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Halloween Chocolate: The Treat is a Trick

What if you found out that the cheap chocolate you give out to kids in your neighborhood was only possible because of child labor in faraway towns …okay: you have just found out! Now it’s your move. Please read on…

Don’t buy cheap chocolate for Halloween. Or ever.

A connection between teaching about climate change and, of all things, chocolate developed for me recently in the Andes Mountains. I was on expedition with 11 Grauer students spending the week with indigenous Kichua (Quechua) people and their shamans (native healers locally called yakchaks). These healers expressed to us a connection to the land that felt deep, and real. As a lifelong choco-holic, I learned along with my students that chocolate means a whole lot more to Ecuadorians than candy.   

I’m sure many of you know that cacao does not grow in Switzerland, or Hershey, Pennsylvania, where it became famous! It’s thought cacao was first used as a health elixir and ceremonial medicine as far back as 1900 BC by the ancestors of Central America. No one would deny chocolate’s feel-good, healing properties. 

Is there such a thing as responsible consumption of this wonderful plant, revered by the ancients? The more I look into this question, the bigger it gets.

Grauer student Tristan C. '20 learning to grind cacao beans on an expedition to Ecuador - September 16, 2019 

Cocoa is a chocolate powder made from roasted and ground cacao seeds. Cacao is the purest form of chocolate. Originally, most Swiss chocolate was made from Ecuadorian cacao beans, mixed with a variety of other ingredients. Cacao is now grown worldwide in equatorial conditions, and Ecuador is the world’s seventh largest producer.

Eventually, the Ecuadorians realized that they could make their own chocolate—there was no reason to give the lion’s share of the profits to the Swiss. Potentially, wonderfully, this meant they could stimulate their local economy. 

But most cacao is sold to big firms all over the world. Like all other agricultural products, there is good cacao and cheap cacao. Growing cocoa is hard manual work and labor-intensive, as caring for and harvesting the beans requires close attention. And much of the cheap cacao is grown and picked by poor, indigenous kids in dangerous conditions. The point is, buying cheap chocolate drives an economy of terrible working conditions we would never allow, if only we would look. So thank you for reading this far!

The cheap chocolate market is driven by low bidders: a handful of companies who dominate the world cocoa market and reap high profits. And cheap chocolate is made from beans that don’t even taste that good, but come from more hardy trees, so it’s more reliable to grow. Why does The Grauer School care? We care because our commitment to ecological stewardship mandates us not only to engage in sustainable practices on campus, but to procure goods and services that are sustainable: this includes our investing, our purchasing, and an understanding of the supply chains in the goods we use. And we care because it is immoral to give treats to our own kids at the direct victimization of other people’s kids.

In short: some of the poorest people in the world raise cacao beans in a market driven by low bidders which propagates a terrible lifestyle. The problem is still worse in African countries including Ivory Coast and Ghana, which produce 65% of the world’s cocoa beans. The increases in child labor are easy to document in study after study.
But there is a way to make more companies act responsibly and fairly. Halloween is fast approaching. And over the next few weeks, a lot of cheap chocolate is going to get bought in preparation for trick or treating. The trick is this: Cheap chocolate is made from beans picked by poor kids in dangerous conditions. Procter & Gamble, Mars, Nestlé, Hershey, Pepsi and Mondelez have been listed as reliant upon child labor, as of this year, still (!!) even though they promised years ago to end these practices. Can you imagine large corporations not keeping their word!? (Sorry for the wisecrack, but do not buy their chocolate unless it’s stamped Fair Trade.)

Grauer student Devon O. 23 learning to play an instrument on an expedition to Ecuador - September 16, 2019 

When everyone at The Grauer School supports Direct Trade and Fair Trade practices, we keep child labor out of the system and encourage the use of sustainable, artisanal varieties of chocolate, keeping them from extinction. (If you get a chance, check the Criollo and Trintario varieties of cacao.)

Since ancient times, chocolate has been used as a “heart opener.” It has definitely had a healing impact on me. Let’s open our hearts, keep the Grauer community out of the race to the bottom, support Grauer’s eco-stewardship commitment, support Direct Trade [1], and pay a bit more for chocolates that support indigenous people—they are more aromatic and expressive, anyway. Or else just purchase other things for Halloween. What we purchase is a powerful expression of the future we create for our children and the children of others. Our kids must know what they are eating.

[1] Child Labor in The Chocolate Industry, Shawn Askinosie, June 18, 2019.


Dr. Grauer loves to hear from his readers. Please click on the "Comments" drop-down box below to leave a comment about this column!

Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

Grauer student Tristan C. '20 learning to grind cacao beans on an expedition to Ecuador - September 16, 2019 

Grauer student Devon O. 23 learning to play an instrument on an expedition to Ecuador - September 16, 2019 

Fearless Teaching® Book
by Dr. Stuart Grauer


Fearless Teaching® is a stirring and audacious jaunt around the world that peeks—with the eyes of one of America’s most seasoned educators–into places you will surely never see on your own. Some are disappearing. It is a bit like playing hooky from school. You will travel to the Swiss Alps, Korea, Navajo, an abandoned factory in Missouri, the Holy Land, the Great Rift Valley, the schools of Cuba, the ocean waves, and the human subconscious—oh, and Disneyland.

There you will find colorful stories for the encouragement, inspiration, and courage needed by educators and parents. Fearless Teaching is not a fix-it book—it is more a way of seeing the world and the school so that you can stay in your work and focus on what matters most to you.

"Grauer’s writing reminds us that Great Teaching, singular, rare, unusual, is something that should be sought after and found. Thank you.”
Richard Dreyfuss, Actor, Oxford scholar, founder of The Dreyfuss Initiative

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Dr. Grauer's Column: Archive of Past Columns

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Dr. Grauer's Column - The Thief of Childhood

Dr. Grauer and the Board of Trustees at The Grauer School  made a momentous decision to combat climate change. With support from the faculty and students at the school, they pledged to dedicate the 2019-2010 academic year to the cause of stewardship of the natural world.