The Equal Exchange Action Forum: Engaging a Nation of Citizen Consumers

Now we say, “I’M A PRODUCER, I’M FROM THE COUNTRYSIDE!”, Javier Dominguez exclaimed with a palpable passion as he raised his fist high. You could feel how much he believed the words and how committed he was to making a difference in the world. As Javier gave opening remarks at the Equal Exchange Action Forum on June 8, he described how rural farmers used to be ashamed of their profession and the fact they were from the country, and how Equal Exchange helped change all of that.

(L to R) Carly Kedlec, Equal Exchange Green Coffee Buyer (and translator), Rocio Motato Suarez of ASPROCAFE Ingruma and Javier Dominguez of Sol y Cafe in Peru.

Equal Exchange (EE), a beloved supplier to our co-op, does business in a radically different way than others. Their work centers around trade and sourcing goods: coffee, chocolate, tea, nuts, bananas, avocados (and more), similar in function to many other companies who import food products. The radically different part comes when you look at how they do it. They work with farmers, helping them organize into producer co-ops which allows them to pool their power and take ownership back over their land and their lives. Producer co-ops help swing a little bit of the power imbalance usually present in trade relationships back in the direction of farmers.

Bird of Paradise green coffee beans, ready to be roasted! Bird of Paradise Coffee is part of our Co-op Basics program. Find it in our Bulk Department for just $8.99/pound.

In this way, EE empowers their farmer partners. Not only do they help them organize into co-operatives but they also provide education in myriad ways, including teaching producers how to “cup” coffee. Coffee cupping is what is done by coffee experts when the beans arrive in the US to determine if a load of coffee will be accepted (and paid for) or rejected. It seems obvious: teach the growers what the end consumer is looking for, but this practice is woefully missing with other companies. EE also offers pre-financing, which means they share in the many risks that come with farming with the farmers; something else few organizations will do. In addition, Equal Exchange is a worker co-op; the business is owned by their staff and run in a democratic way. This means EE offers the Monadnock Food Co-op a fully cooperative and highly transparent supply chain; one of the few that exist.

Ian McMillan, Production Manager, giving Action Forum Members a tour of the EE roasting facility and explaining the coffee roasting process.

The various stages of roasting French Roast coffee, from green coffee bean to finished product.

Equal Exchange empowers farmers and betters the world through countless other practices, but I must digress to the point of this blog post: my experience at the Equal Exchange Action Forum on June 8 and 9. (If you want to hear about all the other things I love about EE and their impressive work, find me the next time you’re in the store!)

Now that EE has created a successful co-op model and empowered farmers around the world, they’ve set out to reform the whole food system! A lofty goal, but then, that’s the only way EE knows how to operate. They plan to do this by activating a society of citizen consumers. What does this mean, you ask? Well, that’s why we were all at the Action Forum; to grapple with the what, who, when, where and why of this new organization and the ideas that led to its creation.

People from across the nation gathered at Stonehill College in Massachusetts to learn from each other, attend workshops by experts in various fields, and ask the hard questions about what we were doing and how we could do more. The workshops were wildly interesting; I learned first-hand from farmers in Peru and Colombia about how climate change is impacting their coffee farms, and about the watering down of Fair Trade regulations. I then joined the 3 founders of EE (all came from the food co-op world) who shared their personal, and often quite different, goals when they started this co-operative 30 years ago. “This is a great idea, and it’s definitely going to fail” said Rink Dickinson, a co-founder and current co-president of EE. Lucky for all of us, Rink was wrong and the company has succeeded in shifting a small, but nevertheless important, amount of market share to a more ethical and sustainable model that benefits all involved in the supply chain.

Equal Exchange co-founders (L to R) Rink Dickinson, Michael Rozyne & Jonathan Rosenthal with a photo of them from from Time Magazine.

We also came together as a group to grapple with several questions:

 What is the EE Action Forum? How do we explain what we are doing? What do we do next?

There were many answers to these questions; and all were right. Across the nation, people like you are working to reform the food system in many different ways, from different angles. While we are united by the common idea that there is a better, more ethical, and sustainable way to obtain food and agricultural products, there are diverse ideas about how to achieve this and much work to be done across all sectors. It will take all of us, united by a common idea, working in our communities and niches to create this change. One organization can’t tackle every issue, but knowing world wide there are empowered people like us, thinking strategically and moving these ideas forward left me feeling incredibly hopeful.

If we’re to achieve real food system reform and fair and equitable trade relations for all, both Equal Exchange and food cooperatives have a part to play. A huge thanks to them for all the work they’ve done thus far and for taking this first step in creating a nation of engaged and active citizen-consumers!

For more information on what the EE Action Forum is about, and why it is necessary, check out The Citizen-Consumer Dilemma blog post Part 1, Part 2, Part 2 (Continued)and Part 3.

Anyone can join the action forumcheck out the website here – and next year, I’ll see you at the Action Forum!

(L to R) Javier Dominguez of Sol y Cafe in Peru, Rocio Motato Suarez of ASPROCAFE Ingruma in Colombia, Megan Straughen from the Monadnock Food Co-op.