Food Security: A Critical Conversation


by Carolyn Fairman, Chief of Staff, SCAA

For years now, SCAA and its member organizations have been creating greater awareness about the issue of hunger. You might ask, “What does hunger have to do with coffee?” Unfortunately, the answer is “a lot.” 800 million people worldwide suffer from chronic hunger—and many of them are coffee farmers. In one study alone, 69 percent of 177 surveyed small-scale coffee farmers in Nicaragua were found to be unable to meet their nutritional needs throughout the year Bacon, 20081. How is this possible when studies have shown that there is ample food produced throughout the world to feed everyone an adequate diet Caswell, 20132? The truth is, hunger today does not stem from a globally insufficient food supply. Rather, it is a product of poverty and inequality inherent in world economic systems.

So if there is enough food to feed everyone in the world a nutritious diet, why is hunger so prevalent for coffee farmers? Well, it’s complicated. To address this, we must look at the roots of the long-standing livelihood issues of farming communities. First, there is a legacy of past injustice in many of these regions (civil war, conflict, oppression). There is an unequal distribution of land and resources, often as a result of these injustices. Additionally, farmers’ lands diminish as plots are subdivided with each new generation. Then, there are global food prices, climate change, natural disasters, lack of access to quality and higher education (or any education at all), poor access to medical treatment, high infant mortality rates, and limited employment opportunities.

SCAA has consistently provided a platform for member organizations and producers to share their knowledge about these critical issues at coffee’s origin. For years, there has been a steadily growing awareness, thanks to the efforts of organizations like CRS, Mercy Corps, Coffee Kids, Food4Farmers, and many others, all of whom are working directly with communities to confront these challenges. The conversation became even louder with the release of the film After the Harvest: Fighting Hunger in the Coffee Lands in 2011.

The research upon which this movie was based brought the issue from a whisper to a scream by exposing the sheer size and scope of the issue. Since then, SCAA has worked ever closer with non-profits and businesses alike to truly confront the issue of hunger in coffee-growing regions throughout the world. Through a method known as “Collective Impact,” the Coffeelands Food Security Coalition (CFSC) is working collaboratively with SCAA members to address hunger. The Coalition has undertaken a food security project in Nicaragua, as well as a research project to evaluate opportunities to broaden cross-sector collaboration, and thus achieve stronger results for food security. Just to underscore the long-term impact of seasonal hunger on its victims, here’s a shocking fact from the Coalition’s concept brief The Global Alliance for Increased Nutrition (GAIN): undernourished children grow up to have 15 percent less cognitive capacity as adults. The CFSC and its collaborators are dedicated to stopping this tragedy.

In a complement to these efforts, the SCAA Sustainability Council is releasing eight critical-issue briefs to create greater awareness of the challenges at coffee’s origin, and provide mechanisms for members to become involved and help create lasting change. The first of these briefs is on food security, and will be released this spring. I have drawn from this brief to help describe the severity of food insecurity, and to provide a glimpse into the depth of these papers and how these issues relate to coffee:

The negative impact of malnutrition does not stop with the individual as it also takes a devastating toll on community welfare. High rates of malnutrition translate into educational losses in learning and school performance, lowered work productivity, and higher health costs (The World Bank, 2006). This means that in coffee growing communities, farmers, pickers, and their children miss out on reaching their full education potential, a recipe for entrenching farm families in generational poverty. It also means that smallholders and laborers regularly suffer nutrition-related illnesses, which leads to lowered productivity in the fields and higher household expenditure on personal healthcare. Given that coffee production is a physically demanding endeavor, it is not difficult to imagine the setbacks that result from a chronically malnourished workforce. In addition, the onset of climate change is expected to disrupt both coffee harvests and subsistence agriculture, which is expected to exacerbate the food security situation unless industry stakeholders take action.

SCAA provides a venue that helps bring crucial conversations such as this to the forefront. From Symposium and lecture topics at The Event, to working toward increased sustainability and long-term change, SCAA has been working with industry members to confront issues such as hunger at their roots. Together we can find the solutions, including examining the way we do business, and the impact we can have when we look closely at each segment of the supply chain and the interdependent role we have within it. By bringing real debate to the table, and challenging us to think and find solutions together, we can not only better understand our roles, we can create real change that goes beyond coffee.

Coffee people never cease to amaze me. They are some of the most inspiring people I have had the great good fortune to know. Coffee is an industry that craves learning and awareness, and as such embraces holistic approaches to change. I’m proud to walk amongst this group and to be a part of these critical conversations, whether it’s the beginning whispers of new awareness or at the highest volume. We welcome you to the conversation and to becoming part of the solution.

caroIn her nearly 15 years of working in specialty coffee, Carolyn has focused on sustainability issues at coffee’s origin. After a brief stint as a barista she combined her love of coffee and her passion for Latin American politics and human rights at Coffee Kids, where she led the organization as executive director. Carolyn worked closely with coffee-farming communities for over 13 years, implementing programs that address poverty at its roots and solutions that help farming families improve their quality of life, resulting in improved quality in the cup. Carolyn recently joined SCAA as its chief of staff and hopes to bring her experience in social and economic sustainability for farmers to the value chain as a whole.


1.     Bacon, CM, Mendez, VE, Flores Gomez, MA, Stuart, D, Díaz Flores, SR. 2008. Are Sustainable Coffee Certifications Enough to Secure Farmer Livelihoods? The Millennium Development Goals and Nicaragua’s Fair Trade Cooperatives 5(2): 259-274.

2.     Caswell, Martha, Méndez, VE, Bacon, CM. 2013. Food Security and Smallholder Coffee Production: Current Issues and Future Directions. The University of Vermont. Agroecology & Rural Livelihodds Group Policy Brief – 1: 1-12.