For UC Santa Cruz undergraduate Katie Slocum, an espresso habit at Verve Coffee Roasters led to employment with the specialty coffee company. And that led to an innovative, award-winning research project. The research project took her from Santa Cruz, California to Santa Barbara, Honduras, on a life-changing journey through the coffee supply chain.
At a new employee orientation at Verve, Slocum responded to a request to action by company co-owner Colby Barr. How could they – as employees – help Verve more effectively connect coffee customers (“street level”) to growers (“farm level”)?
Slocum approached Barr with an intriguing idea…a proposal for the company to “sponsor her on a research trip to Honduras” to enable her to study how Verve’s direct trade practice impacts people across the supply chain. The company said, “yes.” Thus was born Slocum’s senior thesis, From Streetlevel to Farmlevel: An Ethnography of Direct Trade Coffee in Santa Barbara, Honduras.
Slocum had a range of questions.
“I was 24-years-old, standing on that slope because I had decided to synergistically combine my passion for coffee, my calling to help people, and my pursuit of a degree in anthropology. What if I could examine the commercial way coffee is usually purchased worldwide in comparison to a more specialized boutique process called “direct trade” in the hopes of theorizing a more socially just life for farmers and producers along the supply chain of the second-most traded commodity globally? Then a paradox occurred to me: while much higher specialty coffee prices are alluring for farmers living in impoverished nations dependent upon on export crops, what happens when catastrophe strikes, fungus ravages their plants, or they can’t tend to their farms, and they don’t get paid for their crops? What does the neocolonial dynamic of top-down market-based solutions to a commodity crop mean ethically for all parties involved?”
In addition to practical observations about the supply chain, Slocum reached the following conclusion:
“From the experience I’ve gained standing on those farms, shaking the hands of the producers that supply Verve, I’ve learned that humans have a moral imperative to support fellow humans, transcending nefarious backgrounds of colonial mercantilism and envisioning a future where the supply chain becomes more of a partnership, where people in both the Global North and the Global South can enjoy the benefits of a highly lucrative international enterprise.”
Her employer, Verve Coffee, also learned from Slocum’s project.
As [Colby] Barr observed, “I learned a lot from Katie’s project. One thing was the reaffirmation of the power of origin to coffee professionals. It’s one thing to love coffee, but once you visit the source it grabs hold of you in a way that is hard to explain and that never lets go. It’s a powerful experience.”
Slocum graduated this year. Her thesis? It won the 2015 Social Sciences Dean’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research. You’ll want to read it.