Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 11 News List

Churches brew up sales for fair trade coffee


A poster on a wall at Equal Exchange, a food cooperative here, asks a question that literally hangs over the heads of its employees: What would Jesus drink?

The answer, they say, is brewing in thousands of places of worship around the country: "fair trade" coffee.

For the past eight years, Equal Exchange, which imports fair-trade coffee, tea and cocoa, has made partnerships with missionary groups, religious organizations and individual churches to help them switch from inexpensive mass-produced cans of coffee to beans bought directly from coffee cooperatives.

By exporting the coffee themselves, farmers earn considerably more per pound than they would if they sold through industry middlemen. The fair-trade coffee, Equal Exchange says, guarantees a living wage to farmers in 17 countries. The company said it pays the cooperatives US$1.26 a pound for regular coffee and US$1.41 a pound for organic coffee. Coffee for March delivery closed at US$0.6325 a pound on the market this week.

"For these small farmers who are feeling the benefit of this project, it's enormous," said Erbin Crowell, director of the Equal Exchange Interfaith Coffee Program. The company, founded in 1986, is working toward marketing fair-trade chocolate and sugar as well, he said.

Rodney North, an Equal Exchange worker whose title is "answer man," said Equal Exchange had about 30 percent of the fair trade coffee market in the US and about 1/1,000 of the coffee market in that country.

The churches and the company call the partnership a natural. Coffee hour is an integral part of Sunday worship for many faiths, as are commitments to social justice and missionary work. Drinking fair-trade coffee is a way to live out that commitment on a daily basis, say leaders of these religious groups.

Religious organizations can buy the coffee from US$5 to US$7 a pound, a per-pound discount from supermarket prices of roughly US$1.50. The company created a special coffee, Fellowship Blend, for use in large percolators. Ten 1-pound packages cost US$50.

"It's important for us to help Catholics to be able to do their day-to-day living, and live out principles of Catholic faith, which call us to be people of justice," said Joan Neal, the deputy executive director of US operations for Catholic Relief Services. "While we are asking people to pay a little more for fairly traded coffee, we are assuring them that that little bit more will make a big difference in the lives of small farmers and their families and their children."

The agency, which represents Roman Catholic parishes, schools and organizations in 195 dioceses nationwide, allied with Equal Exchange last month. It hopes to enlist 1,900 parishes, or 10 percent of the nation's Catholic churches, in the program by last month.

Last year 7,000 congregations nationwide purchased 125 tons of coffee, tea and cocoa from Equal Exchange, about 15 percent of the company's business. Other participating groups include Lutheran World Relief, Presbyterian Church USA, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Crowell said the company also does business with a number of Buddhist temples.

"Coffee is basically of sacramental stature in the Lutheran church," said Jonathan Frerichs, a spokesman for Lutheran World Relief, which started a fair-trade program in 1997.

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