We all enjoy a great cup of coffee, and much like our food, we rarely give thought as to how it arrived. I had the pleasure of meeting two women at the Coffee and Tea Festival in New York City who not only can tell you first-hand in great detail as to how it arrived, they are also taking that information and doing something with it to help make the lives of the people who sacrifice to bring it to you just a bit better.
Su Friedrich-From The Ground Up
Su Friedrich is an award-winning filmmaker, having produced and directed 18 films to date. Ms. Friedrich has used her gift as a film-maker of merit to bring us From The Ground Up, a beautifully done film that shows the startling differences along the way in the journey of coffee from the ground to your cup.
Beginning in Southwestern Guatemala, Su Friedrich gives an observers point of view of the rudimentary beginnings of your cup of coffee. The film opens with the coffee workers, which includes men, women (often carrying their babies), and children riding in crowded trucks out to the hilly coffee fields in the wee hours for a full day of picking.
At the end of the day, carrying bags that can reach a weight of 110 lbs. on their backs, they go to an area where the sacks are measured. Not yet free of their burdens, it is their responsibility to climb up into the trucks on awkward steps and empty those bags--only to receive $3 a day for their efforts.
Ms. Friedrich does not try to lead you with heavy commentary. She just lets you observe and draw your own conclusions. With the striking contrast between the workers’ labor-intensive days and their housing and living conditions on the farm against the farm owner’s stables with specially-made initialed saddles, it won’t take you long. Moving forward in the journey to the people who call the shots, setting the price of the most coveted beans, the cupping sessions of the buyers, the differences are surely striking.
Ms. Friedrich does not stop with the coffee growers. She also highlights the hard work of the coffee vendors that you often see on the streets of New York City, selling coffee for under a dollar, a far cry from the average $4 coffees in the coffee chains but not quite so fancy either.
The booklet that comes with the DVD, “Notes From the Ground Up”, provides a wealth of sobering information and statistics, including some eye-opening information about discrepancies in the actual figures paid to Starbucks’ Fair Trade workers as opposed to the figure quoted to the public.
Karen Gordon-Cup for Education
Karen Gordon is the founder of Cup for Education, an organization whose focus is on assisting the rural communities of Central and Latin America dependent on coffee farming with obtaining the basic tools needed for education like books, furniture, etc. One of Cup for Education’s most recent accomplishments was Beans for Books where funds were donated to purchase library and text books for communities devastated by Hurricane Stan.
Ms. Gordon is the director of CHC (Coffee Holding Company) and has also been involved with Women in Coffee. Curious about how this all began, I asked Ms. Gordon a few questions.
You have traveled to Nicaragua and are involved with numerous efforts all around coffee. What led you to become so heavily involved with coffee as a vehicle for change?
“I was on a trip back in 2003 where myself and a group of women in the coffee industry had the opportunity to spend several days with the women and children of a cooperative in Nicaragua. They shared their lives and experiences with us. The daily problems they encounter in all aspects of life. I saw the conditions of the school in the community and realized there was much we take for granted.
We all are making a living in coffee, our children get to go to school with all the materials they need, they have teachers, and their school has a roof and desks. These children had none of this. Education is the cornerstone to improving one's life. I felt this was something I could help with."
I asked both Ms. Gordon and Ms. Friedrich how can the average coffee drinker continue to enjoy their coffee and yet help to better the lives of the growers?
"I think people should just make an effort to buy Fair Trade coffee. It isn't always easy to find but, when it's there, it's obvious because it always has the Fair Trade logo on it. And there are two aspects to this: getting coffee that's made and buying it at a store.
For people who have a local coffee bar they frequent, I would recommend that they ask the owner, if they don't offer FT coffee, to start offering it. If need be, they might charge a bit more (as some places in my neighborhood do) so that the customers have a choice, and because the owners might complain about paying more for it but not being able to charge more.
Secondly, if they have a local store where they buy coffee, it's the same thing--ask them to start carrying some Fair Trade coffee. Or if they go to two stores, and one already carries some, then they should make a point of buying from the store that does, and letting the other store know about that. But then again we can't always do this--we constantly buy coffee on the go, so I don't think people should stress out and feel guilty all the time. We have to yield to the pressures of life when we have no option, but when we do have an option (like what we buy for use at home) then we can make that little extra effort to buy Fair Trade coffee."
"I think just taking the time to think about where the coffee comes from and who is growing it. I know there are a lot of causes out there we can support, but sometimes remembering the people that contribute to something so present in our everyday life no matter how small can be a nice gesture. It really does not take a lot to make a difference in these communities."
I asked myself a question that others may ask; Should we stop drinking coffee? I don’t see that as the answer. These countries are dependent upon coffee for their very survival. But we definitely need to do more like letting our dollars speak for us by buying fair trade coffees whenever we can or supporting organizations like Cup for Education and educating ourselves with films like From The Ground Up.
We should also let the companies that produce our cup of choice know that we are more than concerned; that we want to know what they are doing to improve the imbalance and that we want more. Hold them, as well as ourselves, accountable.
It was best summed up by one gentleman hard at work scrubbing the vendor carts who says, “This is life. The most people who work hard, are the most people who get less money.” This may be true, but in my opinion, the huge difference between what the workers in places like Guatemala, Nicaragua and Ethiopia are paid and the ultimate profits at the end of the chain leave room for a fairer wage for the workers.
Is buying Fair Trade coffee enough? Ms. Friedrich’s final frame on the DVD says it all. “Dedicated to the movement for even more than Fair Trade.”
Su Friedrich-From the Ground Up
Karen Gordon-Cup for Education
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