I was standing in a hotel lobby gift shop surrounded by California trinkets. Printed towels, souvenir spoons with lighthouses, stuffed toy dolphins and other crap. I saw a middle-aged guy, soft around the middle with an SCAA* bag slung on his shoulder, looking at a snow globe.
“Have a good show?” I asked.
It was the last day of the world’s largest specialty coffee conference in 2007. I was working with Coffee Kids, an NGO dedicated to helping coffee-farming families improve their quality of life.
“Yup, it went well, yours?” he asked.
We talked a bit about our work, the average trade show ‘what do you have that I might need’ banter.
We work in coffee communities, I said, supporting projects in education, food sovereignty, health care, economic diversification – whatever was the priority for the community. Our funding comes from coffee companies or others in the industry and supported a wide variety of projects.
“Hmmm… well that doesn’t sound like a good idea, sounds like you’re training farmers to get out of coffee,” he challenged. “Now why would I ever want to support something like that, something that could drive my prices up?”
Coffee Kids was based on the premise that if people weren’t starving. If people weren’t betting their annual income on just one harvest. If people weren’t dependent on a coffee price that can fall or spike by 100% in the same year, maybe just maybe coffee companies would benefit.
This guy had other ideas.
And now, seven years since that conversation, that attitude remains prevalent even though the clothing has changed slightly.
There is a double standard in the coffee world – and the world in general.
We want sustainability, but we don’t want it to cost us anything. We want to help the children of coffee farmers , but we don’t want those kids to leave the farm. We want to support projects that we want, whether or not that jibes with what the community’s need. We want an ROI for our donation dollars, but we don’t want to pay for the admin to figure that out.
In some ways, Coffee Kids was always a tough sell.
It was one of the only organizations I have known that had the guts to look at the problem and really understand that the solution was completely in the hands of those confronting the problem. No. One. Else.
Explaining this was difficult. We couldn’t say what we did exactly, because we supported what the community needed. The only mission was helping coffee-farming families on their terms. Come along for the ride and see what happens. There was no standard project, every one was slightly different.
But in so many ways it worked for thousands of people. Children who went through school thanks to scholarship programs sponsored by Coffee Kids help returned to their communities to work in coffee as professionals. Women launched their own businesses that put food on the table when the money from coffee ran dry. Gardens grew and heirloom seeds gathered to continue feeding the community for another year. A biodiesel/macadamia nut enterprise reduced the reliance on that volatile coffee crop.
I always said that Coffee Kids could only exist in an industry like coffee, where the concept of sustainability was always being pushed. The industry was willing to get behind an organization that really dug into the grassroots. But now I’m beginning to have my doubts.
Priorities have changed. Companies aren’t willing to take the risk, join the adventure and enter the conversation. They don’t want a development laboratory. They don’t want to trust people to do what’s needed. If I see another big company sustainability project that’s grounded in ‘sustainability’ of the company’s supply chain rather than sustainability of the community, I’m going to puke.
Yes, with the closing of Coffee Kids, that guy I met in the gift shop has had the last word.
Dear Mr. Coffee Professional, please just know, you are the scourge of the planet.
But hope springs eternal. If you care anything about coffee and its future, there are other great organizations that you need to support. I adore the work of Food4Farmers and the Coffee Trust. I’ve also thrown my money behind Pueblo a Pueblo. And check out Grounds for Health. These organizations need your support this holiday season. Do this. Please.