On Strike for “fair” Chocolate

In the previous blog, I highlighted the irony that Carol Off considered in her book Bitter Chocolate[i] and the vast distance she described between the hand that picks the cocoa and the hand that picks the chocolate bar from the store shelf in our community.  In both cases the hands have often been children’s but the children who pick the cocoa pods may have never tasted a chocolate bar and North American children may have no understanding of where chocolate comes from, or who grows and harvests the cocoa they enjoy in a chocolate bar.

It’s worth considering that it took centuries of cocoa use and experiments before the first chocolate bar was created. In England, Fry, Cadbury and Rowntree companies were competing for larger shares of the market and were struggling to expand the line of products they could create from cocoa. For centuries cocoa was mainly consumed as a beverage but industrialization enabled new machinery for grinding, roasting and processing of new products. In 1847, the Fry brothers experimented with mixing cocoa powder with excess cocoa fat and adding sugar to make a rich creamy paste. They pressed the mixture into a mold and let it set. The result was the first solid chocolate bar in Britain! This was a major breakthrough because chocolate could now be eaten as well as drunk. It was portable and a totally new kind of snack. Frys called it Chocolat Delicieux a Manger. This was only the beginning to a variety of chocolate coated creams and other confections that soon expanded the cocoa product line. [ii]

One hundred years later in 1947 the children of British Columbia called a strike and picketed to protest the increase in cost of chocolate bars from five to eight cents. The protest began in Ladysmith and Chemainus with young leaders of Bruce Saunders, Parker Williams, Bert Gisborne, and Gerald Williams. They picketed the local ice cream shop called The Wigwam where they usually bought their chocolate bars. The protests caught on with children across the province and beyond. Pickets sprang up at the legislature, the Parliament of Canada and in the major cities across the country. Their chant resonated: We want a five cent chocolate bar; eights cents is going too darn far; we want a five cent chocolate bar, we want a five cent bar (Off, 2007, p. 295).[iii]

On strike for fair chocolate

Vancouver Sun – on strike for fair chocolate

In the early post war days of 1947 the wartime price and wage controls had ended and the price of cocoa beans for the chocolate companies had more than doubled and wages had also almost doubled. At first the protest had wide support from adults who also resented the jump in prices on many consumer goods and there was considerable admiration for the feisty children. But, soon support faded as the children were seen to be agitating chaos and stirring up dissent. Reason had to reign and that was a “fair” and higher price for chocolate that had to be asserted. The children lost the battle. Prices for chocolate have continued to rise and children and adults have continued to purchase chocolate treats.

A five cent chocolate bar is pretty well unimaginable in today’s world so I set out to visit Sticky’s in my neighbourhood to see what chocolate bars cost and what children were buying today.  Sticky’s is rightly named a “Candy Store” that sells “candy bars” because what used to be chocolate bars for kids today have very little chocolate. Candy bars stocked only a small section of the store and prices ranged between two and three dollars for about a 45 gram bar. I purchased an Almond Joy bar, a name I remembered from the past, made by Hershey. The first ingredient listed on the package is corn syrup, then sugar. Chocolate appears eleventh in the list of ingredients. Real chocolate bars that we purchase in grocery and drug stores in 80 to 100 gram sizes and that list cocoa as a first ingredient are likely to cost from $3 to $6, or more.

Hopefully what we pay for chocolate today is fairer to the farmer than it was 15 years ago when Off wrote her book. I searched out another BC producer of chocolate to see whether their product was “fair trade.” Purdy’s opened their first store in 1907 on Robson Street in Vancouver and today have 75 shops in provinces from Ontario west in Canada (www.purdys.com). Their cocoa comes from growers in Ghana, Ecuador, Ivory Coast and Peru. While not advertised as fair trade, they claim to source 100% sustainable cocoa that they describe as including practices that encourage sustainable farms, sustainable living and clean water. Their website provides videos that document their actions in working toward sustainable cocoa. They state that they have a zero tolerance for forced or child labour. Purdy’s take pride in their long history, family ownership and their many awards as one of the best employers in British Columbia.

The large chocolate producers in British Columbia such as Purdy’s and Roger’s have both tried to add fairness to their product, largely in response to consumer awareness of the vast distance between grower and consumer that Carol Off spotlighted 15 years ago. Purdy’s claim that they source 100% sustainable cocoa and Roger’s is committed to 100% “fair trade certified” cocoa. During the past fifteen years we have all become much more attentive to where our food comes from. The desire for locally grown and produced food, has given rise to many micro, artisan and local chocolate producers. In the next blog I will look at some of the micro chocolate producers in British Columbia and a more recent assessment of where we are in adding “fairness” into the chocolate equation.

[i] Off, Carol (2007). Bitter chocolate, investigating the dark side of the world’s most seductive sweet. Toronto: Vintage Canada/Random House.

[ii] Cadbury, Deborah (2010). Chocolate wars, the 150 year rivalry between the world’s greatest chocolate makers. Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre.