Manhattan College Celebrates an Important Fair Trade Month

Just four colleges in New York State have fair trade resolutions on the books: Fordham University, Hartwick College, Siena College, and Manhattan College. Manhattan has the distinction of being the first school in New York City ever to pass the resolution, the second school in the state (behind Siena), and one of the first five in the nation.

The fair trade designation is much more than just a piece of paper with words on it. According to Lois Harr, director of campus ministry and social action (C.M.S.A.), each campus retail outlet must commit to selling at least two fair trade items in order for the college to maintain its designation.

October is fair trade month for C.M.S.A.–and  this year it comes just a few months before the college celebrates the fifth anniversary of its fair trade designation in February.

Manhattan earned the designation in 2012, marking the culmination of a five-year march in that direction. In 2007, as C.M.S.A.’s Lasallian Outreach Volunteer Experience (L.O.V.E.) program took shape on an immersion trip to Rostro de Cristo in Ecuador, Harr and her student travelers were taken under the wing of a volunteer from Catholic Relief Services, who told them the horrors of the sweatshop lifestyle common in the Global South.

Harr returned to campus and C.M.S.A. began to drum up fair trade awareness, starting with a single tabling event in formerly Dante’s Den, which now provides a variety of administrative office space on the third floor of Thomas Hall.

“So, we sat there and tabled, and we gave away fair trade chocolate and asked people to sign comment cards,” Harr said. On the cards were requests from students, faculty, and administration that Sodexo, the company which ran the on-campus dining services at the time, offer fair trade coffee in college food service venues. Nearly one hundred of those cards were collected.

“Sure enough, first day of school in the fall of that year, 2007, and you go in the cafeteria and there’s fair trade coffee,” Harr recalled.

In 2011, when dining operations were re-contracted to a new company, Gourmet Dining, L.L.C., the college ensured that the principles of fair trade would be a part of the agreement with the new food service contractor.

Eventually, Harr and C.M.S.A. were able to bring other parties into the fold, including the campus bookstore. Follett Corporation, who managed the store at the time was in contact with several fair trade vendors, and before long the store began selling Alta Gracia-brand fair trade clothing.

Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Inc., which has since assumed the operations of the bookstore, also has a number of fair trade vendors. The store now sells Divine-brand fair trade chocolate, as well as a few other fair trade snacks in addition to the Alta Gracia clothing.

Within a few years, C.M.S.A. caught wind of the Fair Trade College designation being offered by the organization Fair Trade Campaigns, and Harr jumped at the opportunity. She first won the support of college president Brennan O’Donnell, Ph.D., who, following the passage of fair trade resolutions in student government and in the College Senate, signed the declaration, making Manhattan the first fair trade college in the five boroughs.

The fair trade tradition continues today, in C.M.S.A.’s fair trade chocolate Easter egg hunt, and in their other numerous giveaways of fair trade chocolate and coffee throughout the year. C.M.S.A. has even acquired its own brand of coffee, entitled “Jasper Java” from a fair trade coffee distributor. Harr sells the “Jasper Java” to Manhattan community members and her own personal friends alike.

Brian Conway, who was assistant general manager of Gourmet Dining at the college until last Friday, has been involved in fair trade since he first began his work at Manhattan a few years ago. Gourmet Dining ensures that the College adheres to the policy by meeting and exceeding the two-item rule needed to renew the designation in each retail outlet – including Café 1853 and the convenience store in Thomas Hall, as well as the food vendors on the first floor of the Kelly Commons, including Starbucks Coffee.

The two-item rule only applies to retail outlets, leaving out Gourmet Dining’s most extensive operation, the resident dining room Locke’s Loft in Thomas Hall.

“We bring stuff in for Locke’s Loft,” Conway said. “We have a ton of things for fair trade in Locke’s Loft during, obviously the month of October is fair trade… they have a set calendar of things to do.”

Programs in Locke’s Loft for the month of October include fair trade banana promotions, and fair trade strawberries which can be dipped in a fair trade chocolate fountain. Bananas are a centerpiece of fair trade month for Gourmet Dining, and the company buys them by the pallet, thousands-at-a-time.

“Bananas are the easiest ones to buy in bulk, so if I say, like, they’re doing bananas foster and they’re putting fair trade bananas on your breakfast items,” Conway said.

C.M.S.A. is planning its own programs for fair trade month. Tentatively planned for October 17 is a showing of the film “The True Cost.” On the 19th, C.M.S.A. will partner with the peace studies program for a showing of a documentary film about a coffee farmer, with a lecture to follow.

“Last year they did a lot of… there was fair trade chocolate or coffee on the Quad, or beads,” said senior Katelyn Conroy.

Conroy argues that events like giveaways or film screenings can help build momentum for the college’s fair trade campaign. Conroy is a senior and the co-president of Just Peace, a club which falls under C.M.S.A.

Conroy, Harr and three other students including Just Peace co-president Sarah Kissane, student body president Dorian Persaud and sophomore Daniel Sammon travelled to Philadelphia two weekends ago for a fair trade conference. The conference was focused on building campaigns, and preventing those already in place from momentum.

For Conroy, increasing awareness is key to maintaining the campaign’s momentum.

“There are fair trade things at the college, but it’s sort of less known than I would like it to be,” Conroy said. “People maybe know [a product] is fair trade, but they might not even know what [fair trade] is. They might not even know what products are fair trade.”

The fair trade movement still has big hurdles to clear before fair trade products can become truly competitive in the mainstream marketplace. Conway estimates that fair trade products are between 10- and 20-percent more expensive than the market value.

But Conway said the financial costs associated with fair trade are, “minimal, compared with the satisfaction that you receive from, not only the student body, but the people that are pushing for fair trade.” He added, “It’s a minimal cost to me to know that those farmers are getting their fair share.”

Conroy agrees.

“It seems menial, because it’s coffee, bananas, clothing, but you’re actually supporting someone and they’re getting a fair wage to live as they should,” she said.

The fair trade movement has found a home at Manhattan, and a dedicated and loyal following here who is willing to do the grunt work to advance the cause.

“I think fair trade is important not only to us, but… that’s the kind of college we go to. It’s a Catholic college where we’re not only teaching people how to be educated, but to treat people with respect and to be socially conscious in this world,” Conway said.