Where Catholic meets coffee

What does morality have to do with your morning joe? Catholic Relief Services’ Fair Trade Coffee Project helps provide a living wage for the farmers who grow the beans that make the brew

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CRS agronomist Mariela Zamora, left, examines the health of coffee trees with coffee farmer Rosa Amelia Centeno Centeno. Photo by Rick D'Elia for CRS
Coffee beans picked on the left and coffee beans as they look after being cleaned and processed on the right. Photo by Hilda M. Perez for CRS
New York deacon Kevin Carges traveled to Nicaragua to learn more about Catholic Relief Services' Fair Trade Coffee Project. Photo by Brother Albert

By Dirk Van Susteren


A customer, laptop under arm, stands in line at a coffee bar. As he waits, he considers the various roasts and the many brews: latte, cappuccino, macchiato, espresso, plain old joe. What will it be? Our customer goes for a latte, a dark roast with steamed milk, and looks to his favorite table. From an adjoining room wafts a comforting aroma: roasting coffee beans. He hands over $7 for the latte and two biscotti.

 

Three thousand miles away on a hillside in a Central American country, a farmer with a wide-brimmed hat on his head and a basket tugging at his waist is sweating under the sun. He is stripping the branches of his pruned 6-foot coffee plants of their “cherries.” In these ripe red casings are the beans that will be extracted and dried and shipped to North America for brewing. The farmer, on his few acres, makes only pennies, while dollars are being spent at the coffee bar. He has no health care. He can’t afford to send his kids to school. His family lives in a tiny wood-frame building with tin roof and dirt floor.

 

In these two worlds circling the coffee bean, there’s an income gap — some would call it a morally indefensible chasm — between consumer and grower. Coffee goes through many stages after it’s grown, and along the route from bean to brew, it gains value exponentially. There’s one problem: Those who work the hardest, the growers, are paid the least. And many are powerless.

 

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Kevin Carges, a deacon in the Diocese of Rochester, New York, is aware of the disparity and the hardship. He is hoping he can help. This past spring he traveled to Nicaragua to witness efforts by Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian arm of the Church, to help growers through its Fair Trade Coffee Project. Through it, CRS staff and volunteers help farmers in Central America improve their methods of growing and processing, and find new markets for specialty brands of coffee.

 

“The work they are doing is awesome,” said Carges several weeks after his trip. “CRS is trying to empower people to help them work together. They are working to develop cooperatives to help growers. This helps them avoid the middlemen and to get fairer prices. It gives growers hope, and they can look forward to a better quality of life.”

 

CRS launched its Fair Trade Coffee Project in 2003 in response to the tremendous economic and social dislocations caused by falling prices during what’s come to be known as the coffee crisis of 1999 to 2004. The market was in a glut largely as a result of increased production predominantly in Vietnam and Brazil, where swaths of forests had been cut to grow fields of coffee plants.

 

The small-scale growers on the hillsides of Central America, who had been growing higher-quality, more-flavorful beans (Arabica versus robusto), fell victim as prices plunged. Many began moving to cities in futile attempts to find work.

 

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“The farmers were abandoning their farms, so CRS, first in Nicaragua, began helping — certifying their coffee as Fair Trade — so they could begin selling it (at a premium) on the Fair Trade market,” said Katy Cantrell, a Fair Trade program adviser for CRS. The program started with 300 farmers in Nicaragua and now involves some 7,000 farmers throughout the region.   

 

Though Fair Trade coffee is more expensive than regular coffee — sometimes as much as $4 or $5 more a pound — many consumers say they are willing to buy it because it tastes better and because the growers have received a living wage for their labor. Also, the coffee usually is organic, meaning farmers have not had to handle dangerous pesticides. And it often is shade-grown, meaning the coffee shrubs have grown among fruit and other types of trees — promoting agricultural diversification and providing habitat for migratory birds.

 

Cantrell reported that consumers have the assurance that coffee is fairly traded because it is certified by TransFair USA, the nonprofit Fair Trade auditing firm.

 

To get its coffee to consumers, CRS has teamed up with 14 partners across the nation, for the most part small businesses that import the beans and roast them in various ways to create different flavors. They package the coffee and sell to churches, food co-ops, and independent grocers. They sell online, at farmers’ markets, and in some cases in their own coffee shops. Some roasters set aside a portion of earnings to fund programs to help growers.

 

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“We sell wholesale to churches, schools, restaurants, cafés, and grocery stores,” says Chris Treter, owner of Higher Grounds Trading Co., a CRS partner in Traverse City, Michigan. “But we also have a coffee shop, with sweets, that attracts tourists as well as lots of locals.”

 

Another partner, the worker-owned cooperative Just Coffee in Madison, Wisconsin, was co-founded by a local organic farmer and Matt Earley, who wrote his master’s thesis on coffee in graduate school. Earley became interested in the subject when he saw firsthand the plight of growers while visiting the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico in the late 1990s on a tour to help build schools. 

 

“Food, shoes, education, a roof overhead… all these things we in America take for granted… are often out of reach there,” he says.

 

Earley said the Just Coffee co-op members and many of its customers are “politically and socially motivated” and that “building human connections” is one of the co-op’s main goals.

 

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Many involved in the CRS Fair Trade Coffee Project describe their participation as a social and religious “mission.” They say they hope their work reflects the themes of Catholic social teaching, the most applicable precept perhaps being to recognize “the dignity of work and the rights of workers.”

 

James Curren was a trader for a large commodities firm before he switched careers and moved to the small town of Faribault, Minnesota, to start Providence Coffee. His business, run out of a warehouse, employs only two people, and his roaster is one town over. Curren said he sells CRS Fair Trade coffee almost exclusively to Catholic parishes, retreat centers, and dioceses.

 

“I had a well-paying job, traveled regularly, but by the standards the Lord set for me, it all seemed unimportant,” said Curren. “I decided to do something I thought was more meaningful.”

 

Because of its higher prices, CRS-endorsed Fair Trade coffee can be a tough sell in an ailing economy. But CRS works to promote the coffee through its website and word of mouth.

 

The website, crsfairtrade.org, has blogs, photos, stories, profiles of the business partners, information on how to become involved, and video clips with interviews of growers, who tell how they have benefited from the Fair Trade program. One spotlights a program in Nicaragua where CRS has helped more than 100 women establish four cooperatives, three of which are exporting their product to Just Coffee in Madison. “The knowledge we are getting from this exchange has given us a great desire to work because we are using the higher prices they are paying us to improve our standard of living,” says Rosamena Centano in one of the videos. The higher income, she says, is allowing healthier diets for families and improved educational opportunities for children.

 

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CRS’ word-of-mouth campaign is conducted largely by some 50 CRS volunteer “ambassadors,” who hawk coffee and other Fair Trade products at parish and other events. Many churches, at the prompting of these ambassadors, have begun selling coffee by the cup or bag between Masses on Sunday or at fundraising events.

 

One such ambassador is Sally Poland, a coffee aficionado from Raleigh, North Carolina, who has been working with Larry’s Beans, also of Raleigh, to push its Fair Trade roasts.

 

“When you make that Fair Trade choice as a consumer, you are guaranteed the grower was paid a fair price, and, yes, it can cost a little more, but you have the knowledge you are participating in economic justice,” she says. Besides, she adds,“The coffee is fabulous!”

 

With some 25 million people helping to grow coffee throughout world — many living at or near poverty — what kind of difference can Fair Trade make?

 

Mark Pendergrast, coffee columnist for Wine Spectator magazine and author of Uncommon Grounds, a history of coffee, estimates that 5 percent of the coffee sold in the United States is Fair Trade, and he sees a growth trend that’s likely to continue. A sign of this potential, he says, is the fact that surveys show only about 35 percent of American consumers are aware of the Fair Trade label — compared to about 90 percent in the United Kingdom. As more consumers get the word, he reasons, more people are likely to buy the specialty coffee.

 

“Fair Trade is especially helpful when times turn bad,” as they did between 1999 and 2004, Pendergrast says. “It can be a total lifeline then (for growers).”

 

But he cautions that Fair Trade can’t solve every grower’s problems. “There is just too much inequity built into the whole system,” Pendergrast says.

 

“Fair trade is really a very small component of the international coffee market,” agrees Poland. “It won’t solve all of the problems, but it helps solve some of the problems.”

 

She says the Fair Trade movement “helps make small ethical ripples,” which is enough reason for her to embrace the effort. CD

 

More than just coffee

Besides coffee, CRS has been touting other products aimed at helping the world’s disadvantaged producers — namely chocolate and certain handicrafts. To learn more, request a catalog, and to order, visit crsfairtrade.org or call 800-685-7572.

 

Where’s a partner near me?

To find out which coffee companies partner with CRS Fair Trade, visit crsfairtrade.org/coffee.

Dirk Van Susteren

Dirk Van Susteren is a freelance writer and editor based in Calais, Vermont.