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With a Capitol Bean
Published in Hope Magazine

HOW MUCH are coffee farmers getting from that three-dollar latte? The global price of coffee has plunged nearly 50 percent in the last three years, in turn plunging some 25 million small-scale coffee producers in poverty, according to hunger relief organization OxFam America. Meanwhile the retail market has nearly doubled, from $30 billion to $55 billion, as coffee giants like Kraft and Nestle rake in record profits.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, noticed that the U.S. wasn't getting its money's worth either -- that the crash in coffee prices was undermining the efficacy of development aid to coffee-dependent Latin American economies. Leahy has co-sponsored a referendum calling on the U.S. to work with the coffee industry and local producers to develop a long-term global strategy. The House and Senate both passed versions of the referendum this November.

Leahy also helped broker a partnership between USAID and Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to expand Fair Trade business practices around the world. To be Fair Trade-certified, a coffee importer must pay coffee farmers a minimum price of $1.21 per pound, as opposed to mere 20 to 30 cents a pound the farmers generally receive.

In the new session, Sen. Leahy plans to work on other ideas ranging from "the difficult to the doable," according to an aide. They include convincing federal offices and coffee companies to buy fair trade products, reducing the supply of cheap, low-quality coffee on the market, and pressuring the administration into rejoining the International Coffee Organization. Several senators have already contacted Leahy's office wanting to get involved in the issue.

In the meantime we'll see if our Senators will put their lunch money where their mouth is. As of the next session, Fair Trade-certified coffee will be sold in Senate cafeterias and coffee shops alongside the conventional coffee usually served. Offering fair trade coffee in the Capitol may be a small step, but it reminds our humble servants on the Hill that our everyday choices do make a difference in the world, one cup at a time.

How to help
-- Learn more about the coffee crunch so you can educate others. Call (800) 776-9326 for Oxfam's report, ''Mugged: Poverty in Your Coffee Cup.''

-- Buy Fair Trade coffee. If your local supermarket doesn't carry it, talk to the manager about ordering it. You can also order it on-line at

-- Demand that Folgers and other large coffee companies start offering Fair Trade products. You can send a free fax from the San Francisco-based organization Global Exchange (see

-- Organize a Fair Trade campaign in your community. At, you can download a "Coffee Action Pack" and access a national database of activists coordinating local campaigns.

-- Call your senators at (202) 224-3121 and ask them to support Leahy's efforts and co-sponsor any future legislation encouraging fair trade business.

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