Most Important Part

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If asked what the most important part of their morning is, there is a good chance your average adult will say their morning cup of coffee. In fact over 60% of Americans have at least one cup of coffee a day (Sherman). We may not think twice about where the coffee we consume comes from, but in reality the process of how coffee travels from where it is grown to the shelves of our stores is very complicated. This process affects many people, especially the small farmers where the coffee is grown. Throughout this essay I will be focusing specifically on Folgers coffee and Guatemala, one of the many countries where they receive their coffee beans from. I will also explain how there are many people in Guatemala who are impacted by the growth of coffee beans, one of the countries major exports, and how this affects my own relationship with this food staple.

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Overview of Commodity Chain

Folgers receives coffee beans from many different places in the world including Central America, Ethiopia, the Caribbean, etc. The majority of these come from Central America, including small countries such as Guatemala (Black Gold). These areas are very significant for the growth of coffee beans as these areas have the proper climate for growth and these countries have many poor people who will do work for very little money, which I will go more into depth later. Farmers in Guatemala will work twelve or more hours a day to provide enough coffee beans for such an important export. These farmers then sell their coffee beans to middlemen for very cheap prices. The coffee beans are then processed where they are washed and the pulp of the beans is removed. Harvesting and processing the beans require extensive amounts of labor, and most times these people are underpaid for the amount of work they do. Once the beans are done being processed, they are ready to be exported. The beans are put into bags and loaded into shipping containers where they then are exported to the US. The US is one of the largest importers, “with approximately 2.5 million bags per month” (McNulty). Folgers coffee arrives at a port in New Orleans where there coffee beans are held in a silo and “handled by Silocaf, the world’s largest green coffee storage and blending facility on property leased from the Port of New Orleans” (Folgers Makes Louisiana Its Exclusive Roasting, Distribution Hub). Once the coffee beans arrive, the coffee is inspected and then taste tested. This process is done by the “Customs Border Protection (CBP), Food and Drug Administrations (FDA), and US Department of Agriculture (USDA)” (McNulty). After this process is done, the beans are ready to be shipped for roasting. Folgers roasts their coffee beans in four different facilities in New Orleans, Louisiana (Where We Roast). This is where coffee beans are turned into the dark brown color that everyone is familiar with. After roasting, the beans are cooled and then “blended into various flavor and strength combinations” (McNulty). This would also be where Folgers would ground their coffee, which is what they are most famous for. After roasting, the coffee is ready to be packaged and distributed. Folgers main distribution facility is located in New Orleans, and from there packages are shipped all across the country. This includes the stores in Michigan where we can buy Folgers coffee ourselves. Folgers coffee is then available for all consumers to buy.

The coffee commodity chain is one of the best examples to convey how global commodity chains work. In Food & Place: A Critical Exploration by Fernando J. Bosco and Pascale Joassart-Marcelli, it is explained how the chain is coordinated by the Global North, or the companies who are planning to sell the coffee. In chapter 6 of the book, Bosco and Joassart say this about activities along the commodity chain such as processing, marketing, packaging, etc.: “Because the Global North is rich in capital and the Global South has an abundance of labor, these valorizing tasks, which are more capital-intensive than farming or manufacturing, are typically performed in facilities located in or financed by the Global North” (Joassart & Bosco). This shows how it is the Global North and companies such as Folgers who are in control of these commodity chains and reap the most benefits off of the production of coffee. They go on to say, “most of the economic returns accrue to corporate capital owners . . . while producers in the Global South receive a very small share of the profits” (Joassart & Bosco). The Global North is in complete control of this chain and hold all of the power when it comes to decisions within it. There are also other institutions other than the corporations themselves that have an influence on this commodity chain. One of the biggest and most influential is the International Coffee Organization (ICO). According to David Condrad Johnson’s journal article, The International Coffee Agreement and the Production of Coffee in Guatemala, the ICO was introduced in 1963 to “administer the quota system and collect data about the international coffee trade” (Johnson). This quota system is part of the International Coffee Agreement which limited the amount of coffee each country could export due to the supply being much higher than the demand. The ICO is responsible for administering this agreement and helps to maintain the significant economic importance of coffee. Thus, the governments of many nations are part of an organizations that helps to regulate the trade of coffee. The relationship between where the coffee is produced in Guatemala and where Folgers is located in the US is very unfair. The farmers work very hard and for many hours and barely make enough money to survive, as they are receiving less than the price of production for their production. This is because “The farmers are forced to sell them to middlemen who pay them only half the market price” (McNulty). Meanwhile, companies such as Folgers receive the coffee beans, and consequently become one of the most iconic and successful coffee brands available. Also, the consumers are usually much better off than the people who are producing it for them. The farmers wouldn’t even be able to afford their own product as “family farmers will only bring in a yearly income of between $500 to $1000 for their coffee” (McNulty). The location where the coffee is produced and the location where it is distributed and consumed are two entirely different worlds.

Interesting Feature of the Commodity Chain

One very important part of the coffee commodity chain that must not be overlooked is the human cost of just a single cup of coffee. The people who find themselves at the bottom of this supply chain, the farmers who are producing the coffee beans, are struggling to survive and live in major poverty. According to Alternatives Journal, “Prices [of coffee] have fallen by 70 percent in the last five years and many farmers are unable to afford food or medical care, according to recent research” (Coffee Crisis). These farmers often have their wives and even young children help them harvest their crops in hopes that they maximize their profit. The Weather Channel investigated child labor involved with coffee production and found that the “The U.S. Labor Department, which tracks goods produced by child labor in violation of international law, cites 14 nations, including Mexico and Guatemala, for using children in the production of coffee” (The Source). If your average American knew that it was a six year old child who was the reason they were drinking their coffee, they would be appalled. Sadly, this has been ignored, and continues to worsen as price of coffee continues to drop.

In countries that have faced years of colonialism, slavery, and poverty, protecting children from having to work is often not a concern. These people face such a levels of food insecurity, that things an American may view as repulsive are not as much of a concern, and “even laughable” (The Source). In chapter 7 of Food & Place: A Critical Exploration by Fernando J. Bosco, it is stated that vulnerability to food insecurity involves “economic, cultural, political, and environmental” (Joassart & Bosco) risk factors. The people of Guatemala are very vulnerable to food insecurity due to the prices of coffee plummeting. In the Weather Channel investigation, The Source, the story of many Guatemalans who cross the Mexican border to harvest coffee is shared when they say:

“The coffee harvest, which stretches from October to March, is a bustling time here in Chiapas, where an estimated 30,000 destitute Guatemalan coffee pickers cross the nearby border, often in desperation with children in tow. They can’t afford to leave their children at home. They need all the hands they can muster to maximize their income. For many, earnings in southernmost Mexico during the harvest will be all that stands between them and hunger after they return home.”

These people will starve if they are not able to make enough money harvesting coffee, so they have no other choice than to bring their whole family, no matter their age, to help. After a long day harvesting the beans, children and their parents return to very small quarters where they often share wooden bunks, don’t have running water, and very primitive toilets. “Adults earn as little as $4.50 a day, subsisting on two meals of beans and tortillas while saving their earnings to take home after the harvest” (The Source).

Diana Kruger best summarizes this truth in the Journal of Development Economics when she says “Countries where coffee is economically important are vulnerable to coffee production shocks: they are adversely affected by negative shocks and benefit greatly with production booms, which lead to increases in labor demand in all sectors” (Kruger). This is a very important topic regarding the production of coffee not because it is unique, but because it is commonplace. This does not only happen in Guatemala, but all coffee producing countries. At the moment, the consumers of coffee are not very aware of the sad and ignored truth regarding the production of one of their favorite products. They are ignorant to the fact that their morning cup of coffee very well could have come from a child or someone who doesn’t know if they will be able to survive until the next harvest. If more people were aware of what was truly happening in the production of coffee, I believe that a narrative could begin and hopefully changes would be made. We find child labor to be an awful act in our country, so if more people were educated on how they got their coffee, they may demand change. At the same time, coffee is so important to people and “necessary” for them to make it through their day, I don’t think there would be a bunch of people who quit drinking their favorite coffee because of it. Ultimately, coffee is just one of the major imports our country takes that contributes to child labor all around the world. It is disgusting that children need to go through such things to provide us with something that is a “need” for most Americans.

My Relationship to Folgers Coffee

Focusing this essay on coffee may not have been one of the most unique food staples I could have picked, I still chose it for multiple reasons. One of the first reasons is that coffee is such an important part of over 60% of Americans daily lives. There are not many other food products that are used quite as often and viewed as important as coffee is to Americans. The second reason is that I have seen videos and articles in the past of how growing coffee has negatively impacted people in places such as Guatemala. I also decided to focus on Folger’s coffee because as I was growing up, this was the coffee I always saw in my household. It has been around since the 1850s and for many years was the most popular coffee brand in the United States (History). This means Folgers has been using coffee beans from places like Guatemala for many, many years. Personally, I do not drink coffee all that often, but my family will purchase a few of those recognizable red canisters of ground coffee a month, consuming it each and every day. Most of the time it will be purchased at Meijer, but it is very easy to obtain and can be bought at almost any grocery store in the country. A thirty ounce container will cost anywhere from seven to eight dollars. Each day it is prepared in our coffee maker and often mixed with some coffee creamer to lessen the bitterness. It is then brought to work, school, or wherever we need to make our morning commute.

The relationship between health and coffee is a complicated one. Old myths about coffee such as it stunting growth have been disproven. In fact coffee in moderation has been found to have possible health benefits such as protection against type 2 diabetes and liver disease. The caffeine provided from coffee can also give people a burst of energy to start their day. However, these health benefits only come when coffee is consumed in moderation, which it often is not. Too much coffee has been found to increase cholesterol levels and can increase risk of heart disease. Adding sugar and cream to coffee will also increase the calories and further increase health risks. Ultimately, the health benefits outweigh the health risks of coffee, but this is dependent on how much is being consumed (Hensrud). While I have never been a big coffee drinker, I know for a fact that this food staple alters people’s own identity. I have heard many people say that they can’t function throughout the day without drinking coffee. Any product that people are this dependent on has obviously become part of their identity and such an important part of their own day.

The commodity chain for Folgers coffee is very similar to other large coffee brands in the United States like Starbucks and Maxwell House. All in all, they are all affecting the producers of coffee beans in the same way. They all rely on this import to provide their consumers with something that so many rely on each and everyday. As I said before, I am not a big coffee drinker, but after doing further research on how it comes to our stores, I can say that I definitely don’t plan on becoming a coffee drinker any time soon. Too many people are struggling to survive everyday, just to make sure someone can get their daily cup of joe. Sadly, I can’t see big changes coming for these people any time soon. In the US and many other places around the world, coffee is an essential part of almost everyone’s diet. People won’t stop consuming something so important to them just to help some people across the world. However, I am hoping that I am wrong and someday people will be able to enjoy their coffee knowing that they aren’t contributing to many people living in poverty. All I know is that I don’t want to be consuming a product where an adult or child is forced to produce it to survive.

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Most Important Part. (2021, Mar 20). Retrieved July 6, 2022 , from
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