Carolyn Fairman has been executive director of Coffee Kids (1751 Old Pecos Trail, 505-820-1443) since 2006. Founded in 1988, the Santa Fe-based nonprofit Coffee Kids works with nonprofits in Central and South America to fund projects such as school improvements, community gardens and health clinics for coffee-dependent families.

SFR: How did you get involved with Coffee Kids?
CF: I do love coffee, but that's just a coincidence. I went to grad school at [University of New Mexico] for Latin American Studies. I have always been interested in Latin America, particularly the politics and the history of the relationship between the US and Latin America, which is very mixed and deep and troublesome. I always thought I would do something more overtly political: Amnesty International or something like that. [While still at UNM] I learned about Coffee Kids, and I thought it was right up my alley, even if it's not overtly political. I quickly learned that, even if it's not overt, poverty and confronting poverty issues is political.

Coffee farmers only earn 3 to 4 cents per pound. Why so little?
Coffee is one of those commodities that, even though it's the second highest-traded legal commodity after oil, coffee farmers are about the only people who don't get to say what the price is for their coffee. It's a world-market price. The coffee cherry will rot in 24 to 36 hours if it's not processed, so it's a take-it-or-leave-it price.

So what does the world market mean for coffee?
Here's an example—it depends largely upon what happens in Brazil. If Brazil has a frost or any kind of trauma to their coffee crop, the prices can go up, and the rest of the world's farmers are happy. If not, there's a glut of coffee, and the farmers don't know what else to do besides grow more coffee to try and make more money. But that doesn't really solve anything. That's why Coffee Kids is about alternatives to coffee so that farmers can continue to harvest their coffee, even when prices are low. Because coffee farming is what they do—it's their culture; it's their passion.

What is it about coffee that is so unsustainable?
Coffee is harvested three to five months out of the year. Farmers are supposed to make enough money in those three to five months to feed themselves for a year, but they barely make enough to feed themselves through the harvest. So when Coffee Kids can provide alternative projects like microcredit [for funding gardens or small non-coffee businesses], people who haven't had access to the local economy are contributing when there is no money from coffee. People like to talk about sustainable coffee, but there is no such thing as sustainable coffee. It's sustainable communities.

Is America the big bad caffeinated wolf of coffee consumption?
It's completely worldwide. We are a large consumer of coffee, but it's Norway that has the largest consumption of coffee in the world. Coffee consumption is way up in Europe; it's replacing tea in the UK. It's not sold as beans in stores in Europe to the degree that it is here; it's not made in-home. People still drink a lot of instant.

Ugh, instant. No one should have to drink nasty coffee.
The irony, in my job, is that when I travel to visit the coffee farmers, I drink the worst coffee on the planet. It's horrible. In every coffee crop, there's something like 23 steps from seed to cup, so it's very labor-intensive. So they go through these processes of sorting the coffee and, by the time they get to the end, they have the dregs. And that's what they keep for themselves.

Other than nasty coffee, what's it like to visit the farmers?
They often live in wooden shacks. They give you the one chair that they have in the house to sit in. And I learn so much from the coffee farmers when I visit. One woman, a member of a microcredit group in Veracruz, Mexico, in a very rural area, said to me, 'You know, some days we have meat, and some days we don't. We're doing pretty good.' And I still get teary right now saying it. Why is that OK? You really get a perspective on what poverty is.