Local Cafes Welcome Fair Trade Coffee

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Whether students go to a cafe to meet a study group or get their daily fix of caffeine, one thing is for sure - the coffee business in Berkeley is an integral part of student life.

Students may ponder whether to order a latte or a cappuccino, or perhaps decaf or regular. But how many actually ponder where their java comes from? The fairly young "fair trade coffee movement" takes that question and places a new importance on what kind of coffee they drink.

The movement specifically attempts to help small coffee farmers who need assistance accessing the market by ensuring that fair trade-certified coffee farmers receive a fair flat rate, regardless of market fluctuation.

The big name coffee growers, with large farms and a large following, can sell coffee even when the market is down because of their size and prominence, said Doug Welsh, director of coffee purchasing at Peet's Coffee & Tea.

Peet's recently started selling a Fair Trade Blend, joining a slew of local cafes, responding to activist and consumer pressure, which have brought fair trade coffee to customer's cups.

Even the university has begun using fair trade coffee at the Free Speech Movement Cafe and the residence dining halls.

"The consumer is the engine," Welsh said. "If the customer doesn't demand it, it will only go so far. Awareness needs to be raised so that consumers will look for the fair trade symbol and know when they buy fair trade coffee they are giving direct assistance to small farmers."

Coffee is traded on the Future's Market and is one of the largest commodities traded in the world, second to oil. Farmers with enough money to make very high quality coffee are paid premium prices, Welsh said, but that is why the smaller farmers need help.

The price of raw coffee is fairly cheap, so middle agents often exploit small coffee growers by offering them a very small price for their crop, which farmers have to accept because they have no other option.

The fair trade system gives guarantees to farmers so that instead of worrying about losing money or reducing their quality, they can focus on producing good coffee for which they will receive a fair price.

Fair trade works through the price floor mechanism, which is set at $1.26 per pound of coffee. It is paid to the farmer cooperatives, which can be made up of hundreds to thousands of workers, Welsh said.

In order to qualify for fair trade certification, a co-op must produce only very small amounts of coffee beans. Typically the farm only has one to three acres.

The third party organization, TransFair USA, guarantees that the co-ops will receive this minimum price and distributes the money.

"Although the system guarantees payment, it is not designed to pay coffee growers $1.26 forever," Welsh said. "The hope is for farmers to invest in their farms, perhaps purchase a mode of transportation, thus becoming better farmers and eventually they won't need fair trade assistance anymore."

TransFair is a nonprofit organization that monitors the coffee market. Along with certifying the coffee growers and the coffee sellers, TransFair also certifies the coffee roasting businesses and has currently approved 64 roasters and 16 importers.

In order to be certified, the businesses must meet specific requirements and sign an agreement with TransFair that the coffee they label as "fair trade" is bought from fair trade cooperatives. The organization follows a complete paper trail from coffee grower to seller, Luttinger said.

"They basically open their books to us," said Nina Luttinger, spokesperson for TransFair. "We should be able to trace every bag of coffee back to the cooperative who sold it."

University Housing and Dining Services unveiled fair trade coffee last month and will serve it in the residence halls.

Peerless Coffee Company, which supplies the residence halls with coffee, started delivering the fair trade coffee approximately three weeks ago. George Vukasin Jr., vice president of Peerless, commented that UC Berkeley buys organic and fair trade coffee, which is more expensive and a "notch above" regular fair trade coffee.

"I'm an alum, so I want Berkeley to be on the cutting edge," Vukasin said.

Vukasin compared the fair trade coffee movement to the organic coffee movement that began 25 years ago. When the organic movement began, selection was limited, but now the industry has grown a great deal.

The main concern of coffee roasters, both Vukasin and Welsh said, is the quality of the coffee. There are a small number of farms producing fair trade coffee currently, so there is a smaller sampling to pick from.

"We're very picky about our coffee," Vukasin said. "The market for fair trade coffee is getting better and we've found some beautiful coffee. It's a good thing for everyone."

Local Berkeley coffee houses have also been swept up in the movement whether they wanted to or not. Last spring, protesters voiced their disappointment in the lack of fair trade coffee at Starbucks and the newly opened Free Speech Movement Cafe. Since then, those cafes have decided to join the movement, while others have continued to serve just regular old joe.

"I'm all for fair trade coffee, but we like the coffee we have," said Ken Kamura, manager of Wall Berlin Kaffeehaus. "We stick with our traditions."

Kamura said he received a positive response from the coffee he uses and thus has no intentions on changing.

Daryl Ross, owner of the Free Speech Movement Cafe, Muse, the cafe at the Berkeley Art Museum and Caffe Strada, said the goal of fair trade coffee is to raise awareness of the products everyone consumes.

All the drip coffee served at the Free Speech Movement Cafe and Muse is fair trade, while Caffe Strada does not serve drip coffee. At all three cafes, patrons can order fair trade coffee for their espresso drinks for an additional 25 cents.

"If it's available, I always buy it, but we shouldn't have to pay cafes extra to support workers," said Taal Levi, a sophomore. "We should only sell fair trade coffee on campus."

Strada is in the process of turning over all of their coffee to fair trade, without additional charge to patrons.

"It's part of our philosophy having cafes on and around campus," Ross said. "We want to introduce students who are away from home, possibly for the first time, to food that makes them aware of where the products they buy come from."

All of Strada's fair trade coffee is also organically grown. In comparison to the $1.26 that cooperatives receive for fair trade coffee, they are paid $1.41 for coffee that is both organic and fair trade.

Last Thursday, San Francisco celebrated fair trade with the introduction of Peet's Fair Trade Blend in city hall. Berkeley, San Francisco and Oakland have all passed resolutions to support fair trade coffee, Welsh said. The city of Berkeley has purchasing restrictions that allow it to only buy coffee that is certified fair trade.

"It turns an old Berkeley saying on it's head," said Welsh. "Drink locally and act globally."


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