- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

Social activists on America’s campuses have turned their attention to the fuel that keeps students going through all-night study sessions and gets them to class in the morning: coffee.

As many as 200 schools, activists say, are responding to calls to change the way they purchase coffee so that poor farmers, mainly in Central America, get bigger cuts of the profits from the beans they grow.

“You can make a difference for a child you’ve never met,” said Cindy Megill, a junior at central Pennsylvania’s Juniata College. “Or you can buy a cup of coffee with a corporate logo on it.”

Like students at other schools, Miss Megill — a tea drinker herself — is pushing Juniata to serve fair-trade labeled coffee exclusively in campus dining halls and cafes.

The campaign stems from what some see as a global crisis in pricing coffee, the world’s second-most traded commodity. Stephanie Faith Green, the president of United Students for Fair Trade, said the price of coffee has dropped 70 percent in the last five years, leaving many farmers in the developing world impoverished.

Activists want schools and other institutions to purchase only coffee that has earned fair-trade certification from TransFair USA and fair-trade organizations in other countries.

Certification is granted to importers paying a minimum price of $1.26 per pound to a farmer who has grown the coffee beans in an environmentally friendly way. Of the estimated 25 million coffee-bean farmers worldwide, fewer than 1 percent have received fair-trade designation.

For economic reasons, the world’s biggest coffee retailers purchase mostly beans grown on high-volume farms that charge about half the price of fair-trade producers.

Kraft Foods, for instance, does not offer fair-trade coffee.

“We believe it is a well-intentioned approach and it definitely benefits a small number of farmers who are not able to find a market,” said Pat Riso, a spokeswoman for Kraft, which markets Maxwell House, Sanka and other brands. “But the reason we don’t offer it is because consumer demand for fair-trade products is quite limited.”

Matt Warning, an economics professor who spearheaded the transition to fair-trade coffee at the University of Puget Sound, noted the movement was designed to bring about change by using market demand rather than active protest.

“It’s easy activism where they can just buy the better stuff,” said Mr. Warning.

“It’s a bit of a no-brainer; it doesn’t require big sacrifices.”

Miss Green gives Starbucks high marks for at least working with fair-trade proponents — though she thinks it can do better.

“When you have mutual interests, it leads to constructive conversations and solutions,” said Susan Mecklenburg, the director of environmental and community affairs for Starbucks, which purchases 1 percent of its coffee from fair-trade sources.

Miss Green said that is a good start but that 1 percent “needs to be increased.”

Her work with Georgetown University has taught Miss Green, a sophomore, that the conversion to fair-trade coffee is a laborious process. It requires colleges to review contractual agreements with food-service providers who must, in turn, revisit obligations to distributors.

Georgetown has switched to fair-trade coffee at all but two campus locations.

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