R. Justin Shepherd | PART-TIME PUNDIT

Coffee=Life (APPENDED)
25.February.2008, 9.19 pm
Filed under: coffee, faith, films

So we (myself and two of my friends/emps) just got done watching “Black Gold”, a documentary about Ethiopian coffee farmers, the prices they get paid for coffee, and how those prices affect their lives. I can’t really distill the movie, but I’ll share a few of the salient points, along with my reactions.

“How much do you think they pay for a cup of your coffee?” This question is posed, at the beginning of the film, to a group of coffee farmers from a man named Tadesse, who runs the coffee co-op which sells all the coffee these farmers produce. They react with absolute astonishment when he tells them that a cup of coffee is about $2.50 (I’m assuming he meant in New York or L.A.), whereas it sells there in their community for about 15 cents.

“We pray, oh God, that you would raise the price of coffee!” These words are spoken in earnest, by Christian men who grow coffee for their livelihood. The coffee market took a dive about 10 years ago — and Africa has been suffering ever since. Some men try to battle through it, continuing to grow the coffee and hoping that their luck changes. Tadesse, for his part, travels the world, attempt to sidestep the “coffee market,” which (like the stock market) determines every day how much the big corporations (Kraft, Starbucks, Nestle, Sara Lee) will pay for their coffee. He explains that these companies are only the last link in a chain with about six or seven stops, the price increasing (or decreasing, depending how you look at it) at each link. He makes deals with independent roasters, selling his co-op’s coffee directly to them. This means something like a tenfold increase in the price that can be paid to the farmers themselves — men who are using the profits not to build houses or buy cars, but pool the profits in order to build A school for A community.

“We are more interested in trade than in aid.” The film also shows a massive, U.S.-owned plant in Africa which bundles grain, which is then given to the African people as humanitarian aid. Yet they are not looking for this aid; rather, they want to see fair prices for their products. The contrast, though, is startling: We give billions in aid every year to the Third World, and at the same time we negotiate at the World Trade Organization to keep prices low. This is shown as well: African delegations essentially being shut out of the trading process, getting no voice whatsoever over what they will be paid for their products.

I took a few pots of Ethiopian Harrar — quite possibly made from bea grown by those in the film — and it struck me that I’m selling something precious. The coffee is grown by these people, it’s picked by hand, sorted by hand, washed by hand, bagged by hand… then it’s shipped to Nashville (yes, I work with a roaster who buys directly from the co-op), roasted when I order it, and shipped to me the next day. And what do I do with it? I throw it around, I grind and brew and don’t even think about how many people are truly affected by this thing that, ultimately, I am selling to people who do not appreciate their work. They don’t KNOW the work… hell, it’s hard enough for me to remember.

Where’s the balance? How do I explain to people the importance of fair-trade coffee, without sounding like a zealot or bleeding-heart liberal or whatnot? How do I explain why Starbucks is a shameful place, when they give their employees such good benefits? How their “fair trade principles” mean only that they buy 1-2 percent of their coffee fair-trade, so that they can use it as a label and make yuppy consumers feel better about what they’re buying, which is mostly NOT fair-trade? How do I not sound like a prick, seriously?

My heart was touched, at least, by the fact that many of these people are Christians, brothers and sisters of the Almighty that I worship… they’re not nameless, faceless people, but images of God as I am an image of God. And for that reason, I can’t sit idly by and let fellow Christians live in ignorance, going off the assumption that it’s JUST a cup of coffee. There’s a holy God who watches over these people, and through ignorance we do them a great disservice — no, an INJUSTICE — by allowing ourselves to walk through life, drinking Maxwell House or Millstone or Starbucks or whatever, simply because it costs us $9 a lb. with our Kroger Plus card instead of $12 a pound at our fair-trade coffee retailer. And this is not about me… I doubt I will ever make a significant income from coffee. But I do intend to make some sort of a difference, from this day forward, on behalf of Jesus Christ, who died for me, for you — and just as much, for Tadesse and all his farmers.

NEW INFO: I had guessed it already, but I can now confirm that the Ethiopian coffees I serve are from Tadesse’s co-op… which means we were drinking coffee from the very farms featured in the film! Pretty cool.


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Great post, Justin.

You sort of sound like me talking about fast food. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but if I we come off as food or coffee Nazi’s but at the same time force people to think about what they are consuming, how it got there, why they want it, etc., it’s worth it, I think.

Interestingly, I typed this while sipping on a cup of Immaculate from Spencer’s. 🙂


Comment by Cort

Good one,

I was sipping Maxwell house but your post moved me to regurgitate it immediately!


Comment by Brice


I read a book once called “Naked Economics,” and it made me realize that in economics, there are no easy answers. Like you intimated in your post, every good situation has a bad side, and every bad situation has a good side. Sweatshops in Hong Kong may just be the least harsh work many of those people can find, and the best paying. Force companies to clean up their labor practices, and that may “force” them to no longer run a factory employed by Taiwanese who desperately need the work.

I go round and round on these things in my head. I hate going to WalMart, but then I see the people who desperately need the work they manage to get there. I see countless families that can afford to buy groceries only at such places.

I occasionally come to a “solution,” but it’s never perfect. You’re a good Bible student; you know what the solution was to the prophet Isaiah. While bemoaning the fact that no one would “speak up in the public square for truth,” he condemned those who practiced economics in such a way that oppressed the poor. But, he also ultimately stated that the only way this would be fixed was by “the coming of the day of the Lord.”

It’s a difficult balance, calling for change and working for it, yet not becoming delusional in thinking that we can “fix things” through some utopian idea of the universal progress of mankind. Biblically, only God will set things right in the end. Where I struggle is what to do in the interim.

Good post. I hope you’ll keep ruminating on these ideas, and posting on your ruminations.


Comment by kevinburt

This is precisely why I patronize your shop instead of Starbucks. You have a soul, you serve coffee without pretension, and my word, those delicious banana-nut muffins that I swear are made with crack are amazing. All joking aside, I support what you do, and if I can in some small way help out, I’m willing to buy some coffee. Twist my arm. 🙂

I didn’t realize that the canister of Maxwell House in my fridge is evil. Do you sell ground coffee?

Comment by Rachel

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