COVID-19 and Peruvian Avocados: Growing Together Through Hardships

In this update from Eunice Jijon Jarquin and Alyssa Melendez, learn about Equal Exchange’s fair trade avocado partnership with La Grama in Peru, and how co-op farmers are adapting to the challenges of an ongoing global pandemic.

It’s rare to find a person who doesn’t love avocados, or who hasn’t assisted in making avocados a coveted, yet accessible fruit. In 2001, the US per capita avocado consumption stood at around 2.5 lbs, or about five medium-sized avocados per person. That number tripled to 8 lbs per person in 2018 – that’s about 15 medium-sized avocados. This growing demand motivated Equal Exchange to build an alternative to the conventional avocado supply chain – one that places small farmers at the forefront and combats the need for large productions and unequal power structures.  

Although around 80 percent of avocados are imported from Mexico, Peru gained recognition in 2018 as the second largest exporter to the United States (USDA ERS). In 2018, Equal Exchange partnered with La Grama to bring organic, fair trade Peruvian avocados to the United States and develop a year-round avocado program that stretched supply into May and June. La Grama is a Peruvian company that provides essential services for small-scale farmers, such as technical assistance, providing funds for certification fees, and creating access to the global market. La Grama and Equal Exchange hold similar goals of building a more sustainable and just food system that is conscious of the role of small farmers in the global marketplace. 

People sit in a room
 La Grama team speaking with avocado farmers.

 La Grama had been working with organic avocados since 2008, and was inspired by the growing demand for fair trade produce, including bananas. Bananas are grown in a region just north of the avocado growing region in Peru. Through fair trade bananas, La Grama saw the benefits of this model for the local community. In 2017, they recognized this growing global demand as an opportunity to include small-scale organic, fair trade Peruvian avocado farmers in that market share. 

 Fair trade offers an alternative to the conventional avocado market, in which farmers have been subject to the whims of large plantations and intermediaries. Under these conventional standards, small-scale avocado farmers cannot compete with large-scale producers, who are able to afford a greater amount of land and water for increased production and yields. In comparison, according to the fair trade model, for every kilo of fruit sold, farmers are paid a fair trade premium in addition to the price of the fruit. The small farmer cooperative that La Grama works with was established just three years ago, and so far, the fair trade premium has served to strengthen the organization’s administration and fund technical assistance for farmers. Once the co-op is able to build a larger premium fund, it will go towards democratically selected local community projects. By prioritizing the management needs of the co-op, farmers have been able to focus on cultivating trade relations and becoming a resource pool for other farmers. Having a solid base has been essential in adapting to the new landscape that COVID-19 has shaped. 

A woman picks an avocado
A member of the small farmer cooperative at their avocado farm.

Peru is one of the worst-hit countries by COVID-19 in Latin America, and currently has the second-highest number of cases in the region. Despite the country’s lockdown, the agricultural sector has continued to operate. There are more challenges across the supply chain, including new protocols for safety precautions, social distancing, transportation, processing at the packhouse, and curfews that reduce working hours. Harvest planning has also been heavily affected by travel limitations for workers. Diego del Solar, Co-Founder of La Grama, says “Avocado farms located in relatively isolated places, where people have to travel from their hometowns to go to work there, have had big problems getting harvested on time.” These challenges have required farmers to adjust to a new normal, and La Grama is committed to supporting these farmers through this transition. 

La Grama’s technical team has always been closely involved in the quality and safety of farmers and the products they produce. COVID-19 has reinforced this support: La Grama is providing training on proper hand washing techniques, providing masks, and ensuring social distancing between workers. All of these protocols had to be implemented rapidly to maintain the safety of all of the workers. Nevertheless, del Solar explained that during the first month of the lockdown, agricultural exports from Peru increased by 9% compared to the same period last year, which is largely explained by avocado exports.

The expanding year-round demand for avocados has provided an opportunity for the Peruvian avocado industry to fill in the gaps of supply. La Grama recognizes the potential for their avocado program and are working towards increasing their number of farmers and available volume. New farmers are joining the program each year, because of the various services and opportunities that La Grama offers, especially given their dedication and reliability. Several exporters have a business model of hopping from one product to another, pursuing new trends each time. La Grama chose a different strategy, de Solar sys, which is to work with the same products year after year, “deepening our knowledge and understanding of the industry, as well as our relationships with our farmers. That approach gives farmers the confidence they need to keep going forward and look at the future of avocados with optimism, and that allows us to grow consistently.” 

Men and a woman and child pose outdoors in Peru
Small-scale farmer avocado producer partners from Adapo in the region of La Libertad, Peru.

Equal Exchange has also continued to deepen its knowledge and understanding of the industry, allowing us to double our Peruvian avocado volume this year. This is in large part due to our fresh produce team’s efforts to create the essential tools and resources to educate customers on best handling practices and sharing farmers’ stories. It takes a great deal of dedication and time to create a successful program. Both partners found each other at a crucial time in their development – Equal Exchange sought a partner who could complement our Mexican off-season, and La Grama looked to export organic, fair trade avocados to the United States. Together, both companies have proven successful in their efforts. 

During these trying times, farmers continue to show their resiliency. Through the hardships of the pandemic, their efforts keep supply chains moving and keep our families fed. We are extremely grateful to have partners like La Grama, who are committed to uplifting small farmers, and we look forward to supporting their growth and mission for years to come.

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter.  Equal Exchange stands in solidarity with people fighting for racial justice, against police brutality, and those bravely working to create necessary change.  The horrific and senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee and so many others, and the uprisings these deaths have sparked, have moved so many of us to action.

We know that for many of us, as individuals, organizations and businesses, the regular daily routine has been disrupted.  Protests and calls to action have swelled in many cities where we live, work, and have allies.  We are choosing to take this interruption as an important moment to reflect.  We reflect on our core values, and on the connections that thread us together.

Equal Exchange was founded on a vision of changing the existing power structures, to create more fairness, equity, access, and hope.  The way we do that in the world is to connect small farmer communities to consumers and to use an alternative democratic structure in our workplace.  But these are just two components of the complex and layered work that needs to be done to change power structures.  These efforts counter the “normal,” commonly-accepted way of doing things. We stand committed to racial justice, countering the unfair “normal” way things regularly function at many levels in this country, those that systematically oppress people of color.  We recognize this moment as an opportunity to speak up externally, as well as one to reflect and act internally.  We are accepting this opportunity.  

For us all to succeed, we must continue to fight for change together.

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.

Co-ops Show Resilience as the Pandemic Goes On

As people across the world adjust to staying home, the physical distance we are experiencing is a true test to the social networks that we rely on. Seemingly overnight, the way we organize our everyday lives has completely transformed – from food, to school, work, care, recreation, etc. We’ve become more aware of the invisible structures that connect our communities as people rely on one another to get through this.

Cooperatives are one hopeful example of a resilient model across the globe. Through Equal Exchange’s commercial and project-based work with agricultural cooperatives, we have seen members of co-ops working together to support one another through this crisis. The following stories from partners in Mexico, Paraguay and Peru — told in the words of leaders and members — demonstrate the power of this structure, especially in rural areas lacking support. These fair trade cooperatives embody Cooperative Principle number seven, Concern for community, and show they are more than just businesses. 

Mexico

Using fair trade premiums to support members in immediate response 

In Mexico, prices of local goods have spiked and the government has implemented a Stay at Home campaign. The Finca Triunfo Verde coffee cooperative has responded by purchasing food and basic goods in bulk and distributing them to their membership to help them get by for two weeks. They used their fair trade premium from Equal Exchange of around $20,000 for this purpose.

Two people load food onto a truck
Finca Triunfo Verde co-op created the Family Support Initiative to provide food to members and help them stay at home.

Here’s a message from Hugo Lares, general manager:

“With the commitment to join the Stay at Home campaign to prevent the spread of the pandemic caused by COVID-19, in Triunfo Verde, we implemented our Family Support Initiative. With resources from the fair trade premium (Equal Exchange) we were able to provide food for two weeks for 490 members in order to keep them at home, and protect the most vulnerable people and prevent the spread of the virus. We have also provided information on how to apply adequate measures to avoid the disease, and a kit with basic medicine in case they experience any symptoms. This initiative was led by our managers and administration, in coordination with the Community Delegates.”

Paraguay 

Distributing fair trade premiums to members and supporting local health clinics through cooperative staff donations 

Manduvirá is a sugarcane cooperative in Paraguay, which provides sugar for Equal Exchange’s chocolate bars. The Paraguayan government has had an official, national quarantine in place since March 10th. At the moment, neither the members nor the sugar production plant they collectively own has suffered greatly (their harvest should begin this month), but many people have lost their jobs and food access is limited. Manduvirá has stepped up to support not only their farmer members, but also the surrounding community.

  • At their annual assembly, the co-op members voted to pay some of the fair trade premium in cash directly to the farmers, and the co-op was able to transfer all of this money via phone to accelerate the payment, and avoid contact. 
  • The cooperative is supporting the local community with donations for the local health center, as well as health clinics in nearby communities, which have sent out their list of needs. There was a donation of around $1,000 from the co-op staff salary to go towards kits put together by the municipality for families identified as most in need.
  • The cooperative donated sugar to the local municipality to distribute to those families most in need. Manduvirá is also currently collecting the information of the field laborers and drivers who deliver sugarcane, in order to give out food kits funded by the cooperative’s fair trade premium.
Pachages of food prepared in a warehouse
Co-op members are in the process of delivering 3,700 food kits to partners and day laborers who work in the cane fields.

Alicia Florentin, project manager shares:

“It really is a very difficult time for everyone. Here in Paraguay, the government has declared a mandatory quarantine since March 10th, with the slogan “Stay at home.” This has been a challenge for us, since we had to hold our assembly and award the fair trade premiums to the members. The managers called a virtual meeting with the department managers, and we have decided to transfer the fair trade premium to the members, through money orders. We have done an urgent data update and this week we will be transferring money directly to members. We have taken this action primarily to protect our members, who are most at-risk, given their age.

“I think that being part of a cooperative or having a cooperative nearby is a social strength, because with solidarity as its essence, we cannot be oblivious to members’ needs. In this time of social conjuncture, as Manduvirá we are supporting the Arroyos y Esteros Health Center, with the purchase of supplies, including masks, gloves, thermometers, cleaning supplies, among others. Also, as the quarantine is lengthening, there are many families that are going through a hard time, so Manduvirá is supporting an effort, organized by the Cooperative administration, the Association of Arroyenses Educators and the Municipality, to deliver food kits to the community. Manduvira is donating sugar, the cooperative staff is supporting the community through cash, purchasing food, putting kits together, and delivering them to low-income families in the community. Among other efforts, we will also be delivering hand sanitizer to members, which has been prepared by the cooperative staff. 

“As I have mentioned before, I believe that cooperatives are a key aspect of resilience in these types of situations, since we feel the needs of others are our own, and we can only succeed if we stay together and support each other.” 

Handing out meals
On May 1st 2020, Manduvirá prepared and gave out 950 plates of food to vulnerable families in the community.

Peru 

Farmers in rural communities sending home-grown food to their children in urban areas 

In the Southern Peruvian state of Cusco, San Fernando Cooperative sits high in the Andes mountains, a nearly 12 hour drive to the capital of Cusco. Children of members who had gone to the city to study or work were isolated far from home and their parents. With their kids on lockdown and with limited resources, parents joined together to send their home-grown yuca, potatoes, plantains, avocados, corn, sugarcane, bananas and coffee from the rural communities to their children in the cities. 

People load a container truck
This truck delivered food grown in the Inkawasi district to young people now living in the cities.

Cayo Candia, General Manager of San Fernando Cooperative shares: 

“Just as I am writing to you from home, our Cooperative San Fernando is organizing and arranging our trucks to bring products from the region to the children of members and non-members who are in different cities in quarantine. We know that many young people from Inkawasi go to cities to study and work. Now they are going through critical situations due to lack of money for their food, so we hope from the cooperative to support something.” 

People use burros to bring food to a truck
Members of the San Fernando co-op bring food to the truck.

Creative strategies to communicate information from Ministry of Health

Located in the north of the Peru, Norandino Cooperative is a large cooperative made up of coffee, cacao and sugarcane producers. Norandino has also been dealing with strict state-mandated quarantine since March 15th. Because of its connections with thousands of farmers in rural areas, Norandino is working to communicate proper health information to rural members, acting as a channel for the efficient distribution of government subsidies, and is working to prepare the communities, staff and processing centers for the coming harvest.

Fernando Reyes, General Manager shares:

“At Norandino, we are now fully abiding by the rules, paying our workers normally. And we are making protocols to progressively return to work and open operations, while implementing careful health protocols in order to avoid contagion.

“Norandino worked together with national-level organizations such as APPCACAO (Association of Small Cacao Producers of Peru) and the National Coffee Council to advocate on behalf of farmers. As a result, the government granted subsidies to be distributed to rural communities (around $250 USD). One of the strengths that cooperatives have is that we have the formality and at least we have data from members, bank accounts and a list of cooperative members. With this information, Norandino will be able to ensure that farmers are considered in this relief support and the money will reach them. 

“For now, in-house, we are using funds from the capitalization of organizations (profits from recent years). Fairtrade International has made the use of the fair trade premium more flexible, and the premium can be used to respond to COVID-19. The problem is that sales take place in July and on and liquidity is needed to allocate advanced resources to face the crisis. Some organizations are going to be able to give an incentive to producers, it can be food and some products such as masks, and disinfection kits for primary collection centers. And then we will report to the general assembly and this use of funds would be approved to meet fair trade standards.”

An infographic about Coronavirus with text in Spanish
An infographic shared by Norandino.

Across the world, relationships are a strong foundation for resilience

At Equal Exchange, our model has always been built upon relationships. These form the invisible foundation for products to move from one place to another – from the farms to the cooperatives, to the warehouses, grocery stores and on to the final consumers. This foundation is what keeps our products moving and our families, cooperatives and communities working.

Cooperatives are proving to be important networks within their communities, supplying resources and information to those that need it most. Be well, everyone!


Read more about Equal Exchange’s farmer partners and the COVID-19 pandemic in our first update from April 10th, 2020, here.

Support small-scale farmers and alternative trade networks.

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.

COVID-19 and Farmers — What We Know So Far

Small-scale farmers struggled to maintain an economic foothold before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, their work has become even more of an uphill battle. A pandemic doesn’t recognize national borders. COVID-19, the sickness caused by the novel coronavirus, is spreading rapidly across the globe. How will people who grow coffee, chocolate, tea, bananas and other products continue to make a living? How is COVID-19 affecting Equal Exchange’s trade partners right now?

It’s hard to generalize about producers spread across four continents. They grow different crops and their living and working conditions vary a great deal. And all of us are still learning about the pandemic in real-time as it unfolds. But as links in the same supply chain, it’s important for traders and consumers to understand, as much as possible, the challenges farmers face. Here’s what we can say now, at the beginning of April, 2020. We’ll continue to update you as the situation develops.

Who is at Work?

The coffee and cacao harvests are currently underway or finishing up in Central America, and about to begin in South America. Both of these crops have their biggest harvests only once a year, so the stakes are high. In India, first flush — the first plucking of a tea plant’s harvest season — happens in early spring and has been disrupted. Other crops, like bananas and Sri Lankan tea, are harvested consistently throughout the year. Farmers may be performing harvest tasks to protect their incomes.

A field of organic tea in India
COVID-19 has shut down India during the tea harvest season.

Even outside of harvest season, farmers must work constantly to maintain their land. They’re always busy with tasks like pruning, planting, fertilizing and controlling for pests and disease. Despite anxiety about COVID-19, people may continue to work.

Travel, Transportation, and Social Distancing

Since COVID-19 is an infectious disease, many national and regional governments have reacted by limiting people’s ability to travel. Peru, where Equal Exchange buys coffee, cacao and bananas, abruptly sealed its borders on March 29th. India, where we source tea, ordered a 21-day countrywide lockdown on March 24th that includes ports. The list of countries that have ordered curfews or shutdowns keeps getting longer. However, in most cases, commercial logistics and port operations have continued, even if capacity is reduced.

Restrictions to domestic transportation also affect the agricultural sector. For example, even though our banana partners in Ecuador and Peru are classified as essential workers, they must show permits at checkpoints within their countries to get around. Some of the cacao co-ops we work with in Peru and in Togo have temporarily suspended central operations. That means farmers are carrying out post-harvest practices on their individual farms and storing their beans for now.

Bags of fair trade cacao
Cacao beans stored at the Scoops IKPA co-op, in Togo.

COVID-19 Affects Price and Availability of Goods

COVID-19 has shaken international markets. This has a ripple effect on everyday life. Our partners in Mexico tell us that the price of basic household goods like sugar and eggs is up by 20%. Luckily, farmers who work on their own land are often more resilient in the face of shortages than workers on large plantations. Equal Exchange trades with small-scale farmers who cultivate plots of land that they own. In addition to the crops they grow for the international market, many of our partners supplement their income by raising foods that can be sold locally or eaten at home. They may grow fruit, corn and beans or keep livestock. This allows for a degree of self-reliance.

Partners in our fair trade produce supply chain tell us that it’s been harder to find supplies like packing boxes and stickers for bananas. (We’ve found the same is true for us here in the U.S with certain supplies!) We anticipate more of these kinds of shortages in the weeks to come.

A person's hands hold a box of bananas
COVID-19 has made it harder for our banana partners to source packing boxes.

Sharing information

Our trading partners have organized themselves as members of agricultural cooperatives. Co-op leadership has the ability to get in touch with members, who may be geographically isolated, in order to share information and support. Some countries’ governments have been reluctant to respond to the pandemic as an emergency. For example, the Mexican Secretariat of Health issued a statement in late January saying that the novel coronavirus COVID-19 did not present a danger to Mexico. When the government doesn’t provide clear guidelines, farmers and the organizations to which they belong are the ones who share information to protect each other.

Doña Leticia Velasco, member of the CESMACH coffee co-op in Mexico, gives us a tour of the edible plants growing on her neighbors’ land.

Equal Exchange is also in a good position to share information. A grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development funds our work with farmers in four countries in Latin America through the Cooperative Development Program. This program’s staff is in regular contact with ten different farmer groups in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. We’ve been able to pass on guidelines from the World Health Organization to our partners. And we’re working with the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council to compile resources that leaders of co-ops can share with their members.

What About Equal Exchange — And You?

As a worker-owned co-op, Equal Exchange’s priority is taking care of each other and the people in our alternative trade network. EE has a larger degree of control over our supply chain than some others in the industry. We’ve always purchased directly from farmer groups. We roast coffee in-house on our own equipment. And we ship or deliver directly to food stores and community partners. We’re finding that to be a source of strength right now! As we take additional steps in our production facility and warehouse to keep everyone safe, we’ve been able to honor our contracts and keep up with increased demand.

We are checking in constantly with producer groups in order to ensure processes are as seamless for them as possible. We have switched to all-digital documentation for shipping coffee to ensure beans are not held up at port, and to enable quick payment back to the co-op for any container. It’s been heartening to see partners adapt and go 100% digital for logistics purposes.

And producer groups have been checking in with us too, asking about how we’re doing personally and how this has affected our business. We’re happy to be able to tell them that our customers and allies have shown strong support for alternative economic supply chains. In an uncertain economy, this makes all the difference to farmers.


Want to know more about the projects our co-op partners have taken on to help their communities? Read our update post from May 11, 2020.


Support farmers by stocking up on coffee, chocolate and more, right on our web store.

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Take part in the work of organizing for an equitable food system by becoming a Citizen-Consumer.

Fighting TR4 at Your Grocery Store: A Consumer Action Guide

This is part 3 of a series from the Equal Exchange banana team, exploring the threat of Fusarium Wilt Tropical Race 4 to banana production and small-scale farmers in particular.  In Part 2, we discussed the particular challenges small-scale farmers face as they employ TR4 prevention techniques. This week, we travel to your grocery store, and look at how you, the consumer, can contribute to the fight against TR4. 

You might be wondering what YOU can do to help small-scale farmers confronted with TR4. Here are six actions to take.

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Buy fair trade certified bananas.

Purchasing bananas with the Fairtrade America stamp ensures that farmers received a fair price for their produce, and that an additional dollar per case went into a democratically managed fund, which producers put towards research, infrastructure, disease prevention, and education. Read more about how CEPIBO, one of Equal Exchange’s producer partners, is using premium funds for TR4 efforts here.


A person in a banana suit with a sign that reads "this banana protects farmers' rights"

Support research institutions.

Groups like Bioversity International and ProMusa have dedicated themselves to tracking, analyzing, and mitigating the effects of TR4. Supporting their work by reading and sharing their publications spreads awareness about the fungus and shows consumer prioritization of TR4 research efforts outside of sensationalist news coverage. 

Look for inner beauty.

With threats from both TR4 and changing weather patterns, bananas may not be as aesthetically consistent as they have been in the past. Quality may falter as producers work to stave off threats to their crops, and bananas that reach store shelves may have more blemishes and abnormal ripening patterns. By continuing to buy bananas, and appreciating that beauty is often only skin (or rather, peel) deep, you continue to support efforts to improve banana agriculture and the players across the supply chain working to bring them to your produce aisle. 

Watch your step.

The first fusarium outbreak is believed to have spread on the shoes of visitors to banana plantations. With a record number of travellers visiting tropical destinations, banana farms will be extremely vulnerable to fungal stowaways on the soles of your shoes. If you find yourself visiting a vegetable or fruit farm, do some homework beforehand to understand the risks to farmers and their produce, and scrub your shoes before and after to avoid the spread of disease. 

Diversify your cart.

If TR4 continues its spread, thousands of farmers will be affected, and their losses will ripple through the supply chain. At a grocery store level, this may jeopardize the reliability of the banana supply, which will fluctuate as farmers and shippers race to find solutions. Look for the country of origin on your banana labels, and do an online search to find other agricultural products from those countries. Some farmers may diversify their crops to protect themselves from total losses, selling supplemental products like cacao, avocados, or ginger. Support these products with your dollar, as well as other banana varieties that may start to appear on store shelves.

Mobilize.

Join the Equal Exchange Citizen Consumer network, which connects consumers to a group of passionate individuals seeking to make a change in the food system. This group organizes events and campaigns around key food issues, working to raise awareness and support of small farmers and agricultural rights at home and abroad. Your voice is just as powerful as your dollar.


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References:

2019. Bananas and avocados. Fairtrade America. http://www.fairtradeamerica.org/Fairtrade-Products/Bananas-and-Fresh-Produce

N.d. Banana genetic resources and management systems. Bioversity International. https://www.bioversityinternational.org/research-portfolio/banana-genetic-resources-and-management-systems/?L=0

Vézina, Anne. 2020.  Tropical Race 4 – TR4. ProMusa. An initiative of Bioversity International. http://www.promusa.org/Tropical+race+4+-+TR4#Efforts_to_address_the_threat_of_TR4

What’s a Farmer to Do? TR4 and Small-Scale Producers

In Part One of this series on Latin American banana production in the shadow of TR4, we shared an introduction to Fusarium Wilt Tropical Race 4, a fungal strain that has the potential to wreak havoc on the Latin American banana industry. In this installment, Part Two, we explore the particular challenges that small-scale farmers face as they employ TR4 prevention techniques.

Various strategies can reduce a farm’s risk of contamination.

Fusarium Wilt Tropical Race 4, a fungal strain that has destroyed hundreds of acres of bananas, and for which there is currently no known remedy, was found on farms in Colombia last August. Since then, governments, research groups, and producers have worked tirelessly to strengthen infrastructure and prevent the disease from spreading. Prevention is both resource- and labor-intensive. Some internationally accepted strategies include:

  • Controlling entrances and exits to farms
  • Installing disinfecting footbaths at points of entry
  • Creating physical barriers, both living (i.e. bushes and shrubs) and material at the perimeter of each farm to prevent unauthorized entry
  • Providing special boots for workers and visitors
  • Offering specialist training for farmers and workers

These steps are expensive and cumbersome for large plantations, but the challenge grows exponentially for the thousands of small-scale banana producers that operate in Ecuador and Peru. Small banana farms are often immersed in communities, bordering tropical homegardens or other farms. That makes marking boundaries and controlling entry-and-exit points especially important for each individual farm. How could a farmer with one hectare of land – or her hundreds of neighbors with similar-sized plots – access the resources needed to establish effective controls?

This is where farmer cooperatives play a critical role in limiting the spread of TR4. With the help of regional and international agricultural organizations, farmer cooperatives can provide their members with the information and resources crucial to limiting their exposure to TR4. In some banana producing regions, different co-ops are collaborating to build preventive systems and educational programs.

A group of people, seen from behind, sit in plastic patop chairs to hear a speaker

CEPIBO: a cooperative case study. 

One such example is CEPIBO, a 329-member small-scale farmer banana cooperative in Piura, Peru, that has worked with Equal Exchange for 7 years. Since July 2019, CEPIBO has been a member of the area’s Organic Banana Subsector, in collaboration with Piura’s Chamber of Commerce and other regional cooperatives. Together, these organizations have organized farmer training sessions and developed a pilot program to hone prevention methods.

The pilot plot, officially unveiled in October 2019,  is made up of five hectares (a little over 12 acres), containing land owned by 11 different small-scale producers. It is designed to effectively prepare farmers under constrained resources, experimenting with TR4 prevention methods and acting as a teaching tool for farmers who are trying to establish controls on their own farms. Its perimeter is enclosed by shrubbery, called a living barrier, and reinforced with a Raschel netting fence. The plot has a new locked entrance made of cane with foot baths for disinfecting boots. In the development of the pilot, CEPIBO’s goal is to find the most cost-effective prevention methods for small-scale farmers to replicate before TR4 spreads throughout Latin America.

Two men converse in a banana field about TR4 mitigation.
CEPIBO and neighboring producer organizations are working to develop TR4 prevention test plots.

Small-scale farmers face disproportionately high costs. 

Who will foot the bill for extra costs like these, considering the already-high costs for banana farming communities? In CEPIBO’s case, the organization will offer to help with labor costs, training, and shrubs, while the landowners will need to purchase the raw construction materials. In other words, CEPIBO will need to rely on its Fairtrade premium funding – $1 earned per 40-lb box – and additional funds contributed by farmer members, to cover these additional costs.

Those of us downstream in the supply chain, such as importers, distributors, retailers, and consumers, need to interrogate our own role in this effort, and consider how the price we pay may affect farmers’ ability to prepare for, and prevent, the worst-case scenario. Where do we stand in the fight to protect not just a beloved fruit, but the livelihoods of thousands of farmers?

In Part Three next week, we’ll share some strategies for you to stay effectively engaged in TR4 prevention, in solidarity with the small-scale farmers leading the charge.


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References:

FAO. 2020. Tropical Race 4. World Banana Forum. http://www.fao.org/world-banana-forum/fusariumtr4/en/

Hicks, Angelica. 2019. Cooperative bananas, in dollars and cents. Equal Exchange. https://blog.equalexchange.coop/cooperative-bananas-in-dollars-and-cents/

Hicks, Angelica. 2019. Unconventional bananas in Peru: an interview with Julio Oscar Gallegos Herrera-Rambla. Equal Exchange. https://blog.equalexchange.coop/unconventional-bananas-in-peru/

Interview: Supporting Youth in Agriculture at Manduvira Cooperative

Manduvira Cooperative in Paraguay is world-renowned for being the first sugar mill owned and run by an agricultural cooperative. One of the co-op’s pressing worries is the challenge posed by climate change. Many farmers are still feeling the effects of an unusual hard frost that hit in winter of 2017, which affected the sugarcane growth and continues to result in lower than average yields. And like many farmer groups, Manduvira also faces the challenge of an aging farming population. The cooperative is making a concerted effort to include youth in their work to come up with climate change mitigation strategies.

As part of the USAID Cooperative Development Program (CDP) grant in partnership with Equal Exchange, Manduvira proposed a field trial with test plots. They have contracted an experienced sugar cane specialist and two first year college agronomy students, Cristhian Aveiro Ortíz and Matias Zaracho Salvioni, to support the trials. They are testing organic inputs alongside three different varieties of cover crops to understand how their behavior and effect on yield.

In addition to providing support with the project, the two students are gaining an incredible opportunity to apply what they’re learning in college to real life with the cooperative, all while under the mentorship of a national expert in sugar cane cultivation. Offering technical support and employment to two local college students is one way that Manduvira is engaging with youth. 

I’m Laura Bechard, Chocolate Supply Chain Coordinator at Equal Exchange. Last July, during a baseline study with the Equal Exchange CDP team, I sat down with the two students, Cristhian and Matias, to learn more about their new roles with the field trials.

Interview Transcript

Laura: How did you begin these positions with the cooperative?

Cristhian: My dad is a member of the cooperative and through the family I learned a bit about farming sugar cane.

Matias: I began since my parents are members of the cooperative, farmers, and every Friday when they go to receive payment, I would accompany them to the cooperative. I also have experience in working in the field. Before this job, I was working in the field, harvesting sugar cane and working in the garden with my mother, Ña Olga. [Note: Ña is a shortened version of the honorific Señora used in Paraguay.]

Laura: Was there competition for these newly created positions with the cooperative?

Matias: Yes there were other participants, more, we’ll say, but they gave an opportunity and preference to children of members of the cooperative.

Laura: Do you know how many people applied?

Cristhian: Really, everyone wanted this job, but they gave preference to the children of farmer members so that they can work while at the same time study. We are very happy and content to be able to work here and be a part of this cooperative too, and to be able to work with you all (through the project) as well.

Two men stand in front of a mural at the Manduvira co-op in Paraguay
Cristhian (left) and Matias (right).

Laura: Are you both studying agronomy?

Cristhian: Yes.

Matias: Yes.

Laura: Among all the career options available these days, why did you decide to study agronomy?

Matias: Truthfully, I liked this field of study because I am from a farm and grew up in the cane field, and I like it.

Laura:  Have you considered other majors besides agronomy?

Matias: Yes, I also considered the field of veterinary sciences. But I decided on agronomy.

Laura: How about you, Christhian?

Cristhian: Me, for example, I chose this field of study because it gives me time to work and maintain my family and have my own life, so that I don’t need to depend more on my family to earn my “daily bread.”

Laura: Do you see many opportunities with other fields besides agronomy?

Cristhian: Yeah, there are opportunities, sure, but really I like agronomy and I like working in the field. I am a son of a producer and grew up in growing sugarcane and yucca, among other crops.

Laura: Do you have your own land?

Matias: Not yet.

Cristhian: Our parents do.

Laura: Do you hope to have your own sugar cane farm someday?

Matias: Yes, someday!

Cristhian: And someday be a producer and member of the cooperative!

Laura: Do you hope to continue to work with the cooperative someday, or do you think of it as more like a learning opportunity? 

Matias: Seriously, we want to continue working for the cooperative, also so that we can continue to pay for our studies. I would like to continue to work each year for the cooperative.

Cristhian: Yes, I hope to continue; everyday working and learning more and more with the cooperative, Manduvira.

Laura: How is the university system run here? Are they public, private, expensive, cheap?

Cristhian: Currently, we are studying in private universities.

Matias: Now, the price is accessible for us. It’s not too expensive.

Laura: Do you dedicate your salary from Manduvira to pay for your studies?

Matias: Yes.

Laura: Do your classmates from high school have the same opportunity to study, if they wish? Are there colleges accessible to them?

Cristhian: Truthfully, only about 3% go to study. The rest, could not.

Laura: And why is that?

Cristhian: Because of the economic situation.

Matias: Because of the lack of empowerment.

Laura: Are there other opportunities for youth in the cooperative Manduvira? Are there activities for children of producers? Do they feel part of Manduvira, or do they feel like accessories to their parents who are members?

Matias: We feel part of the cooperative even more now that we have entered working with the cooperative. We have become more used to the cooperative and gotten to know more people and gain more experience.

Laura: How much time have you been working with Manduvira?

Cristhian: One month. 

Laura: Well, one month isn’t a long time, so it may feel like this question is a little strange, but thinking in the future. How will this month and your future months working with Manduvira facilitate your career path?

Cirsthian: We hope to go far with Manduvira and work all our lives here. In that way, we could. There are many agronomists here and our studies will help us a lot and we are learning together. Also, we are more a part of the cooperative.

Laura: Is there anything else you would like to say?

Matias: Thanks to you guys too, for coming here and getting to know us as well. We hope that you return again.

Cristhina: Thanks for counting on us as well, and for being able to show us a different point of view, among other things.

Laura: And continue buying your sugar?

Cristhian: Yes!


Equal Exchange is in its second phase of the Cooperative Development Program Grant with USAID. As part of this grant, each participating cooperative identifies its own challenges and formulates its own solutions within the areas of productivity, governance, capitalization, and gender equity. For more information about the previous Cooperative Development Program, check out our webpage here.

This is the first post of the Youth in Agriculture interview series. You can learn more about Manduvira Cooperative from the Equal Exchange producer pages here and on their own page here

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Podcast: Taking a Passion for Food Online

Food sustains us – and it brings people together, too. Chelsea Colbath found that out when she brought her interest in eating and cooking in healthy ways online, as a professional blogger and food photographer. Danielle Robidoux and Gary Goodman talked to her about tricks of the trade, and about the power of connecting with other ethical eaters, online and IRL.

Dig in on the newest episode of The Stories Behind Our Food.


You can now stream #StoriesBehindOurFood on all your favorite platforms, including:

Help us get the word out about our delicious podcast! Share us on social media and make sure to subscribe to The Stories Behind Our Food to hear the newest episodes when we release them.


Episode Transcript:

(Auto-generated)

Danielle everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee, these air, global commodities. They pass through a lot of people sands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart thistles. The stories behind our food podcast Podcast where? Expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux, and I’m Kate Chess.  

Danielle We’re your hosts. Hi, everyone. One here with Chelsea from Baked Greens. Also a member of equal exchange organizing work. Really excited Thio finally talk with her. I feel like we’ve been talking about it for such a long time. It’s nice to be here. And, you know, I follow you on Instagram, and it’s, like, so exciting to have seen you grow. I met you, you know, a few years ago, the first you’ll exchange summit and I was just chatting with Gary about how you know, you were talking about starting a pure business, so just really exciting to see how much it’s grown. Um maybe. Can you talk a little bit about that evolution from had, like when I met you And when you’re first starting to, like, kind of where you’re at now?

Chelsea Yeah, sure. So, um, when you first met me. I was still teaching. So I taught middle school history for six years, and I just did my food blog on the side for fun, like just a little project in the afternoons because I love cooking. And, um, I lived out in Western Mass where it’s just farmland everywhere, and all my neighbors were farmers, and my students had huge gardens, and some of them lived on farms, so I just felt really connected to food. But I was teaching and I was happy, and that was good. And so when I came to the first summit, I was really looking through the lens of getting kids engaged with this kind of work. And since then we moved. Excuse me across the state, and I quit teaching not necessarily on purpose, but just kind of happened, you know, Um, and my blog’s just really grew in tow, its own business, where I now do lots of freelance photography for companies and sometimes restaurants. And, um, I just feel like it took off, and I didn’t expect it to know. It was kind of like, Well, I think I’m gonna say a year off from teaching and see what happens. And then it happened. So So, yeah, Now I have my food log where I work on that full time, and then I do lots of photography on the side, which is kind of what pays the bills. To be honest, it’s been blogging is kind of a lucrative business. Um, where you have to do a lot of work for companies that aren’t really cos that I want to work with in order to make money. So, um, yeah, I do lots of food photography, which was something I knew nothing about when I first started, and I just kind of grown and evolved in. I feel like I’m pretty good now, but, I mean, you know, there’s still room, room to improve for sure.

Danielle Another question, too. I have is what kind of got you interested in coming to the summit? So, you know, obviously, I’ve had no us like a member of people exchange organizing work, and so can you talk a little bit about the way you were looking at it trying to for kids, but, like, really, how it could be useful to your audience as well, right? Like just trying to be conscious of the types of things that they buy. Because you really talk a lot about that on your food, blogger. And I feel like you’re really intentional about which cos you are tough, like encouraging people to use and even, like, a few cool post that I’ve seen you have, like, saying no to certain companies, right? Because I didn’t want to work with them. So I found out it was really interesting.

Chelsea Yeah. So I guess I’m not even sure how I heard of the summit at first. I must have. I mean, I was purchasing chocolate and other things from equal exchange for years, and I must have just got an email. Yeah, okay, sure. I’ll sign up for this. Um, but I think what drew me in was I feel like, um it could be so isolating to be passionate about food, justice and passionate about, like, sustainable agriculture and things like that and not feel like what you’re doing really is gonna make any sort of difference. And so I saw this group where I thought, like, wow, we could really do something together, so yeah, on my own end, I really try to be mindful about what cos I promote, and we’re not even promoting, like a paid way, but just sort of suggest that my readers would, um, would purchase from, But I just I think that it’s hard to get people to want to change. So I I just love the idea of this group of people from all over the country in the world coming together and trying to work together on campaigns or other things, which makes it a little easier for me to bring it back to my audience and say, Hey, there’s this thing happening you could do something about or you should really be mindful of not purchasing from whatever company. So it kind of helps me in a way to get this information to still down in a way that I think, just like the average person understands. Yeah, so, yeah, that’s been nice for me.

Danielle That’s what I really like about your block to. I feel like all your recipes air really simple to write like you’re like, You could make it in an afternoon and it’s you know, sometimes recipes get so complicated, like who the heck has time thio things you know like for it to be, like, different. Really interesting, but like still, like, easy for someone to just make you know.

Gary How much work does it take for you to come up with a recipe?

Chelsea Oh, my gosh. Um, it depends. You know, sometimes things are just flowing organically, and I I’ve been making some snack for myself for weeks, and I just finally look, do it right down, and it’s done. But yeah, sometimes it can take months because you try something and it doesn’t work. And then other things get in the way. You tried again and and the ovens for something, you know, you added too much something or, you know, textures wrong. So you can a lot of time definitely goes into creating recipe. Um, probably a minimum from start to finish. Like if I already knew I was gonna make the recipe, I had it nailed. And I have to photograph it, edit it, getting on my block. I mean, we’re talking. Ah, full day of work. Usually it’s spread out. You know, I make it so that I’m not just doing one single recipe and at and block posted one day, but yeah, it definitely. I think a lot more goes on behind the scenes than the average person going to a website for a recipe realizes. And the reality is that’s kind of like free work. You know? I’m doing it for the larger good of my my block again to build a following, and it’s gotten me so many opportunities. But yeah, the average block you go to for a recipe, it’s just a just a person doing it because they enjoy it, you know? So, yeah,

Danielle How was your process For, like, working with different companies? Do you have ones that you’ve always kind of worked with?

Chelsea Yeah, it could be hard. To. I don’t want to say, like, have values. What? It can be hard to really be like, firm in your conviction and then try to go work with a company who maybe is, like, not so transparent about what they do. And things get a little dodgy. And you’re like, Well, I would really love to work with you and take pictures for you or create a recipe for you. But all your stuff is in plastic and I’m not really into that or, you know, how do you source your almonds or whatever. So, um, yeah, sometimes a lot of companies just come to me. So I’ve been fortunate that I don’t have to do so much of the outreach on my own. But there is a lot of vetting that happens. Peanut wants to be a part of this conversation. So yeah, Sometimes I reach out directly to companies I feel like chocolate is a place that I am constantly reaching out to because it can be a little tricky to figure out what chocolate companies were doing things really ethically and really well. But a lot of times the ones they’re doing it while our very transparent about it. So, um, that’s been somewhere that’s been easy for me to just reach out to and see if I can do some work for them. But a lot of times companies come to me, and I just tried out, but I’m not someone who, you know, always send me a free bag of popcorn, and I’ll promote it on social media like that doesn’t really do anything for me. And I feel like that doesn’t really do anything for my followers and my readers to just be like, Oh, great. She’s buying this. So I’m gonna buy it like I don’t know. I’m kind of over the influencer the world, you know, where you just it’s you. Yeah, huge and s, I don’t know, it’s hard. It’s hard to be part of this industry, but also not really love every part of it. So, yeah, What?

Danielle What do you think is like one of the biggest things that consumers kind of misunderstand about, like the natural from its world and like like you mentioned packaging. But it’s also what ingredients are in certain things, like different certifications like What would you say? Maybe get the most like enquiries are confusion about from people that follow you.

Chelsea Yeah, so it is really confusing. And I feel like there’s a lot of gray area and there’s a lot of choices you have to make, like, should I buy something that’s packaged in glass but were shipped across the world versus this thing that was freed locally but is in plastic, even though sure, the plastic was probably made somewhere across the world. But, you know, it’s kind of there’s a lot of tough choices to make which intervals of you’re well aware of, Um, but a lot of my readers really just want to know how it’s affordable. How can you possibly afford toe? I eat all organic or just to buy so many of the wellness products on the market, And I think the reality is the wellness industry is so over complicated. You know, it’s kind of it’s a business, and they’re trying to make money, and a lot of times it’s kind of wrapped up in, like diet culture and trying to get people by a new diet or weight loss product. But, um, for the most part, I think you can really keep it simple. You don’t have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars a week or month, or you don’t depending on your family sides on healthy food. Like, really, the basics are not expensive if you’re looking at like beans or rice or even look across the globe. But like staples that people eat, you can still find them at a higher quality for an affordable price in us at least, um, so, yeah, I think just keeping it simple is really like my big message, because I don’t I don’t think you need all the medicinal mushrooms And, like, herbal supplements, which, if you walk in my pantry, you’ll find plenty of them. But, like, those were fun, But you don’t need them right now. So yeah, I think so many people want to know how you could possibly afford. And I’m like, I don’t live on a giant budget. I’ll have some huge business like it’s just me running this and s O. Yeah, I think just really trying to think about the staples that you need And then, like, buying broccoli instead of buying, I don’t know, like some fancy vegetable out of season, you know? So, yeah,

Gary it’s interesting. Is what sort of brought you two even doing I Okay. I’m gonna make a bog and start putting recipes up about, you know, I’m assuming you probably already. We’re doing this at some level anyhow, but then you’re suddenly decided. Oh, I’m gonna share this with the world. What brought that about for you?

Chelsea Yeah. So I don’t know. I’ve always loved cooking, and I have a really big family, and I feel like everybody always wants my recipes. You know, everyone’s always asking for things, and so Eventually, it kind of just click nothing reading food blog’s for years and love them and always kind of felt like, Well, you know, there’s already hundreds of other bloggers doing what I’m doing. There’s no real value in me spending my time when I was already teaching full time and even before that, working on my masters like I was busy. You know, I didn’t I didn’t need to spend my time doing this. But then I think eventually I just felt like I was called to do it. And I had so many people asking for recipes. I felt like I had a somewhat unique perspective on cooking and especially my take on, like, healthy food, which is definitely simplified, sort of very minimal approach toe eating. Well, so yeah, I just I think one day I just finally, like, figured out what WordPress waas that was spent, like a day you tubing and just trying to teach myself how to build a website and then waited this fire in my soul like a camera and she gets out. So So I did it and yeah, it’s still it’s still a process. Sometimes there are things that I’m like I have no idea how to do that. And, you know, you can hire someone, or you just You just you two bit right. You just spend six hours on YouTube and then you figured it out.

Gary If you hear a lot of founding store founder stories stuff it’s so simple.

Danielle I like I’m gonna do this. Yeah, yeah.

Gary If there’s always this, like chaos, Yeah, is, you know, everybody has to start there.

Chelsea Yeah, It’s not a very exciting story. That wasn’t not some big moment. It was just like, I have no idea what I’m doing. And and I somehow figured out and people, you know, if you ask me toe build a brand new website today, I’d be lots. I don’t Don’t ask me. Listen, I don’t know how I did that, like I made it happen, but it was. But I can figure out my web site, so I feel like you know, it’s working.

Danielle Can I ask you a little bit? About what? Maybe gotten you interested in equal exchange. I know we have, like, a big presence in Western Mass, but then do you think about us differently? After kind of getting more involved in, like, the organizing work. Or did you know that we kind of had that focus before when you’re buying?

Chelsea No, I had no idea. I have no idea. Um, I think I grew up on the cape. I’ve been in Massachusetts pretty much my whole life, so I feel like I was new. Equal exchange existed. And then in my adult life, I was purchasing your products. But no, I I always I mean, you’re very good about labeling everything with, like, the farmer who grew it, an information about just the work that you’re doing. But I never really knew that there was any sort of, like, deeper activism going on. So So yeah,

Danielle yeah, I think it’s hard to like working with people across the US and, like people will go to an event and then they’ll be really excited, and they’ll have a lot of energy, but then having that be sustained and you staying connected, So but we do have our upcoming summit. It’s gonna be June 5th 26 in Massachusetts and Norton, Massachusetts that week in college, so hopeful listeners will tune in and be able to attend.

Chelsea Yeah, I heard about it. I got my email and my little mail. It wasn’t pamphlet, whatever it is. Little Mailer.

Danielle Oh, yeah, And another thing, too, is we re energize. The Java jive was well, so it’s kind of a publication, like four members of the organizing work, so people really like it. We’ve gotten a lot of, like feedback.

Gary Spontaneous question. What do you think might be some of the biggest issues in food in the food industry in the U. S. Right now, from your perspective, you know, need their natural foods or just in general,

Chelsea that’s a big question. I think some of the biggest issues and well, first of all, labeling is so confusing to the average complete a consumer. I feel like it’s hard to just pick up a package at the store and know what all these words means, like natural, something free. Like even the labels like organic and fair trade are aren’t as reliable as they once were. So, like that’s one big issue is not being able to just look at a box quickly and no like, is this in line with my values? Um, and then I feel like there’s a really a big lack of understanding of where food comes from, and I think that’s surprising about the U. S. But there’s so many people who don’t, like, really know where their produce is grown or what it would be like to work on a farm or what a farmer actually needs toe run their business and not go bankrupt and make ends meet. And he didn’t like seasonality. There’s such a lack of understanding that you may be wouldn’t find strawberries in January. Well, maybe what from Florida. But regardless, you know your food is coming from all over the world, so there’s really no season. But wherever you live, there are things that that only grows certain times of year, and it wouldn’t really make sense to buy them in the dead of winter. Or or, you know, in July you wouldn’t be buying cabbage or something. Whatever, Um, so I think, yeah, people just are kind of lacking that information about where food is grown and then and then the seasonality of it.

Gary It’s sort of interesting because our last last podcast we have this with Charlie from Boldon Meet, and he was talking about this concept of people being disconnected from where their food comes from and you know his. His effort was to try to bring people closer to the farmers and says a couple of support farmers and local communities. And then people take better care of farmers and that in the land and the place that they’re in when it’s in their neighborhood, in their backyard and when it’s disconnected its way out here in the middle of the country. Yeah, and it’s all just showing up in the supermarket, especially for us, like in the Northeast. But that happens with a lot of our food. There really is this huge disconnect and you’re not. You’re not understanding where that comes from, how it’s being produced, What are the waste products that are coming out of it so like yet they’re seasonality, and there’s like another component to where you’re just not. You’re not really understanding food in the same way. I

Danielle think there’s also less farmers that air out there, right, because oh, yeah, you had more towards industrial agriculture, and there’s just literally less farmers, so you’re less connected. But obviously, in western Mass, you’re saying you know there’s farmers near you, but I think that’s on purpose, Right? Grocery stores want a consumer to go in and not understand seasonality. Yeah, like not no that they want to be able to walk in as as consumer. We want to be able to walk in and I want asparagus today. I want broccoli, like whatever it might be and to not being paying attention. Thio, What time of the year is this actually a good thing to buy? I think there’s that purposeful kind of not educating are making people where those types of things is that can you think of? So this is kind of a little bit going the actual time of four, But can you think of, like, a specific example of where companies maybe wanted to work with you? But you’re like, No, I can’t come because of X, y or Z. And maybe how is it hard to navigate that?

Chelsea Yeah, um, I think I was saying to Gary before we started. It actually happened, is very often on, and it is hard, and it’s particularly hard because the companies that want to pay you the most money to do the work I do are the companies that I really don’t want to work for you. Yeah, you know s oh, it’s tough. Especially because there’s so many companies that I love working with their families. I love working with, like, small family businesses and farms, and and they’re not people that I want to charge a ton of money or not because I don’t value the work idea where they don’t value it, but because I know the reality of the work they do. But, um, yeah, I think over the summer, there was some campaign Pepsi was doing that they really wanted me to work on, and they were pretty relentless in contacting me. Like I thought I said no, I contacted me and I was like, You know, Pepsi. I really I want your money. But no, I’m not like I can’t do it And it happens a lot. I mean, even just like Wal Mart. And, um, there’s even smaller companies that send me stuff. Sometimes I wonder how people get my address, but sometimes I just get a lot of stuff from companies in the mail. Well, which sometimes freaks. Yeah, which sometimes trying to complain. You know, sometimes it’s nice when, like chocolate shows up on my doorstep. I’m like, Okay, you, however you found me, I’m happy about it. But, um, other other companies and, like, I don’t even I guess I’ll just donate it to the food bank. Like I don’t know what to do with it. And this box of pasta isn’t a real example. But this big box of pasta is not something I’m going to accept in exchange for work. So it was a value of sending me this, you know, a currency. All right, Right. Yeah. So it’s, I don’t know. It is hard because I feel like the majority of the work if you just happen to look a TTE a handful of other people who are bloggers or who make their money on instagram, which is actually a place where you can make a lot of money. Surprisingly, they’re usually promoting companies that are just not ones that I’m really interested in working with. So it’s tough because, Yeah, I have to say no a lot of the time. And then I’ll see my friends or my peers, like, you know, they’re making the money that I didn’t make. But, like, you know,

Danielle I think that’s what keeps your followers, though, is that you know, if you stay if you stay at them? Yeah, What you’re believing? That’s why that’s why those people are following. Yeah, they want that.

Chelsea Yeah, it’s just it can be hard sometimes.

Gary When you even before we started, you’re miss mentioning that Still

Chelsea a lot. There’s a lot of

Gary hundreds of bags of this in, like, you know,

Chelsea Yeah. Yeah, a lot of times, If I’m doing photography, work for a company, all really need, you know, one or two or three packages of whatever the product is, but they tend to send cases of things, which is nice again. I don’t want to complain about, like, having an abundance of food, right? But at the same time, like how much trail mix can one person eat s So it’s kind of like I think they do it to be nice, and I appreciate that, but at the same time, it’s like, this is too much. Yeah. So, yeah,

Danielle I wish I had that problem, Mr. From

Chelsea Full of Eyes. Yeah. Later, it’s It’s we’ve cleaned it like like boxes of stuff like trail mix is really want. I have a love chocolate covered things means nuts and stuff

Gary you mentions going thio cleaner food or like simple arrest warrants. You just talk a little bit about, like where you think the benefit of that is.

Chelsea Yeah. So, yes, I’m kind of the The whole philosophy behind my block is just recipes that require minimal ingredients and simple techniques like I don’t I don’t want to complicate health food, Right? Um but I think it is not only easier toe cook for yourself, but I feel like it’s more enjoyable. Toe actually make something out of produce and whole grains and things that you can just buy that are don’t have ingredients themselves, but are a natural whole food product and then cook something out of, as opposed to, like, pulling something out of the freezer and microwaving it. Which, of course, I do sometimes because I’m a human

Danielle and, like, you know, I was busy. Right? Convenience

Chelsea is convenient, but yeah, I feel like the question I ask myself is like at what expense? Like, who’s a convenient for, you know, like, yes, it’s convenient for me in the moment. But is it convenient for the planet? Is a convenient for like the workers who package this product or the farmers or whoever who produced it. Um, so that convenience is kind of like, uh, lie because it’s really just convenient for you in the moment. But like nowhere along the line was a convenient and producing it, So yeah, I think moving away from convenience foods, I mean, reality is they’re full of a lot of food that you don’t really wanna be eating, like to make them last on the shelf for years isn’t really something that is great for your body. But, um, at the end of the day, it’s you can eat whatever you want. You know, I’m not here to, like force people to eat healthy food. But I think if you convey you it as something that’s like not only nourishing your body but like great for your wallet, it doesn’t have to be that expensive and taste really good. You know, if the meal that you could make yourself with, like, 10 ingredients that you already have in your pantry is tastier than what you could get at the convenience store, Even the grocery stores like Well, that’s a Witten to may so

Gary and then also, you learn howto cook with those ingredients. Yeah, but I think it’s huge, like going back to, like, local agriculture. But even when stuff is in season, if you don’t cook regularly used to putting those types of recipes together and you’re not naturally good at coming up with recipes, it’s such about having access to those feet as knowing howto use them. Because if you don’t know how to use them, you won’t. You won’t buy them. Use them

Chelsea and it’s hard. Anderson and food waste is such a huge issue, too. I mean, you have people you can go out and buy tons of produce a grocery store, but if you don’t use it, you know what’s the point like every week you’re throwing away? I don’t know, the kale you bought them. Don’t buy the kale. You’re not gonna use it. Yeah, that’s what I think. Um, see, essays are great, like farm shares. Of course, you have to be willing to, like cook with something unique. But if you just get a box of produce every week or every two weeks or whatever and you’re committed to using it, it’s fun. to just see like, Oh, it’s the middle of July and there are blueberries in my box. I didn’t know that blueberries grew in July and Massachusetts, like, you know, So I think that could be a cool way to get connected. If, of course, you have a farm nearby that does it. But a lot of times you confined. There are farmers who will, like they do, um, see essays. Ripple drive across the state and they’ll meet you at other places, so you don’t always have to have, like, a neighborhood farm to do it. But that is a fun way to kind of see what’s in season where you live and just, like, really understand where your food comes from.

Danielle So where do you see things going next? What’s here? That’s a recipe

Chelsea next. Well, my next recipe. Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve been into cauliflower lately, which I know the whole world isn’t cauliflower, but not in the sense of like, let’s turn your favorite delicious carbon to cauliflower. But we’re just like I really love cooking with cauliflower or so, Yeah, um, maybe some sort of soup or something, but yeah, this is the whole the whole thing with the recipe processes, like sometimes it’s just me thinking like, wow, cauliflowers delicious and let me see where I’m gonna go with that in two weeks later, there’s a recipe out of it. Or sometimes I know like I’m making peanut butter stuff. Chocolate cookies tomorrow, like this has happened. And I can’t live another day without this

Danielle thing. This is happening, right? Sometimes I’m like,

Chelsea I don’t know. We’ll see what happens in a few weeks.

Gary So before we, uh, close up, I just want to ask you Is there anything you’d like to share with the audience that you think is interesting or important for people?

Chelsea Yeah. So I guess I would say what I really wish people knew is that it’s not so difficult to engage in your local community and to be active in your community that, at least for me, you know, there are farmers out there. I confined seasonal food. There are people in your community who are doing the work that you’re passionate about, and you really just have toe try to find them for me. I’m so worked out that I have equal exchange who’s doing the work that I also want to be doing. But that there really are there people out there doing what you’re interested in? Before I was blocking, I had no idea what I was doing. And then here I am. You know, um, there were lots of people on the way. He supported me. And then I feel like I can kind of use my platform to get my mission across, but, um, yeah, it’s just so helpful to find people. And there, there, you know, it can be isolating toe work from home to work for yourself or even wherever, Wherever you work. It can feel really, really isolating. But I think it’s possible to find that community in that group of people who can work towards whatever it is. Do you love?

Danielle Great. Well, thank you. Great. I’m excited that I get to meet peanut person. Thio seen lots of dog photos, so

Chelsea she’s calm now. But  

Gary thank you for talking with us

Chelsea thanks for coming, so glad you did.  

Danielle This was fun.  

Danielle See you at the summit.  

Chelsea Yes, yes.  

Danielle Thanks for listening to the stories behind our food Podcast by people Exchange A worker-owned cooperative love this episode. Please subscribe rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit Equal Exchange dot coop to join the conversation, purchase products and learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode is produced by Gary Goodman with hosts Kate Chess and Danielle Robidoux. Join us next time for another edition of the Stories Behind Our Food.