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Fair-trade coffee: A justice issue

I'm looking forward to another wedding anniversary, and proud that my mixed marriage has survived many years.

Mixed? Oh, I'm not talking about religion. Jim and I are both cradle Catholics. I'm talking about coffee.

For decades, I've been living with a man who gets up in the morning and brews coffee from a blue or red can. Lately, it's even been a brown one since he purchased (gasp) the warehouse store brand. As long as it's pre-ground and canned, he drinks it.

And he drinks it weak. I hesitate to use the word "coffee" to describe this brown water.

My full-bodied coffee, on the other hand, comes in whole beans, French roasted, the fresher the better. I grind it each morning. The aroma fills the air even before the hot water hits it. It's as dark brown and rich as the Ethiopian or Nicaraguan soil in which it's grown.

The morning coffee ritual is about as close as Americans get to a secular sacrament. Americans drink one-fifth of the coffee brewed in the world. Jim and I have negotiated our mixed-coffee marriage by trying the two-pot solution, the take-turns solution, the half-can/half-bean solution.

There's one thing that's causing our mixed-coffee marriage to unite, however. That is our growing realization that fair-trade coffee is a solution we should all embrace.

What most of us don't realize as we savor our java is that it's provided by laborers and growers who constitute the sweatshop workers of the fields.

According to Global Exchange, many small coffee farmers receive less for their coffee than the costs of production, leading to ever greater cycles of debt. Farm workers who toil in coffee fields often receive poverty-level wages.

Fair trade is a solution to this injustice.

You cannot use the authorized "fair-trade certified" label without going through strict international criteria. An importer must pay a minimum price per pound, provide much-needed credit to farmers and give technical assistance in developing techniques like organic farming.

I am launching fair-trade coffee at our parish, and our first foray into selling it after Masses was very successful.

If Seattle is the coffee capital of the world because of Starbucks, you have to understand that my city of Anchorage, Alaska, is Seattle's little sister, and in many ways picked up the coffee habit to a greater extent than Big Sis.

There's a coffee stand on every block, and even on our way to the rivers and fishing holes of the Kenai Peninsula, you can find a latte to accompany your fly fishing. Want cappuccino with that fresh salmon? No problem.

So the coffee we offered at our parish, some ground, mostly whole bean, and vibrantly fresh from a local roaster who is certified organic and fair trade, was snapped up. People loved the idea of drinking justly.

By demanding fair-trade coffee, Americans were able to convince Proctor and Gamble to offer it in their specialty line, Millstone. At many big name coffee shops, if you specifically ask for fair trade, they will brew it for you.

The key is we all need to start asking for fair trade. Many coffee shops offer bagged coffee, with a few bags of fairly traded. We need to let them know that's what we want.

Catholic Relief Services is very involved with fair-trade products, including coffee. At www.crsfairtrade.org, you can read about their efforts. They even provide a coffee map to tell you where you can buy fair trade in your area.

So make your coffee preference fair trade. It's a justice issue.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009