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September 22, 2003

Java for justice

Fair-trade coffee now offered in dining halls, from campus-operated coffee carts

By Jennifer McNulty

Wake up and smell the fair-trade coffee in UCSC dining halls this fall.

Fair-trade gourmet coffee will be served in campus dining halls thanks to, left to right, student organizers Tony LoPresti and Suzanne Langridge, who worked with Alma Sifuentes, director of residential and dining services. Photo: Jennifer McNulty

That’s the message from students and staff who have worked together to introduce flavorful, high-quality, ecologically friendly coffee on campus.

Certified fair-trade coffee guarantees farmers a price that reflects the true costs of labor, land, and production of coffee grown using eco-friendly techniques.

Although this coffee costs more than conventional beans, certification eliminates the “middle man” and ensures that more profit goes into the pockets of farmers.

“The students talked with us and began educating me about how the coffee industry works,” said Alma Sifuentes, director of residential and dining services at UCSC, who made the decision to introduce fair-trade coffee on campus after hearing the concerns of students.

“Students in our own Agroecology Program are doing research about coffee, and they described where the money goes and how it is distributed, and how the campus could really aid the environment and social justice by making this change. It’s very exciting.”

Serving fair-trade coffee in campus dining halls and at campus-operated coffee carts is also a good business decision that builds on UCSC’s commitment to sustainability, said Sifuentes.

“I’m looking to build alliances with our internal departments and the mission of the university,” said Sifuentes, a UCSC alum who graduated in 1986 with a degree in economics. “If we can connect undergraduate, graduate, and faculty research, that’s putting theory into practice. It makes sense for us to utilize the information to be better consumers and to help our Earth. UC Santa Cruz has always been about social justice.”

The goal of the fair-trade coffee movement is to provide economic stability for small-scale farmers and to encourage sustainable growing techniques that replenish the Earth. The international movement has surged as the price of coffee over the last decade has dropped below the costs of production, plunging small-scale farmers into poverty and forcing many to default on loans and lose their land. Global free trade is a major contributor to the coffee glut that has driven prices down and unemployment up.

At UCSC, several faculty members, including Stephen Gliessman of environmental studies, are researching the economic, social, and political aspects of coffee production. Students are also involved, including graduate student Chris Bacon, who is investigating the impacts of the fair-trade movement on farmers in Nicaragua with the guidance of Jonathan Fox, professor of Latin American and Latino studies.

Graduate student Suzanne Langridge and Tony LoPresti, who graduated in June with a bachelor’s in Latin American and Latino studies, spearheaded the student-led effort to educate the campus community about fair-trade coffee. As members of Comercio Justo (Spanish for “fair trade”), Langridge and LoPresti organized workshops, photo exhibits, and presentations about globalization and coffee, and the impacts of the coffee crisis on peasant farmers.

As consumers, they explained, students can have a direct role in improving the lives of farmers by buying fair-trade coffee. “Students learn so much about the negative impacts of globalization, and this gives them a way to take action,” said LoPresti. “It’s about taking a small step toward equity on a global scale.”

“The fair-trade movement is about reworking producer-consumer relationships,” said Langridge, noting other fair-trade products, including bananas, chocolate, and textiles. “Coffee is the ideal commodity for students on campus to support, because they drink so much of it.”

The students first targeted the coffee carts on campus, securing an agreement last winter that only fair-trade coffee would be served by spring. As part of that effort, they submitted petitions signed by 2,500 members of the campus community, requesting that fair-trade coffee be served in the dining halls, as well.

“We’re grateful to have Alma, because she is listening to students and making every effort to align the university with the students,” said LoPresti.

An added benefit of fair-trade is that it tastes better, too, said Sifuentes, who attended a coffee tasting this summer with students doing research on topics related to coffee production.

For now, fair-trade and conventional coffee will be available in all five campus dining halls. “We’re trying to keep costs down, so it helps to have the old Maxwell House standing by,” she said. “Depending on student tastes and preferences, which change during the year, if managers see nobody is drinking the Maxwell House, they’ll probably pull it. Our goal is to eventually go all fair-trade.”

Sifuentes is committed to responding to student interests without increasing what students pay for meals. “Maxwell House is a lot cheaper, but if fair-trade is popular, we’ll make adjustments in other areas to manage the additional cost,” she said.

The change comes as the campus is moving toward self-operation of the dining halls, which is scheduled to be completed by June 20, 2004. “We just hired nearly 200 people, and there are lots of labor issues to work out,” said Sifuentes. “It’s the same with coffee farmers in Central America. They need to earn a living wage, too.”

UCSC is one of more than 200 college and university campuses around the United States that are conducting fair-trade coffee campaigns. Among the campuses that now serve fair-trade coffee are UC Berkeley, UCLA, Yale, Harvard, Wesleyan, Georgetown, and Boston College. As the West Coast representative for United Students for Fair Trade (USFT), Comercio Justo will host the group’s first-ever national conference with other student organizers in Santa Cruz this winter.

“We want to expand to other UC campuses and inspire activists working on global justice to initiate fair-trade campaigns on their campuses,” said LoPresti. “We want to deepen fair-trade and go beyond coffee.”

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