Can a Locavore Eat Chocolate, Coffee and Bananas with a Clear Conscience?

Chances are, if you’re a regular visitor to this web site, you proudly support the mission of local, sustainable farms: you’re a member of your neighborhood food co-op; you shop at farmers markets; you subscribe to a regular CSA delivery; you spend your Saturdays crop-mobbing; and you eat in restaurants that are similarly committed to supporting local farmers.

Pat yourself on the back. You’re an informed and conscientious locavore – and darn proud of it. You care about your food’s origin, its environmental impact, and its connection to the community.

So, tell me: Is it possible to honor these values if you eat food that’s not grown within a 100-mile radius, maybe even a 1,000-mile radius, of where you live? Are you able to eat bananas, grapes and chocolate, and drink coffee and tea, with a clear conscience?

I hear you grumbling: “Do you expect me to boycott some of life’s greatest pleasures just because I live in a climate that can’t grow the crops that make them? Aren’t there enough things I have to do without, living here? Like daylight in the winter. Deet-free skin in the summer. And expectations that two lanes of traffic will merge into one lane at the point where they’re supposed to and not two miles back – all year round. How much more can I possibly give up and not turn all Jack Nicholson-like in The Shining?”

Put down the ax. That’s not where I’m going with this.

There’s a way you can be a locavore and still enjoy non-local, even non-American food without sacrificing your honorable and laudable values. Have you heard the term “Fair Trade?”

Maybe you’ve heard it but you’re not really sure what it is. That’s not uncommon; about 80 percent of your fellow Americans don’t, according to Katie Barrow of Fair Trade USA. (Though 80 percent of Europeans do.) Fair Trade is a comprehensive certification process that supports small farmers in communities throughout the world. In a sense, it’s global locavorism.

When you see the Fair Trade logo on coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, et al, you can be sure that these foods have been produced in conformance to a rigid set of requirements, similar to those followed by your favorite Minnesota farmer:

1.  Fair Trade supports small farms.
Lindsey Bolger, head of coffee sourcing for Green Mountain Coffee, says that 80 percent of all coffee grown in the world comes from small farms of 3 hectares (about 7 acres) or less. Most cocoa bean farms are similarly small, as are the farms that grow vanilla, bananas, and most other Fair-Trade crops.

2.  Fair Trade pays farmers a fair wage.
A Fair Trade certification ensures that farmers are paid a fair price for their harvest. The current Fair-Trade price for coffee is $1.35 plus a 10-cent “social premium” (see number 3) per pound, compared to the less than 50-cents per pound that non-Fair Trade farmers receive.

3.  Fair Trade revitalizes communities.
The social premium paid to Fair Trade co-ops is used to build schools and health clinics, pay for doctors, maintain clean water supplies, and raise the standard of living for everyone, not just a few at the top of the hierarchy.

4.  Fair Trade respects the environment.
Fair-Trade farmers must follow organic growing methods – no chemical pesticides or herbicides, no GMOs –  and are encouraged to apply for organic certification. If they succeed, they receive an additional premium for their certified organic products; for coffee, this amounts to 20 cents more per pound.

5.  Fair Trade supports families.
Forced child labor, a tragic trademark of many of the world’s cocoa farms (which I wrote about just before Halloween last year), is strictly prohibited by Fair Trade certification. Instead, Fair Trade resources help children spend their days in school and earn scholarships for higher education.

So, if you want to continue drinking coffee or eating chocolate – and who doesn’t? – do so in a way that honors the same values that you bring to the rest of your food choices. October is Fair Trade Month. Why not commemorate it by substituting something on your grocery list for its Fair Trade counterpart. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Check out the Reverse Trick-or-Treating campaign created by Global Exchange, so you can be more informed before shopping for Halloween candy.  Then check out these Fair-Trade gold coins – perfect for little ghouls and goblins who might TP your trees if you don’t give them some chocolate.

Fair-Trade blends are available almost anywhere coffee is served, including Caribou, Brueggers, Einsteins, and Starbucks, as well as many of your favorite restaurants, like Birchwood Café, Brasa, Common Roots, Pizza Luce, and Big Bowl, which all serve Fair-Trade Peace Coffee. You can also buy Fair-Trade coffee ready-to-brew at Twin Cities area food co-ops, Whole Foods, Kowalski’s, and Trader Joe’s. Even Target, Wal-Mart and Costco sell Fair-Trade coffee. Yes, it costs a few cents more, but consider it money well invested in small family farms.

Ice Cream
Ben and Jerry’s has recently committed to go 100 percent Fair Trade by 2013. (I just returned from a trip to the legendary ice cream makers’ headquarters in Burlington, Vermont, where I took part in a 36-hour Fair-Trade intensive, ate five servings of Fair-Trade ice cream, and actually got to meet Ben and Jerry. I’ll tell you more about that in my post next week.) To date, eight of Ben and Jerry’s flavors are Fair Trade certified: Vanilla, Chocolate, Chocolate Macadamia, Chocowlate Chip, Milk and Cookies, Coffee, Coffee-Coffee-Buzz-Buzz, and Coffee Health Bar Crunch. It’s great when you can alleviate some of the guilt associated with eating ice cream by making sure that it’s Fair Trade.

In 2003, Honest Tea became the first bottled tea maker to offer a Fair Trade flavor: Peach Oo-la-long. Today, more than half of its tea varieties are Fair Trade. And just last week, the company announced that all of its products will be Fair-Trade certified by early-2011. (This makes me feel a little better about drinking a beverage that’s 40-percent owned by Coca Cola.)

The most widely grown fruit is also the world’s third largest staple crop, making the banana market a key component in the Fair Trade movement. You can buy Fair-Trade bananas, sold in most Twin Cities area co-ops, for 99 cents per pound; the cost for regular bananas at Cub Foods is 59 cents per pound. Remember: that forty cents can make all the difference in the world. 

Equal Exchange is a worker-owned and governed Fair Trade co-op with an office in Minneapolis. Its products are widely available at retail locations throughout the Twin Cities, and its website is a great source for more information about Fair Trade.

Rink Dickinson, Equal Exchange’s co-founder, has written and spoken extensively about our worldwide community of small farmers. He, too, equates the principles of Fair Trade with the principles of eating local:

“The needs of small farmers, whether they grow coffee [in the South] or produce [in the North], may be quite similar. Both groups need better access to and more control over the market. That can only happen if consumers use their market power to vote for fair prices to the grower, better access to financing for small farmers, and more environmentally sustainable production.”

So make the switch – buy Fair Trade and support local farmers everywhere, and enjoy your coffee, tea, chocolate, and ice cream. (In moderation, of course.)

And please take turns while merging.


Shari Danielson
is a frequent contributor fo Simple, Good and Tasty. Her last post was Will "Corn Sugar" Sweet Sales of High Fructose Corn Syrup? And Will a Soda Tax Sour Them?