Teaching About Fair Trade Chocolate

While teaching grade 5 in San Jose, California I taught a lesson about Fair Trade chocolate after finishing with the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My class and I loved the story of Charlie’s adventures in Willy Wonka’s famous factory, but I wanted my students to understand the actual way in which chocolate is produced. It started out jovial enough:

me: Do Oompa-Loompas actually pick chocolate beans?
students: No! [laughing and thinking, “Oh that hilarious Ms. Gary!”  <– I like to think…]

And then we went into some real life, real serious stuff. The results were breathtaking. My students became extremely passionate about:

*educating their peers and families about the use of slavery and child labor in the cacao-picking industry — via presentations, casual conversations, and a lot of signage around the school
*asking questions of big corporations like Hershey’s and Mars
*persuading those corporations’ big wigs to stop using slavery and child labor (and appealing to their ethos and pathos very convincingly)
*asking lawmakers (our country’s president included) to make utilizing slavery and child labor illegal, even if the practices are not banned — or if the laws banning them are not enforced — in the countries where their cacao beans are picked

I was so impressed by my class’s motivation to make a difference. It was toward the very end of the school year, and it was probably the first time I’d ever seen 100% of them trying really hard in school. They thought of all of their own “actions” for dealing with a huge global problem. Students from other classrooms came to our classroom to ask about how they could help. My students made posters to show everyone what the Fair Trade label looks like, and they asked teachers for permission to speak in other classrooms. It was inspiring. Also, suddenly, teaching writing was not so much of a challenge; the need for correct grammar, syntax, and spelling was immediately obvious when writing to a senator or CEO. They were absolutely on fire, and I will never forget the experience.

This year, my grade 6 students read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in their English class. I taught them Geography, and so I used that weekly class period to teach about the real life production of chocolate in today’s world. I used the same lesson format as I did two years ago.

1. How is chocolate made?
– We watched a couple YouTube videos about the process (there are many!).
– We learned that cacao beans are turned into cocoa powder and butter (correct terminology is important!).

2. Where are cacao beans grown?
– We learned that cacao beans are all grown very close to or on the equator.
– 38% of cacao beans are grown in Ivory Coast.
– Students colored in a map to show locations where the world’s cacao is grown.

3. Who picks the cacao beans?
– I printed out articles for groups of students to read. All of the articles are recent and describe the common use of slavery and child labor in cacao fields.
– The groups each read aloud one article and filled out a graphic organizer with the headings, “Facts,” “Opinions,” and “Actions” (Actions being ways in which they could help solve the problem.)
– Then the groups presented their findings to the whole class.

A few of the articles:

“Slavery in the Chocolate Industry” from the Food Empowerment Project
And also a petition: Act Now to End Child Slavery in the Chocolate Industry from Anti-Slavery

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4. Take Action.
– In San Jose, my students went wild with posters, fliers, presentations, and persuasive letters to legislators, the president, the First Lady, and chocolate companies.
– This year in Thailand, my students each wrote a letter to a different person or corporation. Many chose Hershey’s, the world’s worst offender. Others chose Divine Chocolates, a UK-based chocolate company that is certified Fair Trade; students asked them to please sell their chocolates in Thailand, as no Fair Trade chocolate exists in stores here. And still others wrote to Villa Supermarket, a local chain, to ask them to start including Fair Trade chocolate in their inventory and to discontinue non-Fair Trade chocolate products.

Two years ago, President Obama responded to some of my students’ letters, and the principal of the school read it aloud during an assembly. It was a powerful moment for my students! They had been a bit down about how their actions may not make a huge difference. But I reminded them that 31 of us, myself included, had boycotted Hershey’s, Mars, and Nestle, that all of our family and friends were becoming aware of this major issue, and that our whole school now knew about the atrocities in the cacao fields. They learned that when they write well-crafted, polite, persuasive letters, that even our president will take the time to respond — that’s BIG! Plus, they learned what I think was the most important lesson of the whole unit: We vote with our dollars (or baht).

Of course, I’m sure that most of my students have already or will go back to eating their favorite candies, but the point of the lesson was to draw attention to a problem and to show them that their actions matter. We all face cognitive dissonance when it comes to these kinds of things. But maybe just a few of my students will stick to their boycotts and continue spreading the word. Imagine if more of us acted on our knowledge; I’d like to think that 100% Fair Trade could be a possibility in the future.

The success of Fair Trade is in the hands of the consumers — that’s us! So be sure to look for that label the next time you buy chocolate, coffee, and bananas. By voting with your dollar or baht, you’re telling Fair Trade companies, “Thank you for paying your workers a fair salary, for treating them well, and for supporting their overall well-being.” This is much better than thanking Hershey’s or Mars or Nestle for their inhumane practices, which is what we do each time we purchase one of their products. Your dollar/baht/yen/euro/peso matters!

fair trade


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