Coffee and Rosa Parks

What do Rosa Parks and Coffee have in common?

It’s about dignity and respect.  In 1955 when Ms. Parks refused to give her seat to a white passenger on the bus in Montgomery, AL, she made a statement which quickly resonated around the world and which some might argue galvanized and personalized the civil rights movement in a way which nothing up to that point had.  What at first seemed a small, random act of protest crystalized the unequal and unjust treatment of blacks in the South so succinctly that even those who had up to that point remained silently on the sidelines could no longer refuse to acknowledge the injustice, the unfairness, of the treatment she received.  It was time to choose a side; time to be heard.  Racial discrimination was in your face and you had to look at it and take a stand.

While we’ve certainly made progress on civil rights in this country there is certainly much work remaining to be done in the name of basic human dignity and equality. It’s important to note, however, that many more forms of inequality exist besides racism.  Poverty, for example, perpetuates an unfair and inhumane distinction based on class which keeps millions of people from reaching their potential and living happy lives.  The causes of poverty are many and varied, but specifically in the coffee industry they seem to emanate from an economic model which devalues the work done by producers and workers while enriching middle-men and resellers.  

Here are some excerpts from the Specialty Coffee Association’s White Paper: “Food Security and Coffee:  Ending Seasonal Hunger”.  Hunger and malnutrition in coffee growing regions are seasonal crises that typically occur during the rainy season, the food planting season, or the early months of the harvest season (Caswell, 2012). Since most coffee growing households receive only one annual paycheck for their crop, they face the difficulty of distributing that lump sum throughout the following year to meet all of their household needs until the next harvest. The income that farmers earn from coffee is often less than their annual spending needs, and unfortunately, this is true even among farmers who receive price premiums for fair trade or organic certifications (Bacon, 2008; Méndez, 2010; Beauchelt, 2011; Beauchelt, 2012).   In the face of such income scarcity, spending on food is often compromised, and farmers annually confront a situation where they can no longer afford to feed their families regular, healthy meals. In extreme situations, coffee producing families run out of savings & are forced to choose between food and shelter. In Latin America, some rural dwellers have termed these periods of food scarcity “los meses flacos,” which translates to “the thin months.” It is challenging to identify a single cause of hunger among coffee growing communities since farmers are vulnerable in a variety of ways: in addition to their scarce, seasonal income, price fluctuations in the commodity futures market for coffee are beyond their control but impact their livelihoods enormously.”

Ultimately eliminating food insecurity from producers and workers in coffee-growing regions is a matter of human dignity, respect and equal treatment, not unlike the civil rights movement in many respects.  We must empower coffee producers and workers and enable them to earn a sustainable income; there is certainly enough money within the supply chain to make this happen.  Some recommendations from the SCA White Paper include:

  1.  Provide Farmers with adequate support and technical assistance to maximize food production potential and attain balanced nutrition
  2. Support livelihood diversification so that coffee growers have multiple sources of income and food other than coffee
  3. Increase industry awareness and action to address food insecurity in coffee regions
  4. Develop multi-stakeholder, long-term initiatives
  5. Encourage and support research that contributes timely empirical evidence

Ultimately it’s about supporting others with more than simply our words.  It’s about recognizing the humanity in others, demonstrating compassion for those in need and acting upon that compassion with our hands and feet.  Support specialty coffee and the amazing people who product and grow it.  Support Fair Trade and Direct Trade coffees.  Support your brothers and sisters.  

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