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This article appeared on Wall Street Journal on Feb 9, 2013.
I buy coffee designated "fair trade" because the higher price contributes to improved living standards for small farmers in Latin America—to a point. Profits from a fair-trade coffee crop can support a family for many months, although not all the way until the next harvest season. Then the farm families live through a period of food insecurity so common it has its own name: "los meses flacos," the thin months.
"Fair trade is a step in the right direction, but small farmers simply cannot rely on coffee alone to sustain their families and farms," says Pierre Ferrari, president and CEO of Heifer International, a nonprofit based in Little Rock, Ark., that focuses on hunger and poverty. Thriving farms are in the best interest of fair-trade vendor Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc.as well. The paths of the two organizations converged after a study in 2007 by the Center for Tropical Agriculture near Cali, Colombia, showed that more than two-thirds of coffee farmers interviewed in Nicaragua, Mexico and Guatemala experienced three to eight months of extreme food scarcity every year.Stories from each country were strikingly similar. The hunger would set in a few months after the harvest, when family earnings from coffee sales had largely been depleted and the price of corn and beans were high. To get by during this time, coffee farmers and their families coped by eating less, and by eating less expensive and less nutritious foods.
Green Mountain invited Heifer International in 2008 to consult with farmers it deals with in the Chiapas state in southern Mexico. Heifer's emphasis is on small farmers—in the case of the Chiapas pilot project, defined as those with three acres of land or less. Its advisers introduced bees, seeds, pigs, turkeys, sheep, chickens and rabbits to 183 families that had, until that point, been dependent on coffee for their livelihoods. Then 366 additional families benefited through the organization's long-standing tenet, "Passing on the Gift." Heifer International refers to animal gifts as "living loans" because the farmers, in exchange for receiving livestock and training, agree to give one of the animal's offspring to another family in need.
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Heifer International have since expanded in Chiapas and started four more projects in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru, which will ultimately touch more than 5,500 coffee-farming families. Heifer's Mr. Ferrari believes that ending world hunger in our lifetime is possible: "That's zerohunger. When we unleash the potential in small farms, we see improvement everywhere. Working solutions to hunger and poverty are right before our eyes."
One way to contribute is by buying fair-trade coffee from suppliers such as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters or Thanksgiving Coffee Co. or Equator Coffees & Teas Inc. Farm families certainly welcome the modest extra income that comes the fair-trade way. But the Heifer example of giving coffee farmers the training, encouragement and tangible resources helps them to thrive year-round. For small, often struggling coffee farmers, a big change may be brewing.
Ms. Sarandon, an actress, narrated the 2011 documentary "After the Harvest: Fighting Hunger in the Coffeelands."