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Essam Mikhail scopes out the crowd of students passing through Baker University Center on Tuesday, August 25, 2015. The peak hours he claims are from 1-3PM, when the most number of students will pass his booth on the way to lunch. 

Ohio University Fair Trade Group advocates fair labor coffee

OU students care about their coffee, but can learn more on the trade of the product.

Every morning, students and faculty wait in line for Starbucks Coffee, unaware of how or where the product went from producer to customer.

The Ohio University Fair Trade Group, an organization that advocates for fair trade on products like coffee beans, tea leaves and chocolate, wants to fix that.

“There’s usually seven steps between the buyer, producer and the end buyer. Every time it touches somebody — the middleman — it’s marked up,” Essam Mikhail, president of the OU Fair Trade Group and 1981 alumnus, said. “The producer is the one that’s getting shafted. He doesn’t get a fair value for his work.”

The group attends festivals and events and tables on campus to educate students on fair trade.

“Fair trade is basically giving fair value to people who grow crops, like coffee and chocolate and tea, or people who produce goods or handicrafts,” Mikhail said. “So, we cut out the middleman and just deal directly.”

Many corporations like The Hershey Co. and Starbucks Corp. benefit from indirect methods of production in order to receive a profit, he said.

“(The consumers) need to know where the money goes. These are huge conglomerate farms that exploit workers. They use pesticides,” Mikhail said. “Instead, (customers) should go to a fair trade group.”

The OU Fair Trade Group began eight years ago but has been advocating fair trade handicrafts and food for 30 years. When Mikhail’s aunt from Egypt visited, she brought with her the garbage-recycled crafts she sold as her source of income in Egypt. The idea inspired Mikhail to make these recycled and free trade items accessible in Athens.

“I try to make it easier for students to access fair trade coffee … through a subscription program," he said of the option the Fair Trade Group offers.

Mikhail said for a total of $26, they offer three months worth of fair trade coffee compared to $11 for one bag.

Part of the group’s profits, Mikhail said, benefit the Athens area through churches, the United Campus Ministry and two scholarships for Appalachian high school students to study at Ohio University or Hocking College.

Chris Pyle, owner of Donkey Coffee & Espresso, said 95 percent of the coffee they purchase is fair trade coffee from Dean’s Beans out of Massachusetts, but it isn’t an easy commitment.

“(Fair trade coffee) is just more expensive for us to buy,” Pyle said. “We have to keep up with the quality of our competitors who are buying coffee for $2.50 a pound, versus $8 to $11 a pound for free trade.”

Despite the higher cost, the support of fair trade coffee is an important component of Donkey’s commitment to social justice and to business for farmers.

“We know a lot about farming and the farmers who grow coffee beans,” Pyle said. “We feel we can make a difference. When you see the impact it makes, you want to purchase fair trade and help.”

Madison Kristoff, a sophomore studying marketing, said she learned about fair trade in an economics class but has never really considered purchasing fair trade goods herself.

“The reason I go to Starbucks is because it’s easiest. It’s always been around,” she said. “I really like Donkey, but I feel like I can never actually get to there because it’s so far.”

Mikhail said there’s a lot of information out there, and people are overloaded with it.

“We try to make (Athens) a better place and, at the same time, support these farmers,” he said.

The goal is not to just buy fair trade coffee from Starbucks or Walmart, Mikhail said, but to buy from local and non-profit organizations.

“We promote local businesses as well,” Mikhail said. “There’s a saying that says, ‘Think globally, act locally.’ We very much do that.”


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