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Susan Sklar

Faith-based ​Solidarity During the COVID-19 Pandemic​ ​ ​

 Church ​s​ales, or ​b​uying ​c​lubs, are a vital part of U.S. s​olidarity ​e​conomic​s​: they demonstrate consumer commitment to the ​purchase of goods from marginalized small-scale producer​ cooperatives​. Church buying clubs have been ​at ​the heart of Equal Exchange’s alternative economic network for almost 25 years. This article features four different church projects and their leaders, and explains how each​ group ​​is showing solidarity with small-scale farmers during the COVID pandemic.  

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Jericho, Vermont

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Jericho, Vermont, has always had a focus on peace and justice issues.  It was fitting that a ministry that involved the support of small scale farmers through the purchase of fair trade products became a part of Good Shepherd’s way of being.  The program is coordinated by Dan Steinbauer, a member of the church since 1980.  Dan is also a coffee aficionado who transformed the church’s coffee hour by introducing Equal Exchange coffee and helped to upgrade the church’s brewing equipment​ to provide a variety of high-quality coffee​.  In 2012, Dan expanded the project to sell chocolate, tea, olive oil and other EE products. He wanted more people to learn about alternative supply chains and felt good about folks having access to​ excellent organic ​products for a good price. About 20 customers from the congregation became his regular customers. Dan still orders what he knows those people want and sells the products near cost.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Dan moved all of the EE inventory into his garage. Now, people call him when they want to buy something. They set a time with Dan for pick-up on his front porch without interacting directly with him, and leave a check. The buying club is expanding​; his​ next door neighbors have heard about the availability of EE fairly traded products and are now buying chocolate and coffee from him. He offers people the possibility of buying individual items (versus by the case) and sometimes will use his private key to enter the church’s kitchen to grind a pound of coffee beans for someone. Dan considers this project to be his ministry. He is trying to live out his Christian values, and hopes to help church members and others to do the same

Ocean Heights Presbyterian Church in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey   

Grace Miley of Ocean Heights Presbyterian Church in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey recently held a successful church sale in compliance with COVID-19 restrictions — in her church parking lot. She reports, ” We were amazed at the enthusiastic response from our members and the generosity that is always shown in supporting this food mission of our church.”  People learned about the new COVID-19 restriction-compliant sale in emails from Grace to the congregation. She writes, “I heard from twenty people and everyone was eager to order and to pick up at the church. Some drove a distance to get their products​.​”

Grace filled the orders as they came in and gave folks a pick up time in 15-minute intervals between 1:00 and 2:00 pm.  People were cautious during their pick-up and approached the sales cart one at a time; they picked up their bags and put their checks in the donation box. Grace sold $662.00 worth of merchandise​. Also, she says they had $269 extra in ​their​ cash box so they deposited $931, which was a record for them. They usually only sell in that quantity in December. Grace writes, “It went flawlessly, and we had an added surprise: Pastor Blake arrived at 1:00 p.m.”  the pastor was so thrilled to see everyone and felt the bond that the church members have for one another. Later he said to Grace,  “What an excellent day. I left in tears. I was happy to see actual people still interested in mission when so much of life is shut down.”

Quail Springs United Methodist in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Dave Ranek is a member of the Men’s Group of Quail Springs United Methodist in Oklahoma City.  Dave accepted a pastor’s challenge to sell Equal Exchange products in September of 2010. Combined with two monthly sales, Dave and helpers attend multiple craft fairs in the area and set up sales tables. The group has dispensed over $27,000 of proceeds from fair trade sales to worthy groups — locally, nationally, and internationally. The congregation numbers about 150, with around 35% purchasing coffee, tea, cocoa or chocolate. Dave and his crew began selling at the retirement center next door about six months after launching at their church.  The sales tables became well-known and over 35 people from the center came to buy products at least once a month. 

Mention of the Quail Springs United Methodist sale is included in their weekly newsletter just to keep the project foremost in the minds of congregants. Dave made about two unscheduled trips per month delivering to retirement home residents until the pandemic confined them to the facility. Dave writes, “Over the ten years, the guys… and I have talked to thousands of people.” Although not everyone makes a purchase, “they leave knowing what fair trade is all about. The fact most of our products are organic is a big selling point. To a certain extent, helping the smaller grower still means something to many  people.” With the pandemic, Dave’s congregation continues to reach out through the church’s weekly email update, they have continued to sell to several customers, sometimes meeting in the church parking lot. Folks drive up, their order is put into their ​car​ trunk​ and the payment taken out of the trunk.​ There are also some home deliveries, with precautions taken to maintain social distance.  

First Parish Unitarian in Plymouth, Massachusetts 

First Parish Unitarian of Plymouth, with about 60 active families, has had an ongoing Equal Exchange church​ ​sale for 15 years. Once the COVID-19 pandemic started, Sandi​ Hammond​, the church choir director (and an EE Customer Service Representative), decided to take orders once every two months​, in part​ to assist people who were older and isolated. ​Sandi started her buying club by posting an announcement in the church’s digital bulletin and announced the final deadline for orders at a​ ​church service. To generate more interest among congregants, she shared a list of foods that would be available, which included items like cashews, almonds, and raisins. Sandi offered a 30-minute zoom session to provide people with ​logistics​ and to answer questions. She also had phone conversations with interested individuals, encouraging people to poke around on the EE webstore to find products of interest. 

​​S​andi set up a google document with a spreadsheet containing the names, addresses for delivery, and preferred way of paying for each customer. She asked people to plan on buying by the case or to split a case with another person.  People would pay on the day that the whole order was placed,​ using Paypal or Venmo — no checks. Another church member stepped forward to offer​ the use of​ her credit card to order products up front. Sandi enlisted the help of two volunteers to drop off of products when they arrived. She said that she thought the offer of door-to-door delivery is one of the things that got people more interested. For Sandi,​ ​taking the time to tell folks about the farmers, the products, and the Equal Exchange mission is key to making a ​b​u​ying club ​a success. ​


This is Part II of a series. Read Part I, on the history of buying clubs.

Why Buying Clubs? Why Now?

What Exactly is a Buying Club?

Faith-based groups have sold coffee, tea, and chocolate to assist small farmers through the Equal Exchange Interfaith Program for over two decades. These initiatives are, in fact, buying clubs, programs that live outside of the conventional commercial system and have their roots in solidarity and alternative economies. The network of church- and synagogue-based sales helped to establish and support an alternative supply chain for producers and consumers. It provides farmers with access to the marketplace and better prices than they would receive from the conventional sector.  During the current COVID-19 crisis, we’re leaning into the buying club model and encouraging all supporters of Equal Exchange to give this method of sharing fair trade a try.

Buying clubs direct consumer dollars toward economic entities that reflect their values. These clubs help consumers to bypass corporate entities and order online from smaller organizations that reflect a very different set of values, including dignity, cooperation, and community. They also link diverse democratically run groups and social change organizations together in a network of mutual aid. Interfaith buying clubs are also part of a solidarity movement for changing economic circumstances for poor people that started in the 1980s in Central and South America.

How Solidarity Helped Equal Exchange Get Started 

The Latin American solidarity movement was begun by progressive Catholic priests advocating for social justice for the poor. The priests were part of a movement called Liberation Theology, which helped the disenfranchised to gain an economic footing. The priests worked with committed Christian activists to create autonomous and locally rooted structures that would meet the basic needs of poor people.

The innovations that emerged from this movement were worker and producer cooperatives, neighborhood associations, child care cooperatives, health care clinics, and new forms of housing. This idea of a solidarity economy spread to Europe and the U.S. It helped to influence activists who were trying to reconceptualize new alternative channels based on social justice. Equal Exchange and other fair trade groups grew out of this tradition.

The Alternative Economic Tradition in the U.S.

In the United States, one of the first examples of alternative economic networks were pre-order food co-ops created by grassroots activists in the ’70s and ’80s. These initiatives circumvented supermarket supply chains to provide consumers with products that were not readily available at that time in mainstream markets such as granola, brown rice, and organic peanut butter. Some of these co-ops offered bulk food so that people could eliminate excess packaging which harms the environment.

Pre-order co-ops also incorporated another alternative tradition: autonomous seasonal farmers markets where consumers could purchase local, fresh and organic produce. These groups eventually helped to establish the many brick-and-mortar food cooperatives which could provide folks with the healthier, more sustainable food that they wanted at more affordable prices. These were the stores that first helped Equal Exchange get established.

Listen to our podcast episode about the groovy history of food co-ops.

Buying Clubs: A Different Kind of Model

The buying club model is in direct contradiction to the prevailing social doctrine that contends that human beings must constantly compete with one another for scarce resources and commodities, and that the ultimate goal is for each individual to maximize his or her individual gains. The truth is that there is room for countless methods for alternative economic interactions between human beings! Proponents of alternative economics contend that there are lots of different social relationships through which individuals, communities, and organizations can find a way to make a living. Organizer Ethan Miller, in an article about alternative economics, describes these structures as embracing “a plural and cultural view of the economy…with many different motivations and aspirations.”

How Groups are Using Buying Clubs during COVID-19

During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, buying clubs are more relevant than ever. The livelihoods of Equal Exchange’s farmer partners depend upon a functioning alternative economic system. When conventional systems break down, buying clubs keep this channel alive. During the pandemic, buying clubs are a way you can help by distributing food to family, friends, and neighbors who are social-distancing and don’t want to be exposed to the coronavirus in supermarkets and other stores.

For almost 25 years, Equal Exchange has been moved and inspired by the faith-based folks who have organized Equal Exchange buying clubs in their churches and synagogues in order to support an alternative economic system. Many committed coordinators organize weekly or monthly buying clubs which they have sustained for years. This has resulted in thousands of places of worship playing an integral role in distributing Equal Exchange’s products to the wider community. By so doing, the faith-based community plays an important part in solidarity and alternative economic traditions. We hope to see this model catch on with more people — religious and secular — who care about bringing fairly-sourced food to their communities.

Interested in Learning More about Buying Clubs?

This is Part I of a series on buying clubs. Part II provides tips from successful club coordinators.  If you want more information on how to start a buying club of your own right away, please give the Interfaith team a call at 508-427-5217. We can help you build a program in your community.


Further Reading:

Ethan Miller, “Solidarity Economics: Strategies for Building New Economies from the Bottom-Up and Inside Out.2004.

The People’s Food System Summit

You can be a part of changing the food system!

For over 30 years, Equal Exchange has worked together with farmers and consumers to change the way that our food is grown and distributed, and to give farmers a fair shake.

On June 9th and 10th, Equal Exchange held our first People’s Food System Summit at Stonehill College in Massachusetts to explore how to broaden the food activist movement. We gathered 50 Action Forum citizen-consumers and 50 Equal Exchange worker-owners together with visiting small-scale producers to discuss a wide variety of issues. Many rich discussions took place, leaving us motivated and inspired to continue building this movement together.

Here are some of our reflections from workshop sessions at the summit!

Workshop Session Recap: “From Chavez to Human Rights: What Can We Learn about Organizing Consumers from Successful Boycotts in the Past?”
by Charlie Brandes

During his workshop session, Equal Exchange Co-Executive Director Rob Everts presented an overview of his experiences in community organizing and leading social and political movements.

Rob began the session by pointing out that while most consumer boycotts are “time-bound,” meaning, consumers are organized to protest against a specific store, company, product, or commodity for a specific period of time, the boycott either produces the change it seeks or it doesn’t, after which the organizers and consumers move on. Even though the Action Forum seeks to build a more lasting, ongoing model for organizing consumers, it seems prudent to look to past campaigns for guidance in building this model.

Rob’s story of how he was motivated to live a life of political activism and organizing by United Farm Workers members was stirring. The UFW, including Rob’s brother, had been picketing against Gallo wine outside of a liquor store that was on his way home from school. Nervous as he was about engaging consumers one-on-one about the consequences of their purchases, sibling rivalry finally got the better of his fear, and he joined the protest. Rob also talked about his relationship with Fred Ross, who was a behind-the-scenes mentor to Caesar Chavez, and ultimately to Rob as well.

After years of working with the UFW, Rob moved east to help organize hotel and restaurant workers, and ultimately founded Neighbor to Neighbor, which successfully campaigned to shut off aid from the US government to the Contras in Nicaragua. Inspired by the anti-Apartheid movement, as well as Rob’s past activism with the UFW, Neighbor to Neighbor then embarked on a boycott of Folger’s coffee. The goal was to put pressure on the (then) manufacturer of Folger’s, Procter and Gamble, to stop supporting the oligopoly in El Salvador that was carrying out a brutal civil war against its people. This ultimately brought him into contact with members of the young Equal Exchange co-op, and the rest is history.

Workshop Session Recap: “From Uniformity to Diversity in the Food System”
 by Bethany Karbowski

The supermarket shelves are not as diverse as they seem.

Annie’s Homegrown. Stonyfield. Applegate Farms, Kashi. Back to Nature. Lara Bar. Late July. Naked Juice. During this workshop session, there were gasps of “Oh no!” from the audience as we examined a food web showing how corporations like General Mills, Mondelez, Pepsi, Hormel and Hain Celestial have been hungrily buying up our favorite food brands — brands we love and have trusted to stand for the things we ourselves stand for.

“Unless you look closely, you wouldn’t know they were the same brand,” said Phil Howard, a professor in the Community Sustainability department at Michigan State University, who has been researching the consolidation trends in the food and beverage industries for years. “It looks like you have a lot of choices. There are fewer and fewer people making decisions about the food we eat.” The increasing trend has been that corporations are acquiring as many profitable organic brands as they can, trying to control the market without making these changes visible on packaging.

Why should it matter if these brands are no longer independently owned? Howard explained that large corporations often have an agenda and must answer to their shareholders. This means that well-intentioned consumers are often unknowingly supporting agendas that may not match their own values. Brands that originally had strong values and a commitment to quality, organic ingredients and sustainable practices are now subject to owners whose main motivation is frequently increased profits, not consumers. By purchasing a sub-brand of a mammoth, multinational corporation, consumer dollars are going directly into that larger organization and, without knowing it, we could be supporting things we may not actually agree with and reinforcing trends that we ultimately don’t want to see increasing.

In spite of this discouraging trend, Howard explained that “there is a positive counter trend moving towards real diversity.” There are a handful of companies, like Equal Exchange, who have chosen to remain independent despite buyout offers. Howard recommends focusing our efforts on creating alternatives and raising awareness surrounding these issues. He suggested the website “Buycott.com” whose slogan is “vote with your wallet” as a resource to help consumers determine where their money is really going, in the food sector and beyond.

By working together and looking deeper we can stay informed and choose to support brands and movements that are working towards shifting the power structure, increasing diversity in the food system and ensuring future access to healthy, affordable, food for everyone.

Learn more about Phil Howard’s research online and check out his book, Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What we Eat?

Workshop Session Recap: “Buying Clubs and Opting Out of the Corporate System”
by Tom Hanlon-Wilde

Edith Stacey-Huber and Adi Faribank discussed their experiences with buying clubs, sharing how they work around traditional grocery entities to bring food to their communities. Edith first organized a buying club in Ontario to make organic food affordable to families in her neighborhood, and eventually she brought that model to Michigan. Each of the four dozen families involved in the club is the buyer for one specific farm, in order to make it more sustainable. Participants are committed to purchasing food that’s grown locally, versus food that’s regulated and labeled. Edith overcame eight months of Michigan state bureaucracy around warehouse licensing until member families were able to purchase and store food sourced directly from farms.

Adi Faribank helped the project to grow by creating a non-corporate information system which made things much easier on the members. The community-based nature of the open source software provided a model for systems development. Adi applied his computer science learning to the project in 2003, and by 2006 it was processing over a quarter million dollars of food orders with a dozen buying clubs. By 2015, that participation jumped to $6.5 million. With the growing use by different groups Adi added back-up servers and program improvements including a user fee to the software.

The software allows families to source locally and then manage their purchases through an alternative food system tailored to each club’s needs. The major differences to the corporate food system is that there is traceability back to every farm or kitchen, the food is fresher, more money stays with the member families, and there is no food waste.

Edith strongly endorses the buying club as of a form of food activism. “I still remember the first bite of a locally sourced walnut and how amazingly good and different it was from a walnut from the grocery store,” noted Edith. Member families do have to adapt to the limited hours and there is a need to move to a business model (not volunteer) so that families who dedicate lots of time can get compensated by the families who have less time to dedicate. Edith and Adi are happy to help any group to that wants to get started. Join the Action Forum to start the conversation!

Join the Conversation!

Do you want to get involved in this movement and participate in future events with us? Join the Equal Exchange Action Forum to become a member of this growing community of activists, advocates and citizen-consumers.

Learn more about the Action Forum >

A Palestinian Olive Oil Story

We’re proud to offer fairly traded, organic olive oil grown by small-scale farmers in the West Bank. We believe this olive oil is truly special, both for what it is as a product and for the story behind it. Watch the video below and read on to learn more!

 

 

In 2007, Jim Harb ​of ​Knoxville, Tennessee​, was asked to help start Olive Branch, a local non-profit social enterprise to support West Bank Palestinian olive farmers. His co-founder ​searched the internet and found Tania Maxwell, one of the first ​U.S. ​importers of West Bank​ olive oil. Tania and another woman interested in crafts had traveled by themselves to Ramallah in the West Bank on behalf of Palestinian rights groups, trying to find ways to assist Palestinians to survive economically.

Tania started an olive oil partnership with the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC) which she ran out of the basement of her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for over five years. ​Olive Branch started ordering ​cases of oil from Tania to supply ​Episcopal, ​Methodist​, Presbyterian​, and other​ congregations​​ in the southeastern U.S. that wanted to advocate peacefully ​for ​the ​Palestinian ​people.

When​ ​Tania retired ​in 2012 after five years, she asked Equal Exchange if we wanted to take up where she left off. We did. A few of us traveled to Ramallah and ​met with PARC leaders​, and we were convinced that continuing the partnership was​ vital​ work. Jim ​Harb ​and the ​congregations​ ​he worked with then became partners with Equal Exchange​, ordering ​thousands​ ​more ​bottles of PARC oil ​over the past​ ​​five​ years. ​Jim’s story demonstrates how ​an ​activist can help ​make a huge difference​,​ and how groups of ​individuals ​working together for social justice through their congregations​ can provide tangible support to people in need. Jim and congregants from the Southeast U.S. are part of the movement to help Palestinian olive ​farmers stay on their land, feed their families,​ and educate their children while ​working toward a better future.

Learn more about our olive oil >

Buy Equal Exchange olive oil on our web store >

On Coffee Farmers And Thankfulness

Every year, small groups of Equal Exchange worker-owners journey to Nicaragua to meet small-scale coffee producers and to experience what it feels like to pick coffee. The trip often evokes feelings of connection with the farmers and an appreciation for the hard work that they do.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving back in the United States, we’re remembering the gratitude that we felt in Nicaragua, and giving thanks for the people who help bring food our tables. Here are some journal excerpts that reflect feelings of gratitude from our delegation in January 2015.

From Rick, Midwest Warehouse Lead:
“Eight months later, the intense emotional experience of our delegation has sort of distilled to a deep thankfulness and overall reverence for those who toil to produce the products that we, as consumers, eat or drink without a thought. I definitely think a little harder now about the products that I buy and the stories behind them.”

From Bethany, Community Sales Events Coordinator:  
“Emotions from my journey to the coffee farm in Nicaragua play back in my mind frequently. The feeling of fighting off my quickness to label something as unpleasant just because it wasn’t easy. My challenge to see the dirt under my fingernails as earth and life. Feelings of frustration with my lack of ability to communicate with limited Spanish but also pride that I was finally able to struggle through expressing my immense gratitude to my host family for their sincere hospitality and for the truly unique opportunity.”

From Sara, Copywriter and Content Coordinator:
“We spent hours picking coffee, climbing muddy slopes in the rain, reaching for red cherries beyond our fingertips, grasping branches for balance. At the end, the heavy basket tied around my waist was barely a quarter full. Wet and tired, I’d only picked enough to make a single cup of coffee. As I realized this, every taken-for-granted cup of coffee I’d ever had came back to me: every cup before work, every road trip pit stop, every exam cram session, every cup I brewed out of boredom, every coffee date, pumpkin spice latte, extra large iced coffee, and both complimentary cups on the flight to Nicaragua. Each one of those cups of coffee, immediately accessible, necessary and effortless for me, was the product of hours of work. And who is doing that work every day? It’s the farmers whose livelihoods rely on the success of their coffee trees. Farmers who innovate, invest all they have and struggle to grow their crop the hard way. Farmers who send their children to school in the city, and hope they come back with some new knowledge to carry them safely into an unpredictable future. Farmers who shared their homes and meals and stories with me that week in Dipilto. I can’t help but feel gratitude with every cup, reliving the memory of those mountains.”

One of the delegates, Bekah, was moved to write a prayer following our trip. She worked in the Equal Exchange Interfaith department for a few years and finally left to pursue her dream to become a Methodist minister. She’s currently a first year student in divinity school.

Bekah’s prayer: 
“God, bless the campesinos, the small-scale coffee farmers who spend all year working small, family-owned farms, with unpredictable harvests.

Renew their souls to so that they might carry on through the next harvest as their coffee fuels me through the next challenge in my life.
Help me remember that when I choose to buy the things that I need from fair trade companies, I’m investing in social projects like fresh water wells, educational materials, and organic agriculture projects.

Remind me every day that I do mission work simply by choosing the coffee that I drink.
Amen .”

This Thanksgiving, we hope you’ll join us in sharing your appreciation for farmers around the world.