At the beginning of April, the world’s largest coffee conglomerate, JAB Holdings, bought Panera Bread and its 2,000 cafés across the U.S. You may not know JAB by name, but the Luxembourg-based holding company has been the biggest player in the industry since 2015. This nesting dolls effect – a brand being swallowed up by bigger and bigger companies, distorting what was once familiar – isn’t just a trend in coffee. It’s happening all over in the food industry.
Today is International Workers Day, also known as May Day, which has roots in U.S. history, but is barely recognized here as it is officially in 66 other countries and unofficially in many more. Yet we owe our eight hour work day and five day work week, among other labor protections, to the 300,000 men, women and children who walked off their jobs on May 1, 1886, to protest their working conditions and lack of power in the growing capitalist industrial system, of which their labor was a necessary part.
In the lead up to May Day, we would like to share the voice of a worker in the food service industry. As you will hear, profits in this industry are often at the expense of exploited workers. We wish to support the hopes and aspirations of food workers too often invisible to consumers, from those who harvest the crops to those so critical to the success of the restaurant and fast food industries.
As an Organizer for the Action Forum I see myself as a dot connector to help facilitate building an even bigger community with our customers and allies. Despite the system’s power to commodify every aspect of our lives, including our abilities to connect with one another, here we have the opportunity to create something anew.
With Earth Day approaching, we thought we’d give one example of small-scale farmers who are experiencing the effects of a changing climate. Our cashew partner in El Salvador, APRAINORES, is a small group that has been consistently smacked by climate change and other difficulties.
How can citizen-consumers come together as a political, thinking community? What can we learn from past efforts to reform the food system, and from the current efforts of others involved in the movement for food justice? Equal Exchange has taken the step to create a community of people working together to deepen our collective understanding of these issues and to take actions where strategic, through the creation of the Equal Exchange Action Forum.
Torrential rainfall in Peru has triggered landslides and flooding, causing devastation across large parts of the country, including Lima, Piura, Lambayeque, Tumbes, Cajamarca and Ica. Many communities have been cut off by damaged roads, making access to services very difficult. Equal Exchange has had particularly deep relationships with farmer cooperatives in Piura, dating back 20 years with coffee. Our banana affiliate, Oké USA, also began sourcing bananas from co-ops a decade ago, and more recently we have sourced mangos from the region.
In Part One, we described key problems we need to address, challenge and solve if we want to create a just food system. In Part Two, post one, we dug into the successes and failures of Fair Trade and Certifications as food system reforms. And now, we look to Food Co-ops and Boycotts. Equal Exchange grew directly from the food co-op movement. The Equal Exchange founders—Michael Rozyne, Jonathan Rosenthal and myself—all worked at the New England food co-op warehouse. This was a secondary, consumer-owned warehouse that was initially collectively run when we began and then had a general manager four years later as we were exiting Northeast Co-ops for the birth of Equal Exchange in the mid-1980s.
There have been movements and models that have attempted to address, challenge and change problems in the food system, and create food justice, solidarity, and authentic citizen-consumer actions. Over the next two posts we will examine and analyze four different reforms spawned by these movements and explore what they accomplished and failed to accomplish. From this learning we believe we can be more effective in all of our food justice work and, ultimately, lay the framework for what we need to do as the Equal Exchange Action Forum.
Last October, we welcomed organic banana farmer Mariana Cobos to the Twin Cities to celebrate our 10 year anniversary importing bananas from AsoGuabo Cooperative in Ecuador. “I would like to express my gratitude for the opportunity to tell my story about the true history of small-scale banana farmers,” Mariana said during the visit. That story is filled with the difficulties, the challenges, and the inequity that small-scale farmers face.