To see how chocolate begins—as little brown or yellow seeds suspended in colorful pods hanging from the branches of trees like some alien fruit—is to experience a real sense of wonder when one knows that it ends up in this perfectly textured, sweet, melty mass. We consume it at rate of almost 12 pounds per person per year in the United States. While that proves to be a staggering amount of the stuff, the EU takes the (chocolate) cake by nearly doubling that rate of consumption in places like Switzerland, Germany, and the UK. Staying with just the U.S., though, we can extrapolate out just how many pounds of this delectable food we’re consuming—almost 4 billion! And that’s after it’s been processed. So, how many alien pods had to be picked to produce those 4 billion pounds? Many say that there are somewhere between 20 and 60 seeds (which we call beans, post-harvest) in each pod, and that it takes somewhere between 300 and 600 beans to produce a pound of 70% bittersweet chocolate. Just taking the medianvalues of the two ranges above, 40 beans per pod and 450 beans per pound of chocolate, we can figure that it requires almost 1.8 trillion harvested beans, or 43 billion pods that need to be grown, macheted off tree branches, opened, cleaned, fermented, dried, roasted, winnowed, ground, conched, tempered, and molded into the stuff we eat.
So who is doing all this work?
With much of the chocolate we eat, it is hard to say. The cacao growing industry is still rife with unethical practices that are in place to meet this demand and help produce a profit for many of the larger chocolate manufacturers and confection companies. Many farmers, especially in West Africa, still receive prices for their cacao that is below the true cost of their production. This leads to an underlying need to cut labor costs and has resulted in decades of human trafficking and slave labor, often from children. Work done by the U.S. government and non-profit agencies in the late ’90s and 2000s helped to identify this and acquire agreement from the largest players in the chocolate industry to take corrective actions in their supply chains, but progress is slow or non-existent still in much of the cacao-producing world.
Fair Trade is a movement and certification that was developed to combat this very situation and rectify the underlying cause of this ethical slip in the supply chain of many products, including chocolate, by guaranteeing that growers get compensated above market rates with an added premium. At the Co-op, we sell chocolate sourced and produced by many firms that adhere to Fair Trade sourcing. Perhaps primary among them, we work closely with Equal Exchange to promote and sell their meticulously crafted chocolate products. As to Equal Exchange, “meticulously crafted” is really the phrase at work here—in their chocolate products, yes, but also in the supply chain that they’ve helped to build within which those products are made and shipped.
The Fair Trade compensation has played a huge role in supporting Equal Exchange-partnered growing co-ops to take ownership over their crops and the resulting next steps. Throughout the process, this chocolate is just done well. In Peru, for instance, Equal Exchange works with three grower co-ops to provide beans to make their Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips. These co-ops, Oro Verde, ACOPAGRO, and CACVRA represent more than 5,200 small farmers among them and are leaders in the production and exportation of organic and fair trade cacao in the region. Equal Exchange’s share of that cacao gets manufactured into chocolate chips and bars using organic sugar from Manduvira Co-op in Paraguay. Manduvira is another interesting case. It began as a credit union of sorts and, over 15 years ago and driven by its members, branched into sugar cane growing. Growing turned into growing and milling when the Co-op led a strike by the growers to get better pricing. This turned into the growers themselves renting a sugar mill and milling their cane themselves. Now, Manduvira has built their own mill and maintains the first farmer-owned sugar mill in Paraguay. That mill, by the way, was paid for out of years of saved added premiums (remember those?) that Manduvira earned through Fair Trade pricing. These amazing organic beans and awesome organic sugar come together to be manufactured right in Peru in an allergen-free facility (no nuts, no dairy!) that utilizes a longer “conching” (mixing, aerating) process that allows them to cut out the need for soy lecithin(no soy!) to emulsify the chocolate liquor and cocoa butter and achieve the texture we all love.
Now for the best part
You can find these chocolate chips in our baking aisle at both Willy East and Willy West. Hopefully, by the time you read this, you’ll also find them in our Bulk aisle (but if not, it’s coming soon!). That’s not all! Around the same time, we will begin using only Equal Exchange semi-sweet and dark chocolate chips in our house-made bakery. Organic, Fair Trade chocolate with organic, Fair Trade sugar without any worry about allergens like nuts, dairy, or soy! Is this move going to cost us a little more? It is, but we are working with Equal Exchange on some ways for us to bring that cost down so that we can deliver this amazing chocolate in bags, bulk, and bakery. Dean Kallas, our Grocery Category Manager, initiated this endeavor, and it’s important to us. Even disregarding everything I’ve already said about this chocolate, the main reason that this is important to us, and I hope this resonates with you, is something an Equal Exchange representative said to me recently, “It’s not a perfect measurement, but, for approximately every 2,000 pounds of chocolate chips you buy, you support one farmer’s expenses for an entire year.” Now, we don’t sell 4 billion pounds, but we do sell more than 8,000 pounds out of those three areas of our business, and if that means we help support four Peruvian farms to stay in business, earn good money, and convince future farmers to do the same, then I will eat a chocolate chip cookie in honor of that. Or a few.