A mission for fair trade produce

One of the goals of our program at  Ramah Outdoor Adventure is to serve sustainable food.  This means we take into account how our food affects: our health, our environment and our financial bottom line.  One of the areas on which  we are working during the off season and are committed to improving in the summer of 2011 is making our food decisions  more transparent to our chalutzim (campers).   We have already hired  returning counselor Yael Greenberg as our food counselor for the summer.  In addition to being a counselor, Yael’s specialty area this summer will be working to include food education throughout of program.

Yael has begun keeping a blog documenting her experiences.  Currently she is trying to find a place to buy  “fair trade” bananas.   Below is copy of her first post.  If you would like to follow her  on this journey to buy fair trade bananas , please do so on her blog: http://letmyveggiesgrow.wordpress.com/

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First, a short disclaimer:  These first few posts are going to be a little bit disingenuous because I’m going to go day-by-day, but in fact the story started Sunday and it’s now Tuesday.  But trust me, a recap up until this point would be no fun at all and would miss most of the point.

So what’s going on here?  What is this all about?  How did it start?

It started with a phone call mid-morning on Sunday, December 26.  Before hitting the after-Christmas sales downtown, I had a conversation with the director of Ramah Outdoor Adventure, where I will be returning to work this summer as the food educator.  Since this is a relatively new camp and there has never been a food educator before, I am designing the position and the food education curriculum pretty much from scratch.  I’m going to draw a lot on existing material, but I really need to figure out what it is that I want to impart to the campers and how to go about doing that.  Before this point I had already decided that my position as food educator should entitle me to at least some say over what gets ordered for the kitchen, so I had tried to get in touch with a company that does fair trade stuff to see what it would look like to order chocolate.  Their email address doesn’t work and their offices are closed for the holiday, so that project is tabled for the time being.  But after I got off the phone with the director I got to thinking, and one thing led to another and I decided that there should be fair trade bananas at camp this summer.  See here for an explanation of why fair trade and why specifically bananas.

My explorations thus far have been guided by a series of questions, the first being Where does one buy fair trade bananas? I know where to get them for breakfast, but I don’t know where to buy them in Colorado, and I certainly don’t know how to get them delivered to the doorstep of a ranch somewhere in the middle of nowhere.  So I went on the TransFairUSA website and got a listing of where to buy fair trade-certified goods in the state of Colorado.  I got a list of 119 results, 38 of which indicated that they sold fair trade produce.  The phone calls began.

My first four calls were to Sam’s Clubs, none of which carried them.  Most of the people I spoke to had no idea what I was talking about (they thought Fair Trade was a brand), but the conversation was interesting, if unhelpful.  The guy at Sam’s Club in Arvada told me that they used to carry them, but they weren’t doing as well as conventional bananas.  People just didn’t want to pay the extra fifty cents for the fair trade, so they went back to selling just Dole.  My next call was to Vitamin Cottage in Lafayette who told me that they do sometimes carry fair trade bananas, but that no, they don’t deliver, and I would have to call back the following day to speak to a manager for more information.  I had similar results at two Whole Foods branches (Whole Foods also does not deliver), but from those phone calls I learned to ask for the produce manager in future conversations.  Not only does that streamline things, but when you ask to speak with a manager–especially one in a specific department–you sound really impressive and like you’re someone who knows exactly what she wants.  Which I guess I am.  Anyhow, the most interesting call of the day was to Holly at Love Your Mother, LLC.  Holly runs a small produce business, and she told me that unfortunately she does not sell fair trade bananas because she has been unable to get them cleared for importation, mostly, it seems, because of the minuscule size of her business.  Despite her inability to sell me bananas, Holly told me she would do a bit of research for me and get back to me.

By the end of Sunday the fire was really lit under my rear.  I stopped making phone calls because somehow it got to be 8:30 PM ET, so I was getting Sam’s Club security instead of the actual store.  Seemed like time to close up shop for the day.  But by this time I had a new mission.  Forget actually getting my hands on fair trade bananas for camp.  I mean, that’s still the ideal, but I had just begun to unearth a rich, deep mine of teachable moments.  My new goal was slightly different.  In my own words (excerpt from an email I sent to the camp director at 11 PM Sunday):

I’m not asking you (yet) if we can have them; right now I’m a lot more interested in the process than the outcome.  What’s exciting for me is trying to get fair trade bananas at camp.  It’s fascinating.  I might not even get to the point where I can ask if they are a financial possibility because there may be limiting factors way farther back in the system than camp director that prevent Ramah Outdoor Adventure from having ethically-produced bananas.  Just think, if it’s this difficult for an organization that’s committed to sustainability to get them, and it’s requiring the legwork of an individually motivated person, how ENORMOUS must the conventional banana industry be, and how huge the hurdles must be to do this elsewhere?  What I really want is for the campers to have an insight into this whole thing.  If we end up having fair trade bananas I want campers to know how they get to camp, and if we don’t, I want them to know why not.

And there was night, and there was dawn; Day 1.

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