Caffeine with a conscience
At Berkeley residence hall cafeterias, all the coffee is ‘fair trade’

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs



Above: Signage at Clark Kerr Dining Hall describes the house blend, certified fair-trade organic French Roast.
Noah Berger photo

12 September 2001 | There’s a movement brewing on college campuses — fair-trade coffee — but you’ve probably seen little sign of it on Sproul. That’s because, at Berkeley, every drop of java in residence hall coffee brewers is fair-trade certified.

Started in Europe in the ‘80s, the movement offers small Third World farmers a “fair-trade” price for their beans — currently $1.26 a pound, or four to five times the ruinous rates they’re fetching today on the international market. Coffee drinkers, meanwhile, get a more eco-friendly cup of brew.

At more than 100 U.S. colleges and universities, students are attempting to get their local roasters to sell, and campuses to purchase, fair-trade coffee — usually with “a whole lot of obstacles in their path,” says Deborah Hirsh of TransFair USA, the Oakland-based organization that certifies fair-trade coffee.

Berkeley’s Housing and Dining Services office — which buys 7,500 pounds of coffee each year — made the switch with little fanfare last October. The campus now serves only organic, fair-trade coffee in residence hall dining rooms, and a fair-trade option in its four campus restaurants — Golden Bear, the Terrace Café, Pat Brown’s Grill and Ramona’s Café.

“The right thing to do”
Nancy Jurich, director of Dining and Conference Services, first caught wind of the fair-trade issue early last year from a coffee-industry trade journal, and decided to offer free samples of organic, free-trade coffee to incoming students at Calapalooza 2000.

A meeting requested by a graduate student in Latin American studies, and then with TransFair, convinced her that the campus should buy fair-trade coffee carried by its roaster, Peerless Coffee.

“It seemed the right thing to do,” says Jurich. “It was an issue of social consciousness and a quality product. We thought for the little bit of money (it cost), that it was worth it.”

“The coffee is good, and Peerless is committed to the concept,” notes Jurich’s boss, Harry Le Grande, assistant vice chancellor for residential and student service programs.
Jurich maintains “a whole file” on controversial food issues, and tries to stay on top of new trends and measure student commitment to new products, like fair-trade coffee or organic food.

“Anecdotally, students tell us they want it,” she says of organics. But in an annual survey conducted last spring, “less than half of one percent said they would be willing to pay more for organic food.

“I look for anything that could be controversial about food,” Jurich notes. “The radar’s always out.”

Private café offerings
At the campus’s privately operated cafés, coffee with a conscience is also taking hold.

Café owner Daryl Ross now offers fair-trade coffee as “the sole drip coffee” at Café Zeb (at the law school), the Free Speech Movement Café (at Moffitt library), Café Muse (at the Berkeley Art Museum), and Caffe Strada, on Bancroft Avenue. Espresso drinks are made with conventional beans, he says, but customers may request the fair-trade option. The Free Speech Movement Café uses fair-trade coffee for all its coffee drinks, including espressos.

Last year at the Haas School of Business, a handful of students began a dialogue on the subject with the school’s restaurant, Jimmy Beans, and mounted an educational campaign among the Haas community. A thousand two hundred cups of free fair-trade coffee later, hundreds of Jimmy Beans customers had signed the group’s petition asking it to switch to fair-trade coffee.

“Out of 800 or so members of the Haas community, we got 500 signatures,” said Adam Berman, who got his M.B.A., with an emphasis on environmental strategy, last spring.

“I was pleasantly surprise by how progressive and civic minded the people I went to business school with.” The café now offers organic fair-trade coffee for its regular coffee — though at 10 cents more per cup.

Berman says that similar action a year before, at Café Zeb, encouraged him to get involved.

After oil, coffee is the most lucrative legal export on earth, and 80 million people worldwide make their living from it.

Fair-trade-certified coffee beans are grown on small farms in the highlands of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America.

“Coffee needs to be grown in the shade, high up,” says Hirsh, of TransFair. “If it doesn’t have the shade, as when it’s grown on larger estates, if you cut down shade trees so you can plant higher yielding plants close together, you need to use chemicals.”

Fair-trade subsidies also allow farmers to reinvest in sustainable methods like composting the pulp, instead of using chemical fertilizers — hence the claim that they foster farming methods that are better for the environment.


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