For his book, “Where Am I Eating?” Kelsey Timmerman traveled to the Ivory Coast, Costa Rica and elsewhere in pursuit of the source of his food. Along the way, he made some disturbing discoveries that led him to stop drinking Starbucks coffee and feeding his children apple juice from China. U.S. News talked to Timmerman about where our food comes from, and why we should care. His responses have been edited:
Why did you decide to investigate where our food comes from?
In my travels for my first book, “Where Am I Wearing,” I visited a dump in Phnom Penh [in Cambodia] where adult workers earned $1 per day picking through fresh trash for something of value that could be resold or recycled. Children worked there, too, picking through older trash earning 25-cents per day. It was the worst place I’ve ever been. Putrid smoke billowed from burning trash. It was hard to imagine a farmer choosing to work in a factory making blue jeans for $50 per month, but it was even harder to imagine a farmer leaving the fields to work in a dump. I really wanted to know what was happening in the fields.
So last year, I farmed alongside banana farmers in Costa Rica, coffee farmers in Colombia, lobster divers in Nicaragua, cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast and apple farmers in China to find out.
Did your research change how you eat and how you feed your family?
I think one of the best ways to change your diet is to research and write a book on food. I’ve lost ten pounds. I don’t get heart burn anymore and I’m even learning to cook a bit.
Right away, we banned Product of China apple juice from our kids’ sippie cups. The list of Chinese food scares and scandals is too long and scary: melamine in infant formula, cadmium in rice, borax in pork, bleach in mushrooms and arsenic in soy sauce and apple juice.
I rarely eat fast food any longer; it’s just too unknowable. I eat a lot more organic food than I used to. I’ve always been more interested in social justice than environmental justice. But farming alongside farmers around the world has shown me how the two are inseparable.
Now, I eat way too much fair trade chocolate and drink way too much fair trade coffee. There has been a lot of discussion about what fair trade is and should be among the fair trade community in the past year, but I think it is the second best way to try to ensure that your food was respectful to man and land.
The best way to ensure that the farmer and environment is being treated right is to know the farmers, visit their farms or grow your own food. We have about 100 square feet of garden now. Don’t tell anyone, but we totally use child labor all the time in our garden. Our 4-year-old daughter Harper loves to pick cherry tomatoes. The problem is that she eats them all before they make it into the house.
You start the book focusing on the origins of your morning cup of coffee. Do you still start the day with Starbucks?
I stopped drinking Starbucks, for the most part. I’m sad about this. As a father of two children, and regular catcher of early morning flights, removing Starbucks from the equation really limits your coffee options.
Going into the project, I was excited to learn more about the Starbucks Coffee and Farmer Equity Practice Practices program. The program is supposed to ensure that farmers who grow Starbucks coffee are treated fairly and so is the environment it is grown in. When I asked Starbucks if they would help me meet some of [their farmers in the program] responsible for my favorite cup of Colombia coffee, they told me it was proprietary information.
I went on my own to Nariño, Colombia …The overall consensus was that Starbucks came to the region six years ago, but now all they do is buy coffee, and at a lower rate than other companies such as Nespresso. Over the past year, I’ve repeatedly asked Starbucks to comment on what I saw in Nariño. I’m still waiting.
What do you think American consumers should know about where their food comes from?
More and more, our food is coming from somewhere beyond our borders. In the past 10 years the amount of food that we import into our country has doubled, and only 2.3 percent of it is inspected. Today, 86 percent of our seafood, 50 percent of fruit and 20 percent of vegetables is imported.
What was the most disturbing thing you learned?
That slavery is alive and well in 2013. I met a slave in the Ivory Coast working on a cocoa farm. I hired him as my translator and gave him a shot at freedom. Days later I learned he ended up back on the farm. I’m not sure if he was taken back or chose to go back. There are so little opportunities in some of the regions of the world that grow our food that slavery can be someone’s opportunity.
But the real root problem isn’t slavery, it’s that farmers are being paid less and less in most cases. A coffee farmer receives 1 cent for the coffee in a mocha latte, workers in banana plantations earn 1.5 percent of the retail price of a banana and one-third of one cent of a cocoa bar’s retail prices goes to the cocoa farmers.
Food labels can be overwhelming and confusing – which ones are most important?
Fair Trade International and Fair Trade USA have social and environmental standards that include setting a minimum standard and ensuring that farmers receive a social premium that goes back to the farmers to use on community projects. And then you have companies like Starbucks creating their own certifications.
I’m fond of any label that involves third-party certifiers, a system of accountability and has close working relationships with the farmers. Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade International do the best. Start checking those labels.