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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Child Labor Shouldn’t Haunt Halloween

Even if the kids in my neighborhood think my fair trade chocolate is a bit weird, at least I'm not handing out dental floss.
I can’t bring myself to be the Grinch who stole Halloween. I just can’t, even though I write about healthy food. I even eat (mostly) healthy food.

Friends and colleagues expect me to have something to say about Halloween. But how can anyone condemn an innocent day of costumes and candy that brings joy to so many children?

As a kid, I was no health nut. I’ve always had a sweet tooth. My first word was “cookie.” But my parents did their best to restrict the sweets in our house. Halloween represented the one glorious day a year of unfettered access to gobs of candy.

We always went trick-or-treating. When the weather was horrible — a frequent problem in the Chicago suburbs — we’d wear heavy coats over our costumes or carry umbrellas. No amount of snow or sleet could keep me from all that candy.

I downed candy as I went — usually enough to give myself a stomachache. My favorites were the little Butterfingers, but I’d gladly accept anything chocolate. I hated it when someone handed me bubblegum.

My candy was truly mine only as long as I trick-or-treated. Once home, Mom took control of the candy from there. She hid it and let me have just a little bit every day. It took me until age 13 to figure out that my parents secretly ate some of my candy after they hid it each year.

So what do I do as a grown-up and a health food advocate? I buy chocolate treats like everyone else, and eagerly wait at my door on Halloween night to hand them out to kids.

OK, maybe not just like everyone else. I spend a bit more on fair trade organic chocolates. I know the kids don’t appreciate them, but I bet the cocoa growers who produced the chocolate do.

“Fair trade” means that farmers receive higher prices for their products. So what if the kids in my neighborhood think I’m weird? At least I’m not handing out bubblegum. Or dental floss.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit my beloved chocolate at its source — in the Amazon basin in Bolivia. El Ceibo Chocolate is a cooperative that is owned by a group of cocoa farmers. It’s run as a democracy, and because it’s fair trade, the farmers receive better prices than they would otherwise.

The cooperative provides technical expertise to help farmers solve problems and improve their practices. Everything is grown organically — without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. That’s good for the person who buys and eats the chocolate, but it’s even better for the farmers, who do not have to risk exposure to toxic chemicals in order to earn a living.

Plus, the chocolate is delicious.

But if only some of the chocolate sold in the U.S. is Fair Trade, what does that make the rest of it? Unfair trade? Most likely, that depends on market prices as they fluctuate from year to year.
Farmers who grow many of our favorite foods, including chocolate, coffee, and vanilla, have no guarantee that they will be paid prices high enough to live on each year. Nor do they receive government subsidies to help out in rough years like U.S. farmers do.

The epitome of unfair trade is found in West Africa, where a disturbing amount of the world’s chocolate is produced by child slaves.

To me, innocent American children trick or treating for chocolate grown and harvested by child slaves in Africa is the scariest horror story I can imagine on Halloween. If you agree that’s spookier than a Stephen King novel, opt for Fair Trade chocolate too — and not just on Halloween.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.