A cup of activism

Coffee programs brew environmental and economic justice
May 31, 2005

When is a cup of coffee more than a cup of coffee? When it promotes environmental and economic justice in coffee-growing nations around the world.

A growing number of congregations and individuals are buying fair-trade, organic, shade-grown coffee. This means coffee growers in developing countries receive a fair wage for their product, which is grown in an environmentally friendly and sustainable fashion.

In mid-2002, Episcopal Relief and Development began selling Bishops Blend, a fair-trade, organic, shade-grown coffee marketed by Pura Vida. ERD receives 15 percent of profits -- $2,000 to $4,500 a month -- for its programs, said Malaica Kamunanwire, ERD’s annual fund and communications director. Environmental concerns are a key component of ERD’s sustainable development work, she noted.

Brian Sellers-Petersen, ERD’s Province VIII representative, helped make the ERD connection through his friendship with John Sage, Pura Vida founder. Sage had decided to target churches as well as colleges, reasoning that “the one thing Christians can agree on is coffee hour,” Sellers-Petersen recounted.

Pura Vida, which buys from a cooperative of coffee farmers, switched from mostly to 100 percent fair-trade coffee to cement the agreement with ERD, he said. “They have found that that ended up being a benefit, and John has publicly given ERD credit.”

About 500 congregations and dioceses, more than 800 individuals and at least one college -- General Theological Seminary -- have bought Bishops Blend, Kamunanwire said. “This really is a question of stewardship and looking at stewardship more holistically,” Sellers-Petersen said. “Just drinking a cup of coffee can help people.”

Christy Nordstrom has met some of those people. She leads the Fair Trade Coffee Ministry that serves Bishops Blend at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle. Recently, she traveled to Nicaragua to see where and how the coffee is grown.

By selling through cooperatives instead of on the open market, coffee growers earn more -- especially if their coffee is certified as fair-trade and organically grown, she said. That money in turn pays for things like educational scholarships and microcredit for women starting businesses in the communities, she said.

Staying in a coffee grower’s home, she said, “opened my eyes to how ... with a little bit of money, what big changes can be effected in people’s lives. I saw and heard people talk about [how] they’re able to eat more protein during the week. They’re able to send their children to school more often, to buy their uniforms and buy the books. The women ... have better self-esteem and power within their communities.”

In Arizona, the Fair Trade Cafe opened in September under the auspices of a nonprofit organization of Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix. The cafe sells Bishops Blend and Mexican fair-trade, shade-grown organic coffee from Just Coffee.

Facing the risks of any start-up, the venture is struggling, said the cafe’s “instigator,” the Rev. Rebecca McClain, former cathedral dean and now executive director of the national Church Deployment Office.

Although they hoped eventually to turn a profit to use in outreach ministries, she noted, “We knew if all we did was break even, we would be making a difference because we’re both telling a story and delivering a product and helping the people who are providing that product.”