For me, this Valentine’s Day feels different.
Yes, I’ve got chocolate on the mind—as Chocolate Products Manager, I think about it all the time—but there are two other things I keep coming back to.
First is the current state of U.S. politics and the division that seems to be the defining character of our country at this time. As I read endless articles and listen to pundits from polarized viewpoints, I try to understand where we are as a country and what I can do to be a better citizen, be more engaged on national issues, both at the state level and in my community. In all of this, I can’t help but feel that there has been a massive loss of human connection, and yes, loss of love. We’re losing connection with and love for our neighbors, connection with and love for those with different viewpoints, connection with and love for those from different cultures or backgrounds.
If we disagree, we don’t even try to understand each other. We fail to take the time to get to know each other and have a civil conversation. I am guilty of this myself. But I believe that if we did take the time to talk, we’d find we have more in common than we expect. And, of course, we would find differences, but I would argue this is a good thing for a healthy community and a healthy democracy. It’s how we approach these differences that can quickly get us to an unhealthy place.
The second thing that (joyfully) takes much of my energy is my three-year-old daughter. Most recently this energy has been focused on making Valentine’s Day cards for family and friends. It’s a nice change of pace to watch her whole heartedly dive into an often messy art project. Most inspiring is her excitement when she gets to decide who the Valentine will be for. She lights up and proclaims that this one will be for her cousins and that one will be for grandparents. There will be Valentines for neighbors and then, of course, for many friends at school. I am struck with how freely she wants to give to others without reservation.
With these things in mind, I’d like to propose that we adults approach Valentine’s Day in a different way this year. Let’s approach it more like we’re kids again, and give love without reservation. And in the current context, use Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to connect with someone that has a different background or belief system than you. Use this holiday to make a new connection and open a new and, hopefully, surprising and fruitful dialogue. Building and strengthening our connections with each other is going to be a crucial piece for our country to mend itself and this can be one small start - and, hey, who says it can’t start with chocolate?
Some estimates put U.S. purchases of chocolate and candy for Valentine’s Day at over $1.5 billion. The chocolate industry is a prime example of the need for greater human connections; it’s rooted in a history of broken and disconnected relationships. Tracing back to earlier days in the chocolate industry, the disconnect between producers and manufacturers was already a challenge around the time of the 19th Century. European companies like Cadbury sourced beans from plantations in São Tomé that relied on slavery, and this went unknown and unchanged for many years. Since that time, the chocolate industry has become more disconnected as the industry segmented and consolidated even more into the supply side and the marketing side of the industry.
Chocolate is now defined by massive concentration: three processors are responsible for over 60 percent of the world’s cocoa bean purchasing and initial processing. Five companies are responsible for over 65 percent of the finished chocolate sold globally. This consolidation and commodification of the industry has left the majority of the more than 2.5 million cacao farmers far removed from the consumer that enjoys the chocolate made from their beans. This disconnect has allowed slavery and the worst forms of child labor to continue to persist today. It has left small-scale farmers with little power, a weak voice and few resources.
But these days, chocolate is also a sign of hope. There’s been a small group of dedicated Fair Trade chocolate companies that have been building the market in the U.S. for small-scale cacao and sugar producers. Recently, the bean-to-bar market has exploded in the U.S, many of whom are very committed to the well being of their farmer suppliers. Combining these two movements, there’s a growing number of chocolates built on relationships through the whole supply chain - not just satisfying investors and the end consumer. That said, this is just a tiny part of the market and it’s up to you, the chocolate lovers out there, to help us grow the demand for chocolate built on relationships with small farmers and stronger connections between them and the people who love their product. Yes, this often means paying more for chocolate, but you can be confident that it comes from companies built on relationships with farmer co-ops and their farmer members. And doesn’t that taste sweeter?
...it’s up to you, the chocolate lovers out there, to help us grow the demand for chocolate built on relationships with small farmers and stronger connections between them and the people who love their product.
So this Valentine’s Day (or heck, take this concept beyond February 14, because who doesn’t love to be given chocolate any day of the year?), I want to challenge you to embrace your inner child and share some love with someone that you would not normally connect with. Dig deeper behind the brand to make sure your chocolate is actually built on beneficial relationships throughout the whole chain and is a gift that will give in multiple directions. One of my daughter’s handmade Valentines, along with those from many of our neighbors, will be dropped off at the local Islamic Community Center in my town with some Equal Exchange chocolates.
How will you be sharing yours?