groups want to control. And so this is for sexual violence comes in, the groups perpetuate violence by, through sexual assault, which is just a horrific practice where they rape women, children and men of all ages. And this violence is really used as a tactic of war.

Beth Ann:7:52It tears apart communities, destroys families and it creates insecurity. And it’s, when I say it’s complex, it’s really a wild understatement, but sexual violence is really just persisting throughout DRC right now. And on top of all of this, you have an ebola crisis, which is really, really difficult. It’s not the first time it’s happened, however, it’s in a more populous area called Beni. And it’s really, really sad to say that military groups have even attacked the health workers there and there’s a lot of insecurity. So it’s difficult to address just sexual violence when there are all these complex layers of what’s happening with poor leadership, little economic development, a huge country with this wonderful mineral wealth and just little economic development. So these levels of sexual violence continue to persist and destroy families and it’s really to gain power over people and resources. Wow.

Kate:8:57Thanks for that. Really thorough background here. And then just add something else to the pot. Another complication. This is a podcast about food, and we’re a coffee company. What does coffee have to do with this? There are coffee farmers in the Congo. We source coffee from the Congo. What does that have to do with women and other people who have survived sexual violence? And is there any overlap between these groups?

Beth Ann:9:22Definitely. And thanks for asking. Sexual violence, is this really a widespread issue throughout Congo? But it’s really in other parts of the world as well. So we need to at least address that.

Kate:9:34Sure. Yeah.

Beth Ann:9:35But it’s rampant in Congo again, using it as this tactic of war. So we work with the small farmer Co-op in eastern Congo. It’s on the shores of Lake Kivu, which also borders Rwanda. And a number of the women had been sexually assaulted. But historically there hasn’t been anywhere to go. So sexual assault has persisted for a long time. Um, and for people who live outside of larger areas like Goma or Bukavu in eastern Congo, there, there hasn’t been many places to go. However, in 1998, Dr. Denis Mukwege a gynecologist, established the Panzi Hospital and the hospital has become very well known for treating survivors of sexual based violence. And over the years Dr. Mukwege has treated thousands of people, thousands. It’s really, like I said, sad to say. Treating these survivors for sexual violence is a holistic process for them where they’re treating people both physically and mentally at the Panzi hospital. Uh, in terms of the overlap between where we buy our coffee, Bukavu is pretty far away from as the town of Minova, which is where SOPACDI is located. Um, and many of the coffee farmers are in the adjoining communities. And so for years we tried to figure out how, how to get the survivors from those communities some help, but it’s really far away. In 2014, maybe it was 2015, I don’t remember exactly. But the World Bank supported a project to build what they call One Stop Centers in different communities and these are really small clinics that are built in smaller towns in order to treat people that are affected by sexual sexually based violence, um, in that same holistic way, right? As, as the larger Panzi hospital. And this is where some of the farmers of SOPACDI live, they actually live in Bulenga. And so having a small clinic there has been a really important development. I’m on a lot of levels, I mean, but really the overlap is with one small farmer co op, I’m talking about that affects or is part of our coffee project. However, there are farmers throughout Congo and people are affected everywhere, all over Congo. So it’s not just farmers, it’s children, teachers and more. Um, and I think that the One Stop Center that’s been constructed in Bulenga has really helped to bring the farmers closer to the hospital, which I’ll talk about and I hope in a few minutes, um, and together with Equal Exchange in the same way. And I’ve been there to visit and I’ve been there and I’ve spent time with Dr. Bwema and the general manager from SOPACDI and so we’re creating these connections. Yeah.

Danielle R.:12:34So Beth Ann, can you talk a little bit about what kind of inspired the creation of the Congo coffee project and what has been the evolution of this project through the years?

Beth Ann:12:48It’s a great story actually, because, excuse me, I was in the Equal Exchange cafe in Boston and I was there with two — I’m a Coffee cupper by trade — and I was there with two coffee cuppers from Columbia. And I ran into Jonathan Rosenthal who’s one of the founders of Equal Exchange. And he said, you know, Beth Ann, have you ever do you, have you ever heard of Panzi Foundation? And I said, no, who is that? And he said, you know, they’re a really interesting organization, they’re doing advocacy work and in, in Congo, in Democratic Republic of Congo. And they’re looking for a product to tell their story, a private label product and to raise money for their programs. And it really sort of just happened. And serendipitously at the time I didn’t know anything about DRC. I’ve spent time in east Africa and my coffee work, mostly in Uganda but also in Ethiopia, but I didn’t know a lot about DRC. I didn’t know a lot about the issues around sexual violence or the Panzi hospital. And so I, over time as I started to learn more and more, I was, gosh, we’ve got to do something. How in tarnation will this work? Um, we’ve never done this sort of thing before. And so I was very lucky because I spent a lot of time with Tara Herman who was a representative for Panzi over many months to develop a coffee product. Um, we weren’t even buying coffee from the Congo at the time. So it was like, well, how can we actually make that connection?

Beth Ann:14:21In my mind I was working to make a product, but it was almost going a little backwards because I really wanted to figure out how to impact the lives of the coffee farmers on the ground. So I reached out to one of my friends, Richard Hyde, formerly of Twin Trading in the UK and asked him and talked to him and he said, you know, I know a group that you should contact and we should, we should connect to you. Um, and so over the years we’ve gotten to know the farmers and support them with technical assistance. As I mentioned, I’m a cupper by trade. And so I had spent some time working with their team to find a cupper to help them to build their quality. Um, and over time I would say pretty quickly we introduced a product which inevitably came, the, became the Congo coffee project.

Beth Ann:15:12Um, it was the first organic coffee in the US that was fair trade. Um, and I’m really proud of it. It has a beautiful design — our design team did it, props to them. Um, but I think the whole point of the product was to tell the story, right? What is the story, raise awareness and have impact. So we have impact, um, on the farmers by buying coffee at fair trade prices, um, at higher than fair trade prices, that’s for sure. Um, and then in addition to that, we are supporting the Panzi Foundation, so for every bag that we sell it, a, $1 goes into a fund and at the end of the year we collect all of the money or count all the money I should say, and then we send a check to Panzi and I’m proud to say that we’ve raised more than $80,000 with this project since inception, which was in 2011. So I feel like the evolution is continuing. I don’t think it’s done. I think that we’ve got a lot of work still to do. Absolutely. Always more work to do.

Danielle R.:16:22Can you, can you tell us a personal story that you have with maybe one of the women that kind of highlights the collaboration of Equal Exchange in the Panzi project?

Beth Ann:16:38Definitely. I think that there’s, there are many faces that come to mind. There’s this woman, Janet, who works in the nursery school, um, that just really, every time I see her she just has a big smile on her face and she just has a dramatic impact on me in my life, but the woman I think I’d like to highlight is known as Mama Zawadi, um, and Mama Zawadi is the director for the Maison Dorcas aftercare center and she is, um, this is a place where people go, survivors go to the aftercare center to heal and to rest they receive counseling, um, and —

Kate:17:22Is this part of the Panzi hospital?

Beth Ann:17:23This is part of the Panzi hospital. Yes. But she’s just this gentle soul with a giant heart. And I just connected with her immediately. Um, you know, she’s the mother of eight. She also happens to– I know, the mother of eight — but also she’s the sister of Dr. Denis Mukwege, the founder of Panzi and she’s a widow. She lost her husband a few years ago, which hit her pretty hard, but she told me “I need to be here. I need to be here for the woman.” Wow. Uh, the aftercare center itself is about 300 beds. Um, uh, but you can see this when you walk around. It’s a pretty overwhelming experience. Of course, I’m not in, in each of the rooms. Being there, my first time, was really overwhelming and Mama Zawadi was just very supportive and very direct. You know, I think people sort of walk on eggshells when they talk about sexual violence or, oh gosh, you know, how do you explain it? And she’s just direct and said, you know, “this woman was raped, this woman has AIDS. This child that is four years old was raped,” and it was just really overwhelming. But I feel like she was really supportive for me to, um, because she has this calming presence, really calming presence, which you can see as being really important.

Beth Ann:18:54The first time I went, uh, I had this idea because Lee Ann De Reus from, from Panzi Foundation USA had told me a little bit about the hospital and so I decided I was going to bring a big bag, a big suitcase of clothing for, for the kids. Um, and so I collected all of my son’s things that were too small and went and got some things from my nephew and I wasn’t quite sure how it would be received, you know, here, here comes this person that’s never been here with a bag of clothes and I was received with song and dance and it was really another piece of being overwhelmed during that same day. And so every year when I go, I always bring a bag of clothes in that bag of clothes started as a small suitcase and now it’s this giant suitcase that’s called the Wheely Beast. And I shove as much of it in there. The weight is the problem, but it’s always, it makes me feel so happy to pass along small things that, um, that, that while they can get clothesthere, they can get clothes there. But I’m passing along something that is meaningful to me. And she said if everyone in the world could have as big a big a, have a heart as you do, then we wouldn’t have the same level of problems. And that stuck with me. So she is very, very special to me.

Danielle R.:20:23Wow. She sounds so special. Thanks for telling us that story. That’s, that’s really nice. Can, can you talk specifically about maybe one of the women who has benefited from this project in particular with the Congo coffee project?

Beth Ann:20:43It’s hard to sort of pinpoint one woman, you know, survivors are there for us a short period of time and then they move on. So usually I don’t see the same faces which I consider a blessing. Um, but I do see the same staff, like Mama Zawadi. But when we first started the project, all of our funding was going toward the Maison Dorcas aftercare center and so specifically to support vocational training. So I think that’s the place where I’ve seen this impact. The center, you know, again, is this healing place. It’s an important refuge for survivors, but one really important thing that they try to do is give people the skills so that once they leave, um, or some type of a trade so that when they leave they can use it. Um, so that might be sewing, that might be weaving. Um, and this is all happening along with counseling and medical services and so those are, those are important things to, to leave with. Um, it’s a really holistic approach taking into account the physical and the mental, which I think I really appreciate. So I think it was probably my second or third visit, I saw these really gorgeous plastic woven bags and I bought one and I was thinking, how can I, how can I get these to the United States, could I sell them what if we could design them and sell them? What if we, there was an outlet? And so this became the Congo coffee bag, um, and it’s this beautiful woven bag that’s too black and white and they’re, they can be used to shopping bags, as baskets. And so what I love about this program, what is that every bag is there’s a woman earns $10. $5 of that is paid to her outright. $5 is kept, um, as part of a savings account so that when the woman leaves, she has a little pile of money, um, to leave with. So a savings. And I love that. Um, it is just a really — you know that someone was using that as healin. They were learning through weaving and then ultimately they sold it into the market. So for all those people out there that have bought one, now, you know, a little bit more about the story. Yeah. So that’s, that’s something that I feel like has had really good impact.

:23:18And in a lot of ways our funding has evolved as well. So in years past we’ve used that to support vocational training and we’ve decided we want to create a connection between the Bulenga clinic and where the funding goes now. So in 2016 we embarked on a new journey where we decided — now this is after consultation with the clinic, this is not my idea, this is what the clinic wanted — is, um, to build water tanks. Yeah, because the clinic is small. This One Stop Center is, it is a tiny clinic. It doesn’t have the services that it probably needs or the money to support it. So knowing that the farmers are in the same community and they need access to water, the idea was to take the money and use it to build a water tank and they did that and I was able to see that and you can see pictures on our website if you’re interested. So, and we’re working on that. I feel like that’s evolving and how it impacts each woman. The bag project continues and I feel like that will continue to impact women, um, in very specific ways.

Danielle R.:24:32Thanks. Thanks, Beth Ann. I feel like I can, I can really feel from you that you are really passionate about this work. Can you talk a little bit about what this means to you on a personal level

Beth Ann:24:48Without crying? I’ll try.

Danielle R.:24:51It’s okay. It’s part of it.

Beth Ann:24:54I’m a crier.

Danielle R.:24:58Me too. Not a shocker to you.

Kate:24:59You guys can’t see this, but we’re handing out tissues now.

Beth Ann:25:05It means so much to me. You know, I’ve traveled to DRC to work with coffee farmers, visit Panzi hospital, visit the clinic and Bulenga and I don’t think I quite understood the experience it would give me. I’ve traveled throughout the world and in my work and training and working with roasters and cuppers and quality training, but this has had a different level of impact, um, where you see human suffering but hope at the same time and I feel like there’s a, if we have to have hope, we, you always have to have hope and you always have to fight for what is right and this is a very deep and meaningful. This has been professionally a very, very meaningful and I’m personally very meaningful project for me.

Danielle R.:25:56That’s wonderful. And we really appreciate you doing this interview with us. I had done a webinar with Beth Ann and that was kind of how this idea came about and I just wanted to keep getting the word out about this project. I think it’s a really important project that Equal Exchange is involved in, um, how can, how can some of the folks listening beyond this podcast, right? What, what are some action steps that they can take and some good resources that folks can kind of stay connected to this story.

Beth Ann:26:29Well, you should get out your pen and paper. Write that one down. Write these down. Well let’s just start with a blog piece that I just wrote and it’s about our work. And there’s this, I’m not sure how many of you have heard, but in October we received news that Dr Mukwege, the founder of Panzi, is the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which is

All:26:56[applause]

Beth Ann:26:56A round of applause — on so many levels well deserved, well deserved. He’s been up for the Nobel peace prize in years past. So for him to, to receive this as a very high honor, um, and well, well deserved. Um, when I learned the news, um, I wasn’t even expecting it. My husband was on a plane and he sent me a text and said, did you hear the news that he won that? And I couldn’t even believe it. I literally started crying because again, I am a crier, but I started to cry because it was so happy. So happy for him, for the survivors that have suffered for the survivors that have persevered for all the support for everyone out there listening right now for everyone at Equal Exchange and just really for him, for bringing and talking about sexual violence on the international stage for so long and having that acknowledgement I think is enormous and it’s especially important right now given the political situation, you know, that there’s a threat of not having free or fair elections on December 23rd of this month. And I think that that is a threat out there. And so one of my asks for you would be to say let’s get fair and free elections happening. There are no excuses as to why they haven’t happened for two years. The excuses put out by the government are just rubbish. It’s ridiculous and they don’t actually have any traction. And so we really need to put pressure there. I’d encourage you to learn more about DRC. So not just, um, at Equal Exchange, the Congo Coffee project and at Panzi and our work. Um, but there are other fantastic groups out there doing work. Um, there’s the Enough Project, there’s Steer Forward. There are others, um, and those are on our website too.

Beth Ann:28:53So buy the coffee. It is a plug, but I think it’s an important plug because you’re supporting our work and coffee does help to build the economy. So we’re talking about this poor infrastructure and these warring factions in this really complex political landscape. I think that this is something you can do is to buy a bag of coffee or buy a bag and give it to someone else. Um, and then the last thing — and there might be more things I think of when I get off of this podcast — is to support our Create Change campaign. We just launched it to raise additional money for the Bulenga clinic. Uh, our idea is that we have built these small tank water tanks, but we need to do so much more and it’s expensive, but we really want to put solar panels on clinic. We want to have renewable energy options and we want to have consistent, clean water that’s available throughout the community and to really be a model of what a great clinic can be. So I think that those are a few of the things you could do up. So if you forgot all of that and didn’t, write it down,

Kate:30:02we’ve got links that we’ll put right in the episode of this podcast. If you go to the podcast homepage, you’ll be able to find a place where you can take action on all of these suggested steps. I wanted to ask about Dr. Mukwege. It’s so exciting. The prizegiving is in December. So, and not only, I’m sure it’s gratifying for him to have his work recognized, but this brings the issue to a wider international audience. Have you met Dr. Mukwege, Beth Ann? Can you talk about your interactions with him?

Beth Ann:30:34It’s amazing. Every time I’m in DRC he’s not, and then he comes to the states and I’m not. I travel a lot for work. Um, so we’ve had very little time to connect and I think I, I’m sort of an ambassador and a champion on not just his behalf but on the behalf of Panzi Foundation USA, Mama Zawadi. So I have not had a lot of interaction with him. Um, but he’s very proud of the Congo coffee project. I know that. Um, and uh, that, so my connection, my physical connections have not been, have not been so many, but I, again, I feel like this is so powerful what he’s received in the Nobel peace prize alone and putting this work on the international stage when he received word, he was in surgery because he’s still an active surgeon. He’s not just a, he does go out and do a lot of speaking all over the world to talk about sexual violence and the issues in DRC. So he is not afraid to talk about the other issues. So this is another level of excitement and, and honor that I think that will definitely, I, I hope will bear more fruit where people are listening. Um, so my, my interactions are limited, but I think we should all feel very proud of the work that he does.

Kate:31:58Yeah. And thanks for telling his story. I have seen a picture of the two of you together. So I know it’s not a Batman/Bruce Wayne situation.

Beth Ann:32:07I went to, uh, the women for women international dinner in New York City a few years ago because we had not been able to connect and was able to meet him for not very long. It’s really hard to get him by himself. He’s a, he’s a very busy guy, so, and will be even more busy now.

Kate:32:26That’s good news. Yeah. Yeah.

Danielle R.:32:28Thanks Beth Ann. I would just say that, you know, what really had got to my heartstrings was, you know, after this webinar that we did with Beth Ann, just the scale of this problem, the systemic nature of it and just the stories of the women and the brutality that is experienced. I think that, you know, I would really encourage listeners out there to go learn more about this story and the human stories behind it because there is no way that you can not be moved by it. So thank. Thank you so much Beth Ann, for all the work that you do, it’s, it’s really, really important work in, um, we really appreciate you telling the story.

Beth Ann:33:08Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here and tell the story, so tell your friends.

Danielle R.:33:15Definitely tell all your friends about the podcast.

Kate:33:17Subscribe, share the episode. Thanks very much. Thank you.

Outro:33:25Thanks for listening to the stories behind our food. A podcast by Equal Exchange ake a worker owned cooperative. Love this episode. Please subscribe, rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit Equal Exchange.co op to join the conversation, purchase products and learn more about small scale farmers in the global supply chain. This episode was produced by Equal Exchange with hosts Kate Chess and Danielle Robidoux. Sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the stories behind our food.

Warm Up with Maple Almond Squash Risotto!

This risotto, cooked with white wine and chunks of butternut squash, makes for a quick, comforting dinner on chilly days, or a classy side dish that will impress your friends. The sweet and salty maple almond topping provides the perfect crunch. Looking for a new Thanksgiving recipe? You may have found it …

 

 

5 from 2 votes
Print

Maple Almond Butternut Squash Risotto

Enjoy one of our favorite fall recipes!

Course Main Course, Side Dish
Cuisine American, Italian
Keyword Almonds, Rice, Squash, Wine
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Total Time 55 minutes
Servings 8

Ingredients

  • 4 Tbsp Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 2 tsp Italian seasoning
  • 1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and diced
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 1/4 cups arborio rice
  • 4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1 cup white wine divided
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup Organic Natural Almonds, roughly chopped
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp maple syrup
  • additional pinch of salt

Instructions

  1. Heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add the onion and sauté until it softens and begins to brown. Add the butternut squash, the Italian seasoning and 1 tsp salt. Cook for 5 more minutes.

  2. Combine the uncooked rice, the stock, and half of the wine in a 9x13” baking dish or large cast-iron skillet. Add the cooked onion and squash mixture. Without preheating the oven, put the dish inside on a center rack, set the temperature to 400, and allow to bake for 15 minutes. Stir the mixture, return the dish to the oven, and continue to cook for 15 more minutes.

  3. While the risotto bakes, make your maple almonds. Melt butter in a skillet. Add the almonds, the maple syrup and the extra pinch of salt. Stir to coat almonds and allow to toast, then remove them from the skillet promptly. Leave them to cool on a plate or a piece of parchment paper.

  4. Take the risotto dish out of the oven and stir in the parmesan cheese and the rest of the wine. Broil in the oven for five minutes, until it bubbles. Top with the maple almonds.

Buon appetito!

Podcast Episode 2: Why Does Good Food Sell Out?

Here’s the second episode of our storytelling podcast, The Stories Behind Our Food!


You can hear #StoriesBehindOurFood on:

Stitcher (on both Apple and Android.)

Apple Podcasts (Apple devices only.)

Google Podcasts (Android devices only.)

Spotify

or wherever you enjoy online audio!


Did you like this episode? Subscribe to The Stories Behind Our Food and leave a review. This helps our stories reach more people!


Episode Transcript

Intro:0:02Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee, these are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is the stories behind our food podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Roberto and I’m Kate. Chess and we’re your hosts. Hi. Welcome to the stories behind our food podcast. I’m Kate Chess and I’m here today with Daniel fireside. Hi. Thanks for having me on. Thanks for coming. Daniel is the capital coordinator here at Equal Exchange and we’ll be talking with him about something we don’t always think about when we think about the food system, the role of capital, and how a company can use financing to actually support its social mission instead of undermining it. All right, we’re rolling. Who are you and what do you do here at Equal Exchange?

Daniel Fireside:0:59Yeah, so I’m Daniel fireside. I’m and I’m the capital coordinator at Equal Exchange. So what that means is I’m in charge of raising all the outside capital that the company needs and managing the investor relations. Uh, the one part I don’t deal with this sort of our conventional banking relationships which are getting us to be a smaller and smaller piece of what we do.

Kate Chess:1:27For those of us who aren’t in finance, would a company the size of Equal Exchange normally have a, a person in your position have a capital coordinator?

Daniel Fireside:1:36Probably not by that name. I’m not aware of any other company that uses that term. And when, when I was offered the job I was told I could be a, I could come up with whatever name I wanted, I could be head of investor relations or a finance something or other, uh, but we’d often use the term capital coordinator. And what I liked about it and why I decided to keep it was because it’s so unusual and it like everything equal change does, reflects our unusual approach to business.

Kate Chess:2:11All right, great. Yeah. We want to talk to you about what the role of capital is in a food business.

Daniel Fireside:2:18So you know, capital is generally a company needs capital for longterm expenses in general. So your buildings, we own an 80,000 square foot warehouse and roasting facility with offices. We lease a lot of, a very expensive equipment. So those are normal capital expenses. A lot of other expenses are finance through your normal sales. So a payroll and for most conventional companies, inventory wouldn’t necessarily be a huge expense, a capital expense, especially for a coffee company of our size. They would just be having a very, as little inventory as possible, buying from brokers, uh, or contracting from a coffee producers and getting the coffee delivered whenever the roaster needs it or they’d be buying futures contracts. We decided that that whole system really puts the growers, the farmers at a huge disadvantage and they’re the ones least able to carry that cost. So our whole model, our business model from the start flips that around. So we arranged months in advance with the farmer cooperatives for basically a year supply of what we’re going to buy. And as soon as they’re ready, once they’ve milled it and sorted it, and once they’ve mailed it and sorted it and are ready to ship it, we settled on a final price, which is always above the market and is very favorable to the farmer co op. And as soon as those containers hit the water, I’m on the ships, we pay for the entire contract, we pay upfront and as soon as we own the coffee and then it’s a great deal for the farmers. A lot of other companies pay months, many months later, um, or they force them to sell at a huge discount. It’s great for the farmers. It creates a problem for us that have our own making where we suddenly have a huge amount of inventory that is sitting around. We can store our co ffee unrested coffee for a long time, but we, we’ve paid for it and it’s a capital expense. So as the company grows, that volume of inventory grows. So we’ve always needed a capital coordinator to really figure out how to do this kind of financing basically from the start.

Kate Chess:5:03So it’s really just, you’re talking about the cost of the coffee itself, it’s the building block of the business and the cost of that product is what you’re raising capital for that. That’s the unusual capital we’re talking about. Is that correct?

Daniel Fireside:5:14Well, we have the usual capital expenses that any other business would have, uh, the, the buildings and the equipment and so forth. But the other stuff is a, is a problem that we’ve created because if we don’t take it on, it’s pushed onto the farmers. And, and that’s we, you know, one of the really crazy things about the modern food system is that the big businesses that are the multinationals that are making all the money and all the profit, uh, take on as little risk as possible and push and basically have the farmers financing all the inventory costs as much as possible. And the farmers are the weakest link in this whole. And there are the ones who have the least amount of power. So we’re trying to flip that equation that creates a problem for us. And instead of just, uh, getting the financing from some deep pocketed venture capitalist, we early on figured out that we need to have our financing reflect our cooperative fair trade business.

Kate Chess:6:23Yeah. Gotcha. It seems like there are other people in the world who have these types of ideals who would like to be doing the right thing and treating farmers fairly and paying them well or doing good work in other parts of the food system. But it seems like whenever. It seems like a lot of food companies seem to be being bought up these days and the ownership changes in the way they do business changes. Can you answer in your opinion why food company so often seem to sell out?

Daniel Fireside:6:56Yeah. And especially, I mean, I think a conventional food company, it’s a, what their goal is from the start is to sell out, you know, build up the business, get it to a certain scale, whether it’s profitable or not, doesn’t really matter. You just sort of build the brand and done the legwork. And then your. If you get bought up by coke or Pepsi or General Mills, that success, you get a pile of money, you can move onto your next thing. Um, if you’re, you know, have a social impulse in the social goal when you created the whole business. Uh, that’s where our heart kinda breaks when we keep seeing these businesses that are in the same universe that we are really concerned about the equity issues and how the farmers are doing, the producers are doing and trying to create a business that changes that power dynamic. And then they get to a certain scale and they sell out as well. So why do they keep doing that? Well, in, in, in my view, because I talked to a lot of people in startup phases and, and, and a little bit beyond that early startup capital, it’s the hardest to get. And they go around talking to a financial backers and you know, venture capitalists and Angel Investors and they sign these deals because somebody hands them a wad of cash that they needed that moment and they’re just not thinking about the fine print and the implications that go down the road. And so the first question, the businesses I always ask is, what’s your exit strategy? How are you going to sell this business? Either either sell it to big whatever or go public where it’s sold to investors and it’s going to get eaten up by big whatever, uh, in five to seven years. And if you don’t have an answer to that, they’re not gonna put their money in because they want 10 times their original investment. It’s crazy. It’s just a total casino. I, I think the greatest PR job was done by people who label themselves angel investors because they’re really anything.

Kate Chess:9:05But that’s just the term everybody uses fitness. Yeah.

Daniel Fireside:9:09Oh, the angel came in with a pile of cash and it’s like, no, it’s the other kind of angel. Then you’ve got to read the fine print. I’m so people are just like, oh, that’s the deal. You know, the, the laws are also written to really privilege, really wealthy people to invest and the finance laws, investing laws were written that way to protect small investors, especially after the Great Depression. And then after every scandal where were some. Somebody rips a bunch of people off the. They try to write new laws, protect against the last scandal and the problem is you know that that’s all well and good, but it also has created such huge barriers for anyone who isn’t a millionaire to invest directly in a regular company. Some of those laws are changing now and some of them have certain exemptions that equal change has used to reach out because only about two minutes, two percent of the US population fits the criteria that the securities laws are written for. That says you can invest in anything. Ninety eight percent of us were, were not allowed legally to invest except in rare circumstances. So equal is using those exemptions. And uh, some of those laws have have eased up a little bit. And I hear from companies all the time, how can we follow Equal Exchange his path to avoid this other a trap. I call it the exit strategy trap. You know what, if you’re trying to build a company, not for an exit, but to stick around.

Kate Chess:10:46So to connect the dots here a little bit, even if you’re a company with a social mission, it’s hard to find investors or to get around the laws too. Utilize investors who aren’t huge dollar amount, big dollar investors and those people. What’s the disadvantage of going with a big investor?

Daniel Fireside:11:04Well, it’s not necessarily that are they all evil or is there something more there? No, it’s more that the investors, people who are investing for a living or investing other people’s money for a living have created this game plan that says, uh, you pick, you know, seven companies you put money in with the expectation that within five to seven years they’re going to return your money times 10. Now you actually figure that six of the seven are going to fail, but one is going to pay off. That sounds to me a lot like gambling. And it basically is, they don’t really care about those other six companies. They just care that enough of their bets, they’re going to pay off that they come out ahead and then they sound like geniuses. This is a system that works to keep making really rich people richer. It helps get some companies off the ground, but it doesn’t further the interests of people who, you know, back when Equal Exchange was founded. I, I’ve, I’ve often heard from our three founders, Jonathan Michael, and a rink that, um, you know, back in the mid eighties when they got into the coffee business, I said, any idiot could make a lot of money in coffee. And that wasn’t really their goal because first off the end of the day, if it works, they’d be above another bunch of idiots who made money in coffee. And if it didn’t work, then they’d be the real idiots who couldn’t even make my own coffee. They said, no, they’re, they’re a goal from the start was to really change the food system and empower workers and empower consumers, uh, in a food system that wasn’t allowing them to do that. And coffee was the vehicle that they used and that’s great because now we’ve added chocolate and tea and bananas and mangoes and all sorts of other wonderful things to eat and drink. So if your goal is to make change and not, and within the system, within the financial system that we have, your goal isn’t to maximize profit, it’s to maximize all these other things. You want to be profitable and keep growing and doing more good. Keep the lights on. But it’s hard to find people and institutions that say, well, if there’s other things are really valuable and when we’re making crazy returns, when we’re making crazy profits, it’s at a certain point, it’s a zero sum game. You’re, you’re, you’re making profits on the back of the farmers. You’re making profits on the back of the workers, you know, if, if everybody keeps their expectations reasonable than everyone can come away better off.

Kate Chess:13:46Yeah. It seems like we’re talking about money here, but we’re also talking about power and control. Um, and those are some of the strings that seems to be attached when you use a more traditional way of raising capital. Can you talk about how Equal Exchange has raised capital without giving up control? How we’ve stayed independent and democratic?

Daniel Fireside:14:06Yeah, absolutely. That’s really, besides that expectation of crazy profits, what companies, entrepreneurs, whoever are giving up when they’re dealing with these so called angel investors is control more and what those people in control are always demanding is increased profits at whatever. Hey, if you can do it and put a happy face on it and you know, not not exploit the farmers, that’s great, but when it comes down to it between the farmers and me always going to pick me and I’ve just heard so many stories of Oh, even successful companies, so six out of those seven are going to fail and the investors are fine with that. Well that seventh guess what does founders got pushed out anyway? Maybe they got some money but they lost their company because they weren’t making money fast enough or it sold out and general mills didn’t want you or starbucks didn’t want you. And, and you know, some people walk away with like a million dollars and they’re really unhappy and that just seems crazy. So equal said we need to raise money and it’s been a real problem for Co ops more than any other business because a cooperative, whether it’s a consumer co op or a producer or a worker co op it control stays with the members, the farmers, the producers of the customers, the, the workers, and you can’t give it up. So it’s been really limiting, uh, in cooperatives business, a cooperative businesses ability to raise capital. What equal figured out was you can offer a kind of investment vehicle that doesn’t give up power and you can offer a financial return. We’re not a charity, but the way we wrote the rules said, you, uh, you, the investor, don’t get to say how we run the company. And I often say like, look, if you invest in the conventional stock market, you bought some Microsoft, you might get a proxy statement in the mail asking you to vote on something. No one’s counting your proxy statement. Bill Gates out votes you a trillion to one, a google. They have special shares where they don’t even count outside shareholders. So it’s a myth that shareholders, the average shareholder actually has some say in how companies are run. We sort of say, first off, we don’t think just because you have money, you should get to say how you run the company. If you work here and you’re a member here and you get voted in and you contribute your labor and your time and your energy. Yeah, you have a say an equal say, but you don’t get to sell the company. If you’re an outsider, you can be a partner, you can be a stakeholder and we’ll offer return. It’s a variable return between zero and eight percent. So any given year will give you zero percent. And that’s part of the deal. Uh, we say the target is five and if everything goes right and we’re treating everyone well in the businesses in good shape, we’ll, we’ll pay you five, but it’s decided by the workers on the board. Um, if things are going gangbuster, we’ll, we’ll pay a little more and we’ve treated everyone else, right? Um, things are going terribly. You’ll get less and maybe zero. And that’s, it seems pretty reasonable. And over the long haul, uh, we’ve done really well, we’ve done well by our investors. And what I tell people is, look, we can’t guarantee you’re going to make any money. I can’t guarantee you’re not going to lose your money. I can guarantee whether you made it or lost money. You feel good about it. And you can’t really say that about anything else you invest in.

Kate Chess:17:54So you were saying that investors don’t actually have a say in traditional businesses either.

Daniel Fireside:18:00Yeah, I think that’s a real myth Uh, it’s, there’s two myths. One is that companies, publicly traded companies are democratic because shareholders get to vote, one share, one vote, and whoever has the most shares gets the most votes. So that’s already a kind of anti democratic thing. Then the way companies are structured, it’s incredibly hard to vote on companies and change them. There’s a whole industry of social activist organizations and really wonderful places that have pushed companies to enact a environmental goals or social goals through shareholder resolutions. And whenever they’re successful, the company’s just changed the rules to. They say, Oh, you need higher and higher threshold.

Kate Chess:18:48Yeah. So

Daniel Fireside:18:50I, I love those groups that are doing that, but it’s a real myth that, that is democracy and that it’s possible. And then the other sort of myth that everyone believes so much that it’s basically become true is that the only focus accompany can legally have is to increase its profits for shareholders. And there, there’s a great writer who just passed away recently. She was a law professor at Cornell Lynn Stout who, uh, wrote some. She looked into that and said it’s a myth. Actually. Case Law doesn’t back it up. Uh, companies have great discretion in terms of what they consider their longterm, uh, a greater good. You know, they can say, no, we’re not going to maximize profits this quarter because we’re thinking in the next 10 years or something. But the reality is people have bought into that so much that they just say, whenever a company faces a dilemma, where on one side is making more money and the other side is any kind of social good, you have to go with the money. And so we say, look, we’re not going to be pressured by shareholders. Ben and Jerry’s was forced to sell out because shareholders were saying, uh, if you don’t sell to Unilever, we’re going, sue you. Other companies have seen that and they’ve just, they’ve capitulated without even a fight. Uh, we said we’re writing it into our bylaws were making sure nobody invests with any thought that we’re ever going to sell. We basically created a rule that said, if we ever sold, we have to give all the profits away.

Kate Chess:20:24Do you have to set this up from the start? When you’re, when you’re starting a business, do you think that companies that have this kind of motivation can transition to a similar structure?

Daniel Fireside:20:35It’s tricky. It’s definitely easier before there’s piles of money on the table. Everybody always, you know, easier to be generous. You don’t have anyone, you don’t have any money there. Uh, and then change as everybody knows when there’s piles of money. Wait a second. I worked hard for that. Um, should be up to me. I came up with the idea. So I always advise people, set up the rules before you’re profitable, set up to the game plan, you know, and you can set a different ways. A solar company in Colorado, namaste solar that, that I helped convert to being a co op. They said if they ever sold a part of the money has to be given away. Part of it has to go back to the outside shareholders. Part of it goes back to the workers in the company. Uh, you, you can, you know, we’re the more extreme version. We said 100 percent of the assets have to be given away. I think as long as you put some roadblocks in there, that just takes away that incentive and it doesn’t depend on people being good. The other thing is, if you’ve taken some of that early, you know, it’s a fallen angel money, let’s call it. They often write in, um, uh, protections for them against you, changing the rules. So be careful with that money. We actually just a w we have, you know, a great story where there was one point when we were about to get into coffee roasting. We used to outsource everything and we want, wanted to ramp up the business. We needed some big infusions of cash to be able to, to go into roasting and, and expand on our own. And one of these self-styled social investors came up and said, well, you’ve been doing all this great hippie stuff for so long and that’s fine, but now you’re talking real money. You want my big investment, a quarter million dollars a, I need a special sheriff, a special class of stock where I get a special return. Uh, I’m protected from any losses and I want to see it on the board. And he was just changing the whole roles. And I know it was before my time, but I saw the document and I’ve talked a lot of people who are around. When that offer came through and there was a lot of people were like, well, is this what we’re supposed to do? We need to grow. This is our big shot. And I saw some, some other letters that went when they were passing it around that said, you know, it’s because of people like this that I got out of Wall Street and they use a little more colorful language than that. I’m sorry, who were the letters? Friends? Well, they were from advisors that we had internal people who, you know, the founders and the board. Whereas like you know, we don’t know is this what you’re supposed to do when you get to a certain scale? And so we asked them some, some more wiser financial hands and they said, these are the terms that will under your business if you take this money, you’ve, you might succeed financially but you’ll have failed and all your other goals. And that was really one of the missions of the company was to show you could succeed in a different path. And here’s what happened. It took us a lot longer. We could have, we could be a much bigger company. We could have grown a lot faster if we had just cut all the corners and taken that quick money and cut all the social stuff. But we decided that doesn’t prove anything that, that we ended up being the idiot who made money in coffee. And so we took the harder road and here we are over $70,000,000. We’ve been profitable for almost our entire history. We’re doing right by everybody. And we have over $17,000,000 in outside investment. We have millions of dollars in loans from alternative lenders and everybody, you know, if, if we started returning crazy returns, 10 percent returns, our investors would go, wait, this is too much money. Who are you shortchanging who you’re exploiting like that. We’ve built up this whole community and now these people are out there. They’re like, what else is out there? Whereas the next Equal Exchange. So that’s really exciting. Now we have companies coming to us saying, how can we copy your model? It’s taken awhile to be an overnight success, but 30 years. But, um, I, I think, you know, the, the Wall Street crash 10 years ago was really a big turning point because people used to think, oh, you guys, I don’t know, how are you a charity? Are you a business? I can’t quite figure it out and, but you know, my smart money goes in Wall Street and goes into my 401k into. I’ll close my eyes. I don’t know how that money’s made. Well, what happens, you know, 2007, 2008. The whole system collapses. People’s portfolios disappear. Uh, the bastards on Wall Street and made out like bandits anyway. And we kept chugging out, our little five percent returns it because it was based in our actual sales and our profits and how we were treating everybody. And people were like, oh my God, this is a real thing. I was able to send my kids to college because you guys. And uh, I think that woke up a lot of people that actually the system really is rigged and we are building something much more sustainable that is built for the long term and is built for all the stakeholders.

Kate Chess:25:43In a way you can actually appeal to people’s self interests because this can be, like you said, more sustainable and a steadier way to.

Daniel Fireside:25:50Yeah, I mean, I think, look, people need to save money. People need to invest, then they need to park there. They’re extra money and earn some kind of return that beats inflation for future longterm goals, retirement, college houses. Uh, I, that’s how our system is built. We don’t have a real effect of safety net in this country. So, um, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to do that, that’s reasonable. It’s reasonable for equal change to be using other people’s money to help build our business and to pay a cost for that. But that shouldn’t be the focus of the entire economy of just turning money into more money and not paying attention about all the costs that are passed off onto people and the planet that can least afford it.

Kate Chess:26:41Now, that Equal Exchange has become at long last and overnight success. What I mean you, you were talking about how people approach you and they, they ask you where else can I invest? Or they ask you, how can my business use this model? Do you have answers for those questions?

Daniel Fireside:26:58It’s tricky because a lot of the securities law, it’s still built around a treating every company that wants to reach out to the general public as potential crooks and every person who isn’t a millionaire as some dupe waiting to be ripped off and you know, and a certain level, that’s great because there are a lot of crooks out there and a lot of people who could get ripped off, but you know, they don’t mind if you go to the casino or spend all your money on the parable. So there needs to be some sort of a middle ground and you know, whenever we offer stocks, so the company I would work with, there’s full disclosure that all the financials, we’re not guaranteeing anybody anything. We’re saying this is the risk, you know, it’s like when you look at your lottery ticket and here are the odds. Okay? Um, you know, we can also say, look, besides even if you didn’t make money, here’s all the good things that you’ve accomplished with this investment. And we’ve tried really hard and an equal. We actually, the workers in the company put half of our profit sharing or patronage into back invested into the company, so we have a lot of money tied up. So the problem is a, it’s very hard to. You can’t just slap labels on your products and say, hey, invest in us. There’s restrictions and, and roadblocks. Some of them are coming down. The hard truth is you have to do a little homework. You have to research, you have to talk to the companies that you’re really like. You have to sort of network. You have to.

Kate Chess:28:29You’re saying as an investor, you’d recommend talking to companies that you think are doing good.

Daniel Fireside:28:32Yeah. And you know, talk to me, talk to other places, talk to your local food co op. Um, you know, like it would be nice if you could just go down the supermarket and look at the labels and go, oh, these are the good guys or bad guys. Here’s the easy thing to do. I fill up my shopping cart and what we’ve learned. The sad truth is the labels only went so far that you can say anything on your package. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t some really great companies out there like Equal Exchange, but you got to do some digging, um, to, to really learn about it. So

Kate Chess:29:04yeah, same thing with this analogy, with this investing stuff.

Daniel Fireside:29:08You know, what the hard part is, you got to do some research, you got to dig in, really look at what the companies are talking about, what are the terms say what happens if you succeed or you going to sell out to big whatever, you know. Um, and if they say no, then that’s a really good sign.

Kate Chess:29:27Yeah. So, um, companies that, it seems like it would be difficult to distinguish as an investor between companies that are genuinely, that have built protections the way that Equal Exchange has that are still doing good and companies that are sort of now owned by someone else and not like that at all. Uh, is it easy to distinguish if you, if you’re willing to put in the time and do the research?

Daniel Fireside:29:53Well, cooperatives are a great start and you know, I’m out there working with cooperatives all the time when you to say, hey, you don’t have to. If you don’t, if you want to stay small, that’s great, but if you want to get bigger and you need to raise capital, follow our model because you’re not giving up control and you’re signaling to people out there that are really hungry for this kind of stuff. I would say in the public stock markets, the publicly traded stocks, you’re going to be really hard pressed to find anything that is really good. If you. Even if you look at these socially responsible mutual funds, so called look at what they’re actually investing in and nine times out of 10 it’s Microsoft and apple and comcast and they pick one bad thing. We don’t do that, but that doesn’t mean we’re not doing all these other bad things. So it’s, it’s really frustrating because that, that people want to do good and there’s a lot of money in those funds, but they’re, they’re just not quite doing what you want. So, you know, a lot of cooperators are starting to go out there and raised in this way. Um, these direct public offerings actually you can advertise in your own state, you can open it up to people who are not millionaires and if other bigger companies are following our model, there’s always space for, for average investors as well. Uh, there’s also a couple of loan funds that kind of do it for you. So the cooperative funding New England is one where you can put money in with them, they pay you a return on it and then they loan the money out to cooperatives all throughout the Northeast. There’s a, the impact capital cooperative and uh, the Midwest and they lend all over the place. The same thing also RSF social finance. They have our mortgage and you can put money in with them. They’ll pay a return and then they loan money out to really cool businesses. One other is a calvert social impact. They, they created a fund with us, a special program where you can put in as little as $20 or many thousands if you want and direct that that money backs Equal Exchange and they will loan all of the money that’s directed that way to Equal Exchange for us to help with our coffee buying. Um, they, they take a little, make a little profit on the difference between what they’re paying out in interest and what they’re charging us. But it’s really very minimal. They want to open this stuff up. And so these loan funds are one way to sort of consolidate these things. If you want to go deeper. It’s really about building relationships. We don’t necessarily want money from people who don’t know about us and are just saying five percent and I don’t have to worry about it. No, that’s not the deal. We want, we love the investors who, you know, sell our coffee, their church or synagogue basement who, uh, by our chocolate for all their family. Or we had one guy up in Vermont who bought a, one of our bulk bags of minis, you know, 888 pieces and gave it away to everybody in the neighborhood to give out to trick or treaters. So those are what we call committed participants. People who are really in it, they get excited and we feel good about paying interest and dividends to those folks because we know that they’re putting their money back into the same things that, that we believe in.

Kate Chess:33:17What I’m getting out of this is that there’s no shortcuts that work. There’s no easy way out whether you’re a company or whether you’re an individual is looking to invest. You sort of, you can’t get around informing yourself and thinking about eventualities and even protecting yourself from yourself in the future.

Daniel Fireside:33:35Not Shortcuts, uh, you know, equal. We make, I sort of think of us just having a lot of planned to inefficiencies. And that’s, that’s where our strength is. We don’t run our coffee roasters 24 slash seven in part because it’s really not good for people to be working in the middle of the night.

Kate Chess:33:50Do some people do that?

Daniel Fireside:33:51Sure. You know, um, and, and some efficiency expert would probably tell us, you know, we’re wasting all this capacity, but we’d also have a ghost workforce that would never be able to participate in our meetings. We shut the whole company down when we have all company meetings. We shut the cafe down. We, um, we say, you know, what, we’d rather lose some money, lose some profits, and pay people to not be working to help actually be co owners and run the company and sit and collectively make really important decisions. So often the things that are, you know, like many things in life that the best ones take a little more effort and time. Um, but that’s, that’s how we’re going to change thing is yeah, there is no quick fix, but there are longer fixes that are really much more satisfying.

Kate Chess:34:42It’s nice to know that people are out there looking for that.

Daniel Fireside:34:44Oh, I see a huge potential for this. I, I talked to investors all the time. I mean, and I see all these people putting their money into these socially responsible mutual funds and they’re not getting what they think they’re getting, but they want that. I see all these companies that are trying to do really wonderful things there, you know, have this crazy entrepreneurial spirit they’re seeing, hey, what if we just sold this product and got this stuff from here and we could help all these people that’s, you know, this real dynamism and they’re dying to get money from investors who believe in what they believe in the. So it’s a market that needs to happen. What we’re slowly seeing are some regulation changing. We’re seeing some lawyers that you can go to that understand this. You’re seeing some financial advisors that can help people shift money with larger amounts or family foundations. Um, so I’m seeing sort of ecosystem in creation. You need all these different elements to come together at equal. We’re doing our part, uh, and it, it’s, it’s happening, it’s there. There are dozens and dozens more companies today that are following this path. And there were when I started nine years ago, so that’s exciting, but there should be, you know, I, I talked to rick about it, our co founder Co president, and he said, well why aren’t there thousands? I’m just like, oh, you’re right. Why aren’t there so that, that’s our challenge to make this the norm.

Kate Chess:36:10Very cool. Anything else that you wanted to talk about or want to say that you didn’t get a chance to?

Daniel Fireside:36:16You know, it just, if you’re thinking about starting a company or you have one with a social mission, think about carefully about how you’re getting your money. If you’re investing, think about what happens if this company is successful, is it going to sell out to big whatever and lose all of its social mission? How can we protect that from happening and still make it financially viable? If you’re supporting companies, find the ones that are doing the harder thing and figure out how to support them and buy their stuff, even if it’s maybe a nickel more than than the product next to it. If we want these kinds of changes, we have to think strategically about having different outcomes and you know, we’re, we’re the proof that it can happen.

Kate Chess:37:00All good things to keep in mind. We want to thank you again for joining us today. Daniel.

Daniel Fireside:37:05Thanks for having me.

Kate Chess:37:06Yeah, thanks.

Daniel Fireside:37:07It’s really helpful to have you break all that down and it sounds like you do have one more message for our listeners.

Daniel Fireside:37:12Well, our lawyers say that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that all the descriptions of the company performance and the securities that we’ve offered and how they’ve done all relate to the past. As we know, past performance is no guarantee of future results. We’re not offering any stock at the moment. If we were, there would be all sorts of, uh, extensive disclosures. So don’t make any financial decisions based on a quick podcast or radio description.

Kate Chess:37:43Thanks for listening to the stories behind our food, a podcast by Equal Exchange inc. A worker owned cooperative. Loved this episode. Please subscribe, rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit Equal Exchange.coop to join the conversation. Purchase products. And learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode was produced by Equal Exchange with hosts, Kate Chess and danielle rabickow. Sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the stories behind our food.

Podcast Episode 1: Back to the Food Co-op

We’re excited to announce that Equal Exchange has a new storytelling podcast, The Stories Behind Our Food! Here’s the first episode.


You can hear #StoriesBehindOurFood on:

Stitcher (on both Apple and Android.)

Apple Podcasts (Apple devices only.)

Google Podcasts (Android devices only.)

Spotify

or wherever you enjoy online audio!


Did you like this episode? Please consider subscribing to The Stories Behind Our Food and leaving a review. It means the world to us!


Episode Transcript

Danielle:0:17I’m here to introduce the new Equal Exchange podcast, The Stories Behind Our Food. My name is Danielle Robidoux and I’m here with my co-host Kate Chess.

Kate:0:29Hello!

Danielle:0:29I’m also here with Susan Sklar, who’s been a worker owner, at Equal Exchange this year for 15 years.

Susan:0:34Hi!

Danielle:0:34And she will be talking about her personal experience with the cooperative movement from when she grew up, all the way to now

Kate:0:47— focusing on the groovy seventies!

Susan:0:49Indeed, indeed.

Kate:0:54All right. Susan, where did you grow up? Where and when? And what was your experience of food?

Susan:1:00I grew up in a very, um, kind of conformist time when it, when it comes to food, when it came to food and I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a pretty conservative area. And in my city, the ethnic food consisted of Italian food and Chinese food at the local Chinese restaurant that was pretty, um, pretty bad. I had had the floppy chow mein and all that stuff. Um, so food was, it was very, um, a rigid that world. And in addition to that, my mom really didn’t love to cook. Um, so, you know, she would make frozen vegetables, frozen peas and carrots. Um, we had iceberg lettuce salad with Russian dressing and all of that stuff. So when I went to college I started at University of Pittsburgh in 1972 and at that time I met someone who was a boyfriend who was older than I was and who introduced me to the wonderful world of food co ops. And it was totally revolutionary for me. I did not know about things like brown rice granola. I had heard about those things, but, um, I was a pretty mainstream kind of eater and I’m again, and I didn’t cook very much at all. So that was, those were my origins. Yeah.

Kate:2:57What was going to the food co op like to a grocery store of the time?

Susan:3:01Oh, it was like night and day. It was totally different. Um, the whole shopping experience was um, you know, these kind of gleaming aisles full of boxes and cans. I mean, we still have that today, but there really were not that many fresh vegetables or there were no natural foods back then. So, um, it was pretty sterile I would say, and I hardly ever went to the supermarket Spec then. So, um, when I went to this co-op in Pittsburgh for the first time, it was magical because it was really like going back in time, it was old fashioned looking within a storefront and had a wooden floors and all kinds of foods that I had never seen before. There was arrowroot powder in little bags. There was burdock root, there was fresh ginger. It was crazy. Um, I just had never really encountered foods like this before, so it really rocked my world in terms of the types of food that were out there. And um, I also began to meet different types of people who were very, very interested in where food came from. And um, were interested in small farmers, um, you know, and um, local farmers — things I had hardly ever thought about. I think the only time I had ever thought about those things was when I — there was a big farmer’s market in the summer in Scranton and I used to go once a year with my mother and see all the fresh peppers and um, you know, various types of eggplants and various types of vegetables and would get very excited by that, that, but that was once a year. So here was a store that was really focused on food. People were participating, there were all these new kinds of foods. There was all this, these discussions going on about whole foods and natural foods and organic foods, something that I hadn’t heard about at all. And it was really pretty riveting.

Kate:5:11How would you characterize the other people who shopped at the Co op?

Susan:5:16They were different than people I hadn’t encountered before. Um, first of all, it definitely a lot of women, more women were involved, um, which, you know, usually when you would go into a supermarket or just about any type of business in those days. Men were in charge. Um, things have definitely changed since then. But um, in 1972, it was really refreshing to see a lot of women taking leadership roles. Calling meetings, running the co op, um, and making decisions. So that was also revolutionary and um, it was eye opening for me. It really, really changed my world.

Kate:5:59You’re talking about other people taking part where there rules for this co op who could be a member who could shop there?

Susan:6:06Yeah. This was um, in the old days of Co ops you had to join you how to become a member, so you paid your dues and you also had to work. So you had to bag rasins, you had to bag nuts, you have to put it. I don’t remember how many hours it was, but you really had to work there. There was no opting out and in so doing, you really got to know the other people who work there and you got to know their styles and there were definitely lots of rules about how to do things. Um, but it was very community oriented and you know, you did have those interesting conversations with people while you were working. So, um, it was very, very interesting. It was much more, it felt more participatory, more democratic, and even me as a new person who was, I’m pretty ignorant about a lot of the new foods that people were starting to eat and think about and this whole natural food movement, people cared about what I thought and that was interesting to me too, that um, you know, I could be part of this and you know, there were meetings, there were all sorts of discussions about what kinds of food to bring in and it felt very, very different than the world that I had been part of in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Kate:7:30Yeah, definitely. Do you feel like there was a learning curve for you at all or like you were this person, you’d been eating iceberg lettuce and now you’re exposed to burdock root were you an immediate convert or … what was that like?

Susan:7:44No, it wasn’t an immediate convert, you know, I was 18 and there are many, many years of um, um, conformist eating that had taken place. But, um, I, I would, I started experimenting and actually, um, I had, I was part of the food plan at the University of Pittsburgh. That’s where I was going to school and I would go in and see all of this really, you know, institutional food and didn’t like it very much. So I started actually cooking, um, at the end of my, um, dormitory there was one little room with a stove and I just started cooking brown rice and cooking fresh vegetables and sustaining things, eating Tofu, um, and actually I became a vegetarian, um, during those years. And so I started experimenting, but you know, when you’re going to school for the first time was the first time I was living away from home. Um, you know, there’s all these new things hitting you, so I just didn’t have that much time to devote to planning meals and cooking and um, and all of that and working at the food co op. But it happened gradually, but it really, you know, there was a seed planted and it really started growing from that point and it really, it really changed who I was. So it’s very, very important for me.

Kate:9:09Were the work shifts you talked about always fun or where are they ever kind of a drag? Was there any drama? You’re describing a perfect utopia!

Susan:9:17It was no, no, it was, it was not utopia and there were, there were still people with disagreements and different ways of doing things, but um, it was just nice to be able to talk to people openly and to, um, for, for there not to be as much of a hierarchy as I saw in other places. Um, I remember a conversation which I thought, which I still think back to, um, which was pretty humorous, which was um, a group of, there was a meeting called to talk about whether we should thank people who shopped at the co op. So when somebody, if you were a cashier and you were taking a turn as a cashier rather than bagging something, um, should you actually thank the person who shop there because it was their co op too and why should you be thianking them for shopping at the co op? So we had a very earnest, serious conversation. Everybody was really very, very intense about this, talking about whether to thank someone when they shopped and they know they were checking out at the co op. So I think at the time I was definitely, I don’t know if I was smiling during the meeting, but I was smiling to myself because I thought, wow, this is intense.

Kate:10:36What was the role of the consumer? This cooperative — you’re talking about people, they don’t need to be thanked because they have ownership too. Can you talk about that?

Susan:10:46Yeah. Um, I mean you couldn’t buy natural foods, organic foods anywhere at the time in the seventies. There were some small natural food stores opening up that were, they were called health food stores, but really if you wanted to start thinking about and start using this kind of food, you had to go to a coffee shop, which is what made them so, um, interesting at the time. And so people would come and they would be looking for certain things, you know, they, maybe they were just becoming vegetarians and they were looking for non meat alternatives and they would ask for things. And there were, there was a bulletin board and so you could put up what you were looking for and you could ask for the people who were ordering things to order certain types of foods. I mean, this is all something that now we’re more used to at this point, but back then it was, it was quite different.

Kate:11:40Yeah, it’s interesting. My experience at co ops today is that not everyone who shops at them as necessarily an owner or a member. So I think of the person ringing people up and the customer is being a different category. But you’re saying literally every single person who shopped there was also a member. Is that correct?

Susan:12:00At that time? That was true. And I think today there’s a mixture. I mean, I think most co ops who have gone the way of you can just pay your dues. You don’t have to work. Um, and because people are so busy and people don’t, don’t, um, participate, um, directly with work shifts. But, um, there was something very, very nice about that. And there was a deeper connection between people and their food and people participating in this store. And people thinking more about farmers and people coming up with suggestions about where to get food. Um, and that again, that was very democratic because people could make different kinds of choices and could influence the whole shopping scene.

Danielle:12:57Susan, can you talk a little bit more about the culture of democracy within the cooperative and was there a voting structure? Um, did people get voted in as a consumer, as a part of the cooperative or…?

Susan:13:09No, there was, there was no, um, there was a voting in um, because it was, again, it was very open. It was inclusive. So if you were in the community and you wanted to be part of this endeavor, you could be part of it. So yes, there were definitely meetings, meetings about how long to work and when to work and scheduling. And um, there were definitely, you know, managers, um, when people who coordinated different things, um, but it, yeah, people were involved, they were welcomed in and um, they didn’t have to be voted in.

Danielle:13:57What are your thoughts on kind of the evolution of that from your experience in your food cooperative and kind of the experiences that are typical of someone who is part of a consumer cooperative now? And what are your thoughts on that?

Susan:14:14Yeah, I mean, again, we’re all so busy. We’re running around, you know, we’re texting and we’re doing so many — trying to do so many different things and we’re commuting and um, there’s not a lot of time. So people have opted out of that direct participation and um, I think there’s, there’s something that’s lost with that. It becomes much more of a, uh, just your basic shopping experience. So when I moved to Providence, like over 20 years ago, um, I guess the last food co ops, and this is Providence, Rhode Island, had they had, they had just ended and so we were stuck shopping as you know, regular old supermarkets. Um, it was really hard to get natural foods and I, I’m, I’m no longer a vegetarian, but it turns out my daughter is now a vegetarian and um, it was hard to get those special foods that she, she liked to eat and then also that we’d like to eat. So, um, you know, it was hard to find those foods and we were actually quite pleased when — at least I was — when Whole Foods moved into the area and it was like eight blocks from our house because it was very, very convenient to go there.

Kate:15:35When was this?

Susan:15:35That Whole Foods moved in, I would say probably about 10 years ago. Um, you know, so then you could get all the specialty seitan and all the, you know —

Kate:15:47Hail seitan!

Susan:15:49Yep. All the specialty items, um, and nuts, um, that you were looking for and all the frozen natural foods, you know, all that stuff. So all that was all. That was great. But it didn’t really replace a food co op because it was more like a big, you know, grocery store. I can, I guess the main thing that was, I mean, in addition to having natural foods and organic foods, the main thing that was really different is as soon as you walked through the door, you were hit with the big fruit and Veggie section, you know, all those beautiful stacked fruits and veggies. So that was, that was, um, very nice. But, um, you know, it’s expensive shopping there. And um, and then over the years I began to notice that Whole Foods was replacing a lot of the brands and the smaller brands with their own brand, the 365 brand and they were working with economy of scale and just producing these cheaper products that actually shut other people out. Um, so that was distressing. And um, I think for me, you know, I turned a corner when Amazon bought Whole Foods just recently and it really started to have a much more corporate feel and for me it feels like, um, Amazon is taking over the world and that people are not going to have that direct connection with their food the way they used to in co-ops. But the good news is that for about 10 years, people in Providence have been working on putting together a new co op, a new food co op, and, and after many years and after thinking that it was never going to happen, um, it’s actually opening up this November, so I’m very about that. Um, I became an investor, um, and as soon as they open up in November, I am totally leaving Amazon-Whole Foods and switching over to, um, to the new co op. So I’m very, very happy to be getting back to my roots.

Kate:18:08Yeah, that’s good news. Should I talk about cost, now just a little bit? I know Whole Foods people call it Whole Paycheck. It’s got this reputation as this elite, expensive store, which it deserves. A lot of things are priced high there. Uh, but people that reputation carries over to the co ops that exists today. I think. I feel like a lot of folks think of co ops is elite and expensive. Was that your experience at this co op and Pittsburgh?

Susan:18:34No, I mean it was just the opposite actually. I think one of the reasons that food co ops were formed was to, um, cut down on expenses and encourage people to buy things in bulk, actually cut down on packaging, you know, to, you know, for environmental reasons. People came with their jars and their cloth bags to carry things home in a, you were encouraged not to use paper bags or not to use plastic but grocery bags. So, um, it was something very, um, economic about shopping at co-ops. I think that some of the cops today have to jack their prices up and that’s unfortunate. I really don’t know what it’s gonna look like at the this new co op. But um, yeah, they kind of have, um, generated this image of elitism and I think that’s really not how they started. They were really a store for, for people. Um, they were like buying clubs in the beginning and um, so I think there’s some part of the population that is moving back towards buying clubs, um, and trying to buy things more economically and trying to make choices about purchasing organic food and local food. And I think that partly comes from a food consolidation that’s going on out there. There’s, um, all of these large corporations that are buying up smaller brands and changing the ingredients, eliminating them, jacking up the prices again. Uh, so I think it’s interesting. I feel like we’re moving back to the time of people thinking about these issues again, from an environmental point of view and from an economical point of view and even from a community point of view and trying to get more of a sense of connection with other people.

Danielle:20:37What’s been your involvement in the new food cooperative in Providence and what kind of structure are they taking on? Is it that you buy into the providence cooperative and do you have to put in the hours or work at all to be a part of it or…?

Susan:20:53So because I’m one of those extremely busy people that commutes to work and actually work at Equal Exchange, which is a cooperative. Um, and I’m super busy. I have not. And also I was also one of the people who lost hope that the cop was actually going to be built there because it takes so long. I haven’t been that involved. I was approached. I actually called them and told them I wanted more information. Then I was approached and asked to be an investor and I became one and actually somebody here at Equal Exchange who works here is on the board and so I keep asking that person what’s going on for updates, but I am not really as informed as I should be. However, I’m going to get involved! Much more involved as soon as I can switch over and there’s a place for me to buy food and I can start planning on what I’m going to buy and start stocking up. I will know more. But right now I don’t know that know that much.

Kate:21:48That’s fair. Yeah. I think it’s interesting. I’ve heard that the Park Slope Food Co op in New York still requires members to work and that’s become less common. All members at Park Slope have to work and that itself seems to me sort of democratic because whether you’re an investment banker or a, you know, a dog walker, you have to put it in the same hours, your time, even though you may feel like your time is more valuable than someone else’s, you have to put in x hours per week in order to maintain your membership at the Co op.

Susan:22:22Yeah. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I, I do feel like there are people who have incredible time constraints on them. Um, and they shouldn’t be allowed to maybe pay a, a fee, a big fee and not have to work directly. I think that might shut a lot of people out, particularly people with families and with, with young children.

Kate:22:46Right. In fact, low-income people, people working multiple jobs maybe don’t have time to ever go to the co op.

Susan:22:52Exactly. Exactly. So I think there is, but then again, if you’re low income, you’re not going to be able to pay a big fee to become a member of the co op. So, I mean, that might argue for some sort of sliding scale, um, membership as well, and that’s something if you’re part of the Co op you can talk about with other people and you can advocate for it because there’s room for people to talk to each other, which is very much the point. Yeah. So, you know, it’s, it’s no accident that I moved from the world of food co ops, um, to housing co ops. I lived in houses over the years and participated in meetings and shared the cooking. And then, um, I ended up working at Equal Exchange, which is a cooperative and we meet and we vote on things like change of location, change of production, we vote new members in. We have a much less hierarchical style here. And um, that’s part of who I am. It’s actually an essential part of who I am. And it all started with the Semple Street food co op in Pittsburgh.

Kate:24:06Do you think that’s a personality thing or do you think that you developed a set of skills or a set of interests because of this?

Susan:24:15I think I was influenced by the Co op movement because I came from a pretty, I came from a nuclear family, Jewish American nuclear family, pretty standard, pretty top down now with my father being the picture and all of that. Um, and my mother being the cook, she cooked every meal and no, this really influenced me a lot. I mean, you could also say that it was part of the seventies too. There was a whole alternative lifestyle being developed. People were changing, people were acting different, people were exploring different ways of interacting and being democratic and I’m buying things and eating their food and, and, you know, politics. Um, so I think I was influenced by everything that was going on in the seventies and I think the food co ops, we’re part of that. Um, and it was just a different way of interacting with people and the world. And after living in the nuclear family for 18 years, I was ready for that. I really, really liked it. I have to say probably to the feminist movement was part of that as well because I was pretty traditional. Good little girl. And so it just allowed me to branch out more, do more things, take more leadership roles, and um, have more fun.

Kate:25:41Is the world moving in that direction in your opinion since the seventies or has there been a sort of backswing? How can we get that feeling back?

Susan:25:49That’s a great question. I do think with the over corporatization of the world and you know, it’s all just living in these very tight bottom line types of structures, living with them. Um, there is a move back to getting more of a sense of community being more directly involved. Um, even, you know, in, in politics with the Bernie Sanders campaign, people getting much more involved in directly engaged. Um, it is almost a, I think a reaction and it’s really frightening when you look at all the, you know, in terms of food and frightening in many ways, but when you look at food, um, and you just see that there are no pen, large mega companies that own all the small brands and are controlling what we eat and how it’s sold. Um, it doesn’t give you that warm fuzzy feeling. I think that it’s great that people are getting more involved and I’m not, I don’t think it’s everybody, but I do think there is some movement in that direction and I’m really happy about that.

Kate:27:12Thanks for taking the time to talk to us and taking us back somewhere we haven’t been. We hope that the Providence Co op, this everything you hope it will be in that you can take an active part in.

Susan:27:23Thank you very much. This. This was great. Thanks for having me.

Who Grows Your Chocolate? An Update

You probably already know that cacao is the crop from which cocoa and chocolate are made. West African countries like Ghana and Côte d’Ivôire produce most of the world’s cacao. Starting a few years ago, labor abuses in West Africa began to get international attention. You may have heard about poverty wages, unsafe working conditions, the worst forms of child labor and even modern-day slavery. You may have heard that farming practices that damage the environment were common, too. But what’s going on with that now? Have things gotten any better? Let’s take a look at the current state of affairs in the chocolate industry, and what you can do to help.

 

Shop Fair Trade Chocolate Now >>

 

A split cacao pod. Chocolate is made from the dried and fermented seeds of this plant.

Taking the Measure of the Cacao Industry

Every two years, a global consortium of organizations, including Green America, the International Labor Rights Forum and Oxfam, publishes a report called The Cocoa Barometer.  Though minor progress has been made in the industry in recent years, the 2018 Cocoa Barometer doesn’t show much good news on the horizon for cacao farmers. As the executive summary puts it, “If business as usual continues, it will be decades – if ever – before human rights will be respected and environmental protection will be a basis for sustainability in the [cacao] sector.”

Here are some of the biggest challenges:

The price of the crop is currently low and unstable.

Between September 2016 and February 2017, the price of cocoa cratered, dropping from around $3,000 per ton to below $1,900 per ton. Smallholder farmers are most vulnerable to price drops and, without a guaranteed minimum price, they bear all the risks of a volatile market. They can’t afford it! A report by Fairtrade International calculates that farmers in Côte d’Ivôire earn an average income of just $0.78 per day. That’s 37% of what’s considered a living income in rural Côte d’Ivôire.

A map of the countries of West Africa
Map of West Africa by Peter Fitzgerald.

Cocoa still exploits children.

Though growing and harvesting cacao can be hazardous for anyone, the report estimates that in West Africa alone, over 2.1 million children currently perform this work. The 2018 Barometer reports that “not a single company or government is anywhere near reaching the sector-wide objective of the elimination of child labour, and not even near their commitments of a 70% reduction of child labour by 2020.” In fact, the number of young workers has risen in recent years. The report notes that because child labor “is a symptom of deeper problems, it will not be eradicated without tackling systemic poverty.”

Some workers don’t get paid at all.

Financial insecurity can exacerbate the worst form of child labor — slavery. Green America reports that sometimes, farming families “are in such dire means of desperation for the money companies contracted by the chocolate industry promise, that they sell their own children into the illegal and inhumane child labor industry.” The Food Empowerment Project cites Abby Mills, Campaign Director of the International Labor Rights Forum, who says “every research study ever conducted in [Western Africa] shows that there is human trafficking going on, particularly in the Ivory Coast.”

Cacao farming contributes to deforestation in West Africa.

Historically, cacao has been a slash-and-burn crop. But global cacao production has increased fourfold since 1960 and now, more than ninety per cent of the region’s original forests have been destroyed. The Barometer attributes this damage to a combination of “corporate disinterest in the environmental effects of the supply of cheap cocoa, and to an almost completely absent government enforcement of environmentally protected areas.”

 

Individual Decisions Matter

These problems are hard to tackle — and big corporations aren’t doing enough. The Hershey Company, Kraft Foods, Mars Incorporated and Nestle signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol in 2001, showing they were aware of the problem and resolving to take action. But as the continued rise of child labor in the cocoa industry shows, the Protocol has failed.

What can we do, as individuals? Here are some suggestions for disrupting the “business as usual” attitude that the Cocoa Barometer talks about.

You can tell your friends about what’s happening in the West African chocolate industry. Show them the 2018 Cocoa Barometer or Equal Exchange’s Chocolate Infographic.

You can let big companies know that you care about this issue and that you’re paying attention to how they handle it! Write to Harkin-Engel Protocol signatories, or tag them on social media. These big players need to hear from customers that abusive practices aren’t acceptable, so that they have motivation to change their systems.

You can opt out of chocolate produced by the worst forms of child labor and forced labor. Eat less  chocolate or — even better — switch to fair trade chocolate that’s traceable, so you can feel confident about the conditions under which it was produced. Find out which brands are rated highly on Green America’s Chocolate Scorecard.

A man and a woman proudly display cacao pods, from which organic chocolate is made.
Ramon Mosquea and Glenys Rosario are members of CONACADO, one of Equal Exchange’s partner co-ops in the Dominican Republic.

What about Equal Exchange Chocolate?

We currently source 100% of our cacao from Latin America.  We work only with democratically organized groups that are part of the fair trade system and have the vision of improving the lives of farmers and their communities. We visit our partners, with whom we’ve established personal relationships. They are not slaves or children working in inhumane conditions — they’re smallholder farmers who are proud of their work and want to sell organic cacao for delicious chocolate through a fair system. The fair trade minimum price Equal Exchange guarantees and the advance credit our partners receive helps them weather the ups and downs of the market, improve their farming practices, and plan for their families’ futures.

And you’re among the first to know about an exciting new development! Our Chocolate Team wants to share the following BREAKING NEWS:

Equal Exchange is committed to supporting authentic, transparent and democratically structured supply chains worldwide. In the context of abuses in West Africa, we have connected with a group that is working hard to create an alternative. This year we have begun a relationship with a fair trade cacao cooperative in Togo, in West Africa, and we look forward to using their beans in our products beginning as soon as Spring 2019.

Chocolate shouldn’t be cheap. It should be fairly produced, and delicious!

 

Members of the ACOPAGRO co-op in Peru and their children pose with cacao pods.

 

Why not browse Equal Exchange’s selection of  Fairly Traded and Organic Chocolate!

Or sign up to receive more content like this in your inbox!

By providing Equal Exchange with your email, you’re giving us permission to communicate with you electronically. Read our Privacy Policy for more details.


Resources:

Cocoa Barometer 2018 by the Barometer Consortium.

Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry” by The Food Empowerment Project.

 

USAID Grants and the Democracy of Information

We recently interviewed Cristina Liberati, who administers grants that support farmer cooperatives in Latin America as they improve their quality, productivity, and financial stability. Because of this project, small-scale cacao producers in rural areas can taste samples of the product they grow and assess its quality. This democratization of knowledge makes it possible for farmers to participate fully in a global market! Read the interview below to learn about how Cristina got her start in the chocolate industry, the unexpected spicy perks of international travel, and her hopes for the future of fair trade.

 

Sharing Knowledge is Good Business

Q: Hello, Cristina! What is your position at Equal Exchange?

A: My position title is the Grant Projects Manager. Grant projects have been a part of Equal Exchange’s past for some time, but starting in around 2010, Equal Exchange partnered with another chocolate company, called TCHO Chocolate, in San Francisco, to apply for a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), so those are funds from the US government that are used to support projects in developing countries. And this is a multimillion dollar grant and has involved four countries in the last seven years — Peru, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Ecuador — and as a result of its scope and size, it’s the largest grant project that Equal Exchange has ever done.

Q: You get paid by Equal Exchange, but your work is in this sort of development realm, non-profit, aid work. Is that correct?

A: It’s a complicated question. I am a worker-owner at Equal Exchange, but for any time I spend on the grant, we actually get reimbursed by USAID.

Q: What value do you think this work has to Equal Exchange’s business?

A: Equal Exchange is a funny company in that we are a for-profit business with a social mission, and there are benefits to doing this kind of work that are not quantifiable — you can’t say “oh, well our sales tripled because we did a project in the Dominican Republic with a cacao cooperative.” But there are specific activities that we’ve done that do contribute to our commercial activities, such as improving the quality of coffee and cacao coming from particular groups, which is a clear connection to our being able to provide higher quality products to our customers. We purchase organic, and it is a major challenge for organic farmers worldwide to produce as much raw product as their neighbors who are producing with conventional methods and chemicals, so part of our project is working with small farmers to improve their productivity. Which helps us! And, finally, we work with the co-ops to improve their financial management practices. It’s always better to have a partner who is financially and managerially stable than one who is not. And unfortunately, that’s more the exception than the norm for agricultural cooperatives.

Q: What was your job before this? Your job description, which lists all your various duties, is really overwhelming! How did you get into this, how did you prepare for it, and what else have you done?

A: Before coming to Equal Exchange, I worked for TCHO Chocolate, who we partner with on the grant. I was hired there as a tour guide of the chocolate factory, and that really helped me to learn the chocolate business from the other perspective — you know, working with consumers and also having to explain production of cacao to people who know very little about it, and learning at the same time, myself. That was a great introduction into the world of chocolate. Prior to moving to San Francisco, I did go to graduate school for International Affairs, and I have lived in Latin America and studied in Latin America for a number of years. Because that’s where we primarily carry out our grant activities, knowing the language very well and knowing the culture to a certain extent helped prepare me for this work.

Cristina Liberati (far right) with a group of Equal Exchange and CONACADO partners.

10,000+ Partners

Q: The grants cover both cacao, coffee and banana farmers. All these crops may be grown in the same regions, but they’re totally different businesses. And you’re also working with project coordinators and grant consultants. What are your relationships like with all these different kinds of people? How do you balance that?

A: It’s a fun challenge, for sure. I have regular calls with each group or consultant that we work with, and that really just helps to keep on the same page of how the activities are developing. We also through our grant program helped to organize 15 different cooperative exchanges, where we brought different representatives from the farmer groups in our project together, to share information and learn about the activities they were doing and about those crops. I think my job is unique in that I get to serve as a nexus for all that information, so if I learn about how one group is, say, for example, identifying local trees with great productivity characteristics and cataloguing them, I can share  — with their permission — what they’ve learned with another group who’s interested in the same type of activity.

Q: What about your traveling?

A: I travel about 30% of the year, and oftentimes what I’m doing is visiting with the cooperatives that are part of our project to see how the activities are playing out in person. Also, to troubleshoot any issues they might be having, because sometimes it’s hard to get people to talk about challenges and issues over the phone. It’s also great to just meet face-to-face with folks every once in a while. The other primary thing that we’re doing when we’re visiting our partners or these countries is holding workshops or the exchanges that I talked about, amongst different producers.

Q: Do you have trouble keeping people straight, just because there’s so many people?

A: Not really. I’ve been working with the same people now for almost seven years. The cooperative in the Dominican Republic has 10,000 members, so I don’t know everyone. But there are teams of people that I’ve worked with over and over. On farm visits, I try to visit farmers that I have met before and some that I haven’t. I always write a trip report, so I try to go back to my trip reports to refresh my memory of people’s names if I don’t see them or talk to them often.

Q: To what extent are you accountable to USAID? Who do you feel like is your boss and what keeps you accountable to this grant?

A: That answer is pretty simple. It’s the farmers that we’re trying to serve and that are our partners. We’ve been very lucky that USAID has been supportive of the work that we’ve done and of course, like anyone who offers you money, they want you to account for that properly and would like to hear about the outcomes of the use of that money, and I think that that’s fair. I also feel accountable to the worker-owners of EE that this is a good use of our time and resources as a cooperative. But I’ll stick with my first answer as to who I feel MOST answerable to.

Fertilizer Production and Distribution Center in Cibao, DR co-financed with the USAID Co-operative Development Program and CONACADO

Tasting Chocolate — and What That Means for Co-Ops

Q: You do some quality-control work around chocolate. Is that right?

A: Yes. If I had to say I had a specialty, chocolate would be my specialty, because I did work in a chocolate factory before I came here, and it’s the crop that I know the most about, and it has been the largest focus of the grant. I’m on the Quality Control Panel at Equal Exchange, that meets once or twice a week to make sure that our chocolate is both high-quality and food safe for customers. I’m not going to complain about having to eat chocolate for my job!

Q: Equal Exchange has worked in different capacities with producers about analyzing their own products in country so that they can keep on track of whether tweaks need to be made, or how high quality their stuff is. Can you talk about that at all?

A: Sure. Beth Ann Caspersen, who’s the Quality Manager for coffee has been doing this for many years with coffee cooperatives. I do a bit more of it with cocoa cooperatives, but the ideas are the same. The way that chocolate makers analyze a sample of cocoa beans is by making it into chocolate liquor or a solid chocolate sample, and tasting it. For almost the entirety of the history of the chocolate industry, producers have been excluded from conversations about quality analysis that chocolate makers do. Through this grant and through a partnership with TCHO, we installed laboratories that would allow them to make chocolate liquor samples. And we work together with our partners to create a standardized tasting form and tools to train people to be cocoa tasters that were never publicly available before. And what these tools have allowed our partners to do is negotiate the value of their product with their clients, based on its quality. So instead of shipping a bunch of beans to a chocolate maker and then basically receiving a price from that chocolate maker that is determined by them, the producers can say, “We’ve tasted this. We know it’s worth this. And this is the price we’d like to ask you for it.” That has been a really exciting part of what we’ve done.

 

Cristina (standing, with black shirt and glasses) celebrates with a group of cacao partners.

Innovation, Hot Peppers, and the Future of Fair Trade

Q: What cool work stories do you have to share with us?

A: Last year, we decided to create what we call the Innovation Prize Program with our USAID grant and we were offering prizes up to $50,000 to cooperatives for new and novel ideas to tackle problems they had, either in quality, productivity, or what we call capitalization and one of the cooperatives that we work with called ACOPAGRO, based out of Peru, came to us with an idea for an irrigation program. The project manager there said to me, “You know, we’ve actually had this idea for some time, but couldn’t find funding for it, and I told my colleagues: ‘you know who we should ask about this? We should ask Cristina. We should ask Equal Exchange. Because they’ll listen to us and our idea.’” That felt really good.

Q: Did they get the prize?

A: They did get a prize!

Q: Can you tell me another story?

A:  I was visiting Peru, a remote community along the riverbank of the Amazon, and the community members just had this incredible energy and were doing some wonderful things. They had formerly been coca producers for cocaine, and wanted to change from illicit crops to licit crops and were supported with growing cacao by a previous project. We went and we helped with some improvements to their fermentation area and drying area. But somehow, they found out on my first visit that I really like hot peppers. And when I came back for my second visit, they offered me a whole plate of hot peppers that they had grow specially for me to try. Which was fun, but also somewhat painful!

Q: Right, ‘cause you had to eat them all!

A: I took a few bites. I think I have a picture of that somewhere.

Q: Were they good?

A: Yeah. Oh my gosh. The food in Peru is incredible, in general. And part of it is because they know how to use those peppers!

Q: What are the lessons learned from this work?

A: I’ve seen, over the past few years, that several of our partners have had to deal with natural disasters that just seem to be more frequent and more intense every time. What I’ve learned is that the resilience of the people we work with is just truly incredible. One should never underestimate the strength, the creativity and the love for the land it takes to be a farmer. I definitely had no idea of the magnitude of that before.

Q: What’s your outlook for the future of fair trade, of farming, and of these specific communities that you have gotten to know?

A: That’s a big one. I think that fair trade or alternative trade — as a strategy and a philosophy — is more and more important every day. For me, the basis of fair trade is the relationships between the people who grow our food or produce other products, and then the people who use those products. And we do have opportunities, with technology, to connect with those people in ways that weren’t options before. But on the other hand, people continue to want cheaper and cheaper options. One of my friends told me recently that her grandparents used to spend 25% of their income on their food. Nobody seems willing to do that anymore. If people aren’t willing to pay for fair food, the farmers that we work with as it is barely get by. They do it for the love of the land that I talked about. Compounded by climate change issues, I’m not sure what that means. But people will keep eating, and they seem to not get tired of chocolate and coffee. Or bananas. So we’ve got to keep fighting to do this work the right way.


This fall, we’re posting content about Food and Democracy — and the important ways they intersect — up until the U.S. primaries on November 6th. Stay up to date by following the hashtag #FoodForDemocracy on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!


Or sign up for our biweekly newsletter!

By providing Equal Exchange with your email, you’re giving us permission to communicate with you electronically. Read our Privacy Policy for more details.