Coffee and Inequality

Ask any brain-zonked college student pulling an all-nighter—coffee and scholarly study are total BFF’s.

These lifelong pals joined forces yet again on February 2nd at Vanderbilt, as the university’s Institute for Coffee Studies hosted Quality and Inequality, a panel discussion on specialty coffee. Mac Muir and William McCollum, Vandy students and research associates for the institute (and friends of CREMA), invited us to be a part. A huge turnout (our eyes guesstimated 50 or 60) from all over campus, the coffee industry, and just-happened-to-hear-about-it coffee lovers meant the coffee we brought was lick-the-pots-clean gone in about fifteen minutes—but it also meant a bunch of people participating in a necessary conversation.

Ted Fischer, director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Latin American Studies, hosted the panel discussion, bridging the gap between coffee’s eager consumers (of which he is one) and coffee’s eager researchers (of which he is also one). Fischer weaved the conversation among the five panel members, each coffee researchers and professionals—wondering what specialty coffee means for growers; musing on the subjectivity of “good” or “quality” coffee; talking about women’s roles in the global coffee market; voicing concerns about climate change and its correlation to coffee rust;

and asking the tough questions about whether we’re really helping small coffee growers as much as we think we are.

The most common refrain we heard was about these small coffee growers. In the colonial era, when well-established and well-off families took over large coffee plantations in Central America, the poor were shoved up the mountains to what was originally considered less desirable land. Of course, as time went on, we came to learn that high-altitude coffee—the coffee grown on the land where the poor people live—was actually far superior to the product on the plantations closer to sea-level. The problem that existed then—and continues to this day—is that many of the small, poor coffee producers are still, well, small and poor. Despite possessing the best crop, these small producers don’t have access to the market—because they have historically and systemically been denied market access, or because they are simply too poor to ever get ahead. Again—these are the growers with the best coffee, the most fertile ground, the most dynamic, tastiest crop. (These higher altitude farms are also more susceptible to coffee rust, and yet, paradoxically, are more likely to lack the funds to prevent rust’s spread.)

Much of the conversation at this forum felt like an urge towards being more truthful and honest—admitting that, hey, maybe we still have work to do to make these small growers a part of this industry.

Maybe we still have work to do to empower women in this industry.

Maybe we still have work to do to reach out, support, and educate growers—many of whom have never tasted their own coffee, and have no understanding of what the market considers “good” and “bad”—on how to produce a better crop.

Some of these problems are alleviated when buyers have direct relationships with farmers, as we do. Lines of communication are open. The growers know what constitutes “quality” coffee, and are paid fairly for their work to produce it. As buyers, roasters, and baristas, we are then able to brew and serve the coffee with a deep respect of where and who it came from.

We still have work to do, but if we learned anything on Vanderbilt’s hallowed grounds, it’s that our work has just begun.

Be sure to check out Vanderbilt’s Institute for Coffee Studies and their ongoing research into how current coffee trends are affecting life in Central America. Thank you for supporting CREMA and our efforts to honor the human beings who grow our coffee.