In my never-ending quest for the holy grail of righteous food, I may have finally come as close as I’m going to get. What’s included in the holy grail? Well, we used to call it the triple-bottom line—food that is sustainably produced, pays the producer fairly, and gives the consumer healthy choices at affordable prices.

But the food movement is comprised of many restless souls. Bottom lines don’t remain static and are often subject to continuous elongation and re-articulation in an effort to address a longer list of society’s ills. Now, for instance, all the workers in the food chain should be treated justly and have a voice in their food system’s decision-making activities. Additionally, “sticking it to the man” earns bonus points. That is, an enterprise’s ability to navigate its way through the choppy waters of Big Food without succumbing to its compromising influences. In some of the more conflicted parts of world, righteousness may consist of the courage of food and farm groups to make a political statement directed at violent, oppressive power.

Achieving a state of exalted righteousness, even if only in one’s eyes, is a tall order. As conscientious food buyers and eaters, it sometimes feels as if we’re playing a game of whack-a-mole. Just when you think a state of food system nirvana is at hand, an unvetted ingredient appears, a company scandal plays out in the media, or a link to a shady corporate entity is disclosed.

But righteousness must also take into account one of the more cherished—but often ignored—sacraments of our food choices: appearance and deliciousness! Speaking for myself (because no one else will let me speak for them), I’m beyond insulting my taste buds with substandard ingredients. Sorry, but I’m not going to buy a mealy apple just for the sake of supporting a local farmer, and I’m not going to eat worm-riddled cabbage because it’s organic (unless I grew it myself). And lastly, there is the question of scale and impact. While I do reserve a large room in my heart for small projects that make a local difference, I’m hoping to see a bigger bang take place in our food system before my remains are shoveled into the compost pile.

Though the holy grail will probably remain an elusive goal in a volatile world, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. After extensive research and rigorous review by an esteemed panel of one, this year’s choice for the highly coveted Mark Winne’s Most Righteous Food Enterprise is Equal Exchange.

Founded in 1986 by three visionary food activists—Michael Rozyne, Rink Dickinson, and Jonathan Rosenthal—Equal Exchange jumped into the still-emerging world of fair trade, and over time, came to raise the bar to its highest elevation. They developed the most direct, perhaps the most intimate connections possible between growers, consumers, and eventually workers, particularly in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world. Their founding principles, always a work in progress, still hold true today. They are a:

  • social change organization that helps farmers and their families gain more control over their economic futures
  • group that educates consumers about trade issues affecting farmers
  • provider of high-quality foods that nourish the body and the soul
  • company controlled by the people who do the actual work (they became a worker coop in 1994)
  • community of dedicated individuals who believe that honesty, respect, and mutual benefit are integral to any worthwhile endeavor.

Right from the get-go, the founders displayed the kind of moxie that remains woven into Equal Exchange’s collective fiber to this day. Realizing that coffee had a universality in terms of both production and consumption, they began by importing unroasted coffee beans from producers in Nicaragua. But politically, they couldn’t have chosen a more difficult path in 1986. The Reagan administration had imposed an embargo on all products from Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Undeterred, Equal Exchange saw an opportunity demonstrate solidarity with the fledgling people’s movement while challenging unfair U.S. trade policies at the same time. Through a loophole in the embargo regulations, they eventually found a way to import the coffee, but only after two years of legal wrangling that included U.S. Customs officials seizing the coffee in the Port of Boston.

Today, coffee remains Equal Exchange’s signature product. Beans are imported from farmer coops in Central America, Latin America, and Africa to Equal Exchange’s main warehouse and headquarters in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts where they are roasted, packaged, and distributed. In 2019, enough coffee from small holders was purchased to fill 180 ocean freight containers (due to the pandemic, this number fell to 140 containers in 2020).

Among the farmer-controlled organizations they purchase coffee from is Manos Campesinas in Guatemala. Listening to Miguel Mateo, the 1400-farmer member organization’s lead organizer, describe the relationship with Equal Exchange is both a glimpse into the world’s coffee economy and the immigration crisis. “Equal Exchange has strong values of justice [which is why] they pay a better price for coffee than the conventional buyers,” Miguel said. “A better price was the motivation for farmers to invest in their farms and organic practices, which also increased their coffee yields and quality. When they make enough money as a small holder, they don’t need to migrate to America.”

Miguel tells listeners on an Equal Exchange webinar about Hugo, one of Manos Campesinas’ members, who started coffee farming with only one-quarter hectare of land. By learning new practices, including organic production techniques, Hugo doubled his yields. He also became a trainer to help his fellow farmer/members improve their agricultural practices. With his income from training and the higher prices Equal Exchange was paying for his coffee (about double that of conventional buyers), Hugo increased his land holdings to 3 hectares. This gave him yet more income which has removed the need he once felt to migrate north to escape poverty. Empowering small holders like Hugo is the key to rural economic development which, in turn, will stem migration. And in a country like Guatemala, where 92 percent of the farmers only control 22 percent of the land, compared to 8 percent of the farmers who control 78 percent, there is nothing more empowering than land.

But coffee didn’t remain Equal Exchange’s only story. They started working with tea producers in India and Sri Lanka, followed some years later by cocoa growers in the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Togo. While I have been a confirmed buyer of their beverages for over 20 years, I was thrilled when they expanded their line to include some domestic food products, especially from local grower and producer co-ops. For the last year or so I’ve been loving the robust marinara sauce from New Jersey tomato growers, some hard-core salami from food makers in Vermont, and melt-in-your-mouth pecans from a Black farmer co-op in Georgia. But what really lit my fire was the discovery that Equal Exchange was buying olive oil and Medjool dates from Palestinian grower co-ops.

Harkening back to their solidarity with small Nicaraguan farmers in the Reagan era, Equal Exchange engaged with the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC) and Al-Reef Fair Trade, which is owned by PARC. The intent of the relationship is to build market opportunities for existing agricultural co-ops located on the West Bank where farmers are struggling against a host of insults visited upon them by the Israeli occupation. Land seizures by the Israeli government have deprived farmers of not only their land but also water rights, which are precious in the Middle East’s arid climate. The Palestinians also lost control of their former seaport, Jaffa, to Israel in the twentieth century which now makes them dependent on costly arrangements with that state to ship their agricultural products worldwide. Perhaps most tragically, as many as 19,000 olives trees—a tree that is a sacred Palestinian symbol of peace, many of which were planted in Roman times—were uprooted by Israel.

This past November, about 75 Equal Exchange “citizen-consumers” gathered at their home computer screens listening to talks by Saleem Abu Ghazaleh, the general manager of Al-Reef, and Izzat Zeidan, a rural development specialist for PARC. Reminding me of Edward R. Murrow’s CBS-TV broadcasts from the 1950s, both men were enveloped in a continuous haze of tobacco smoke produced by their omnipresent cigarettes. Aside from this habit that would have set us into coughing fits had we been in the same room, the tale that Saleem and Izzat told us was compelling for anyone concerned about food justice and sovereignty.

PARC assists 41 farmer co-ops through organizing, agricultural education and training (much of which is focused on women and youth), marketing (such as the relationship with Equal Exchange), processing of olives and dates, and holding both the Palestinian Authority and Israeli government accountable (Saleem notes “there are extremists on both sides” of the Israeli and Palestinian question). With one eye on the occupation and the constant threat of land confiscation, and one eye on growing the agricultural economy, PARC moves forward with the idea that “organizing farmers into co-ops helps civil society, families, communities, and democracy.” Through its 280 olive presses and olive oil distribution to 25 countries—aided by both organic and fair-trade certifications—olive oil is contributing $180 million to the Palestinian GDP. And as a person who religiously starts his day with two Equal Exchange/PARC Medjool dates cut up on his granola, and only uses “Palestinian Small Farmers” olive oil for all his cooking, I can firmly assert that my smart, snooty palate will now accept no other!

For 35 years, Equal Exchange has been at the forefront of the fair-trade movement. Its work across the globe with farmers, and with a growing list of agricultural products, has opened up never-before-imagined opportunities for small holders, especially through farmer-controlled cooperatives. But it wasn’t content to apply the principles of fairness, democracy, and worker control to only the producer side of the food system. So, in 1994, with its then 20 employees, it became a worker cooperative and fair-trade organization buying from farmer cooperatives. Today, the organization is owned by 110 employees (“worker owners”) who work out of their West Bridgewater facility as well as sites in Portland, Oregon; Cleveland, Ohio; and St. Paul Minnesota. Not only does every worker have one vote, the highest paid worker, which includes some people who have been with Equal Exchange from its inception, doesn’t make more than four times the wage of the lowest paid worker.

Not content to only give farmers and workers a real seat at the table, Equal Exchange also instituted a citizen/consumer component within their corporate structure a few years back. This is where individuals and buying groups can not only learn more about the nitty-gritties of fair-trade and Equal Exchange, but they can also support the coops outreach and marketing efforts. In addition, they are given a seat—actually three seats—on the board of directors. With this kind of full-spectrum, food system representation, Equal Exchange comes as close as any entity I know to embodying food-chain democracy.

In the early 1990s, the scruffy bunch of New Age idealist founders hit their first financial milestone with $1 million in sales. In 2020, sales topped $88 million*. Though this figure is indeed impressive, especially for those of us who are committed co-op, farmers’ market, and unconventional food buyers, it is still, in comparison to the “Big Boys,” like that crystal speck of salt left on your windshield after a day at the beach.

By now, most of us are familiar with how consolidation and vertical integration in the global food system have come to dominate consumer choice. Whether it’s the four firms that control 80 percent of beef processing and distribution, or the four banana companies that control 40 percent of the world’s banana supply, or the four conglomerates that control 54 percent of that most precious of all commodities, beer, we often feel boxed in with few buying alternatives.

As consumers, we tend to be loyal to brands, and as alternative consumers, we try to buy those products that align with our principles, until we discover that a particular food or beverage business “sold out” by letting itself be hoovered up by Unilever or Budweiser. For instance, according to Phil Howard, a Professor at Michigan State University who has studied consolidation in the food and beverage industry, 40 percent of so-called “craft beers” are not—the brands are bottled by major beer firms.

How many times have I heard these lines from the Clash ringing in my ears, “I’m all lost in the supermarket/I can no longer shop happily,” as I lethargically troll the chain grocery store aisles for something righteous. Yes, I garden actively, buy local food, including beef, at the farmers’ market, and support local breweries. But now that Equal Exchange has a much wider range of online products to choose from, especially ones that can’t be produced in my region, a special kind of satisfaction washes over me when I hit the send button—I feel the frustration drain from my body; I’m seized by a kind of giddiness knowing that a blow against the Empire has been struck; a lightness returns to my step now that I can “shop happily.”

One further ratification—perhaps more of a sanctification—of Equal Exchange’s overall goodness comes from its association with the sacred community. While I stopped believing a long time ago that the side God was on was the winning side, I’ve come to deepen my respect for those who pray regularly. One of Equal Exchange’s very first partners were the Interfaith community that came to represent over 10,000 separate U.S. congregations buying their products. In recent years, this has added up to about $7 to $9 million in annual sales. And as one who has sat through his share of sermons by liberal Protestant preachers, drinking a robust cup of Equal Exchange coffee during the church’s social hour gives you a chance to walk it like you talk it.

Call me weird, but I have those days when I count my riches by how many boxes I can check off when I inventory my larder. Are the food items in stock grown by me and small farmers (locally or globally)? Were they sustainably or organically produced? Did the purchase of that food substantially benefit the grower and the community of that grower? Was that grower and all the others along the food chain treated fairly? Did they have an opportunity to have their voices heard when important decisions are made? And, last but not least, do most of those items taste really good? When all those conditions can be met, no billionaire has anything on me!

So, congratulations Equal Exchange on winning the 2021 Mark Winne Most Righteous Food Enterprise Award! Your trophy is in the mail.

*Over the past few years, Equal Exchange absorbed the operations of three smaller fair-trade organizations. Because there is some organizational and financial overlap between the companies, the annual sales are reported here as one.