Farmers helped by sales of 'compassionate' java

A new request can be heard in coffeehouses amid the calls for no- foam lattes and Chai teas: "Compassionate coffee, please."

The term refers to java made by companies that pay their farmers a "living wage" and use environment-friendly cultivation techniques.

Taste for the coffees -- as well as similarly produced teas and chocolates -- is catching on in North Jersey, particularly among the student-age coffeehouse clientele. In the past couple of months, many coffeehouses and restaurants have started offering the "compassionate" or "fair-trade certified" beverages.

Greenmarket Cafe, a health-food restaurant in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., has sold the coffees and teas for about three months after the owner heard about them from customers.

"People started asking for it, and I was curious about it," said owner Jim Angelico. "I found that it was more environmentally sensitive ... and I started ordering it."

Churches also have started selling the products in an effort to help impoverished farmers around the world. Annunciation Church in Paramus has sold fair-trade certified coffee after Masses for eight months.

"It's all about helping the poor farmers that really don't earn a very good wage," said Marie Willis, who is known in the Roman Catholic parish as the "coffee lady" because she organized the sales. The church buys and sells 12-ounce bags of the coffee for $5.

The products are also available in Wayne at Trader Joe's, a specialty grocery chain based in California, as well as some other area markets.

Although the "fair-trade" movement is now gaining momentum in New Jersey, it has had strong support in the western United States for several years. It originated in the late 1980s, when world coffee prices dropped dramatically, leaving coffee bean farmers struggling to make a living, according to TransFair USA, a non-profit organization which certifies fair-trade coffee and tea suppliers.

Working conditions for many coffee bean farmers -- which were already considered akin to "sweatshops" by some human rights groups -- worsened. Compassionate coffee and tea producers work in cooperatives and are linked directly to coffee importers.

They are paid $1.26 per pound, or 5 cents above the prevailing market price, according to TransFair. Organic coffee farmers are paid $1.41 per pound, or 15 cents above market price. Consumers ppay roughly the same for the coffee because the additional cents per pound do not noticeably increase the price of the average cup of joe.

Currently, 10,000 shops nationwide sell TransFair certified coffees and teas. The company claims its coffees help 550,000 families in 22 countries provide basic education, health care, and nutrition. About 7,000 churches nationwide buy the coffee and teas from Equal Exchange, a food cooperative in Massachusetts that imports directly from the producers.

The Bergen Action Network (BAN), a youth activist group, has aggressively lobbied to get the products into local shops.

"Drinking fair-trade coffee is a really easy way to ensure that you are doing something to help people in the global community," said Zoe Baldwin, a compassionate coffee drinker and BAN member.

"Normally you would care if your neighbor was having some really hard times and not able to subsist on the amount of money they were making ... [Drinking compassionate beverages] is about extending that idea of community."

Cool Beans coffeehouse in Oradell began selling fair-trade coffees and teas two months ago after BAN members spoke to the shop owner. The java joint buys a 5-pound bag every week or two and has been selling out of it, a shop employee said.

Melissa Dropkin, 18, sipped water while sitting in Cool Beans this week, but said after learning about the fair-trade movement she plans to change her brand of coffee.

"Now that I know I will only ask for fair-trade coffee," she said.

But another Cool Beans customer said she's often too busy to think about trade and wages when grabbing a quick pick-me-up.

"When I want coffee, I just get coffee," said Jillian Choi, 18, of Demarest as she stood in line. "It's supposed to be quick."

The area's largest coffee producer, Starbucks, has purchased 2 million pounds of fair-trade coffee nationwide since 2000. It offers the coffee for sale once a month. The Bergen Action Network protested at a Ridgewood Starbucks in November, demanding a greater commitment to sell Fair Trade coffee.

Several coffee suppliers in New Jersey have also picked up the fair-trade brands recently. Jersey-City based Kobricks Coffee Co. became a fair-trade certified seller in 2003. Company owners said they wanted to pick up the brand earlier but there was not enough demand for it to make it profitable.

"Here in the eastern part of the country there tends to be less of an interest in the social impact of the products that we buy," said Kobricks owner Steven Kobrick. "On the West Coast there is a lot more interest in organic. But I think that's changing. And that's good."

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