A not-so-sweet story: Fair Trade Judaica founder exposing dark side of chocolate

Those chocolate bars left over from Halloween might have less-than-sweet origins. The cocoa they contain may have been harvested by child slaves in Africa.

Child laborer on Ivory Coast cocoa farm

That’s the urgent message Ilana Schatz hopes to send out this Passover: As onetime slaves in Egypt, Jews should care that children today are virtual slaves in the chocolate trade.

Schatz’s organization, Fair Trade Judaica, will seek to raise awareness of the problem with a pair of public presentations, titled “Beans of Affliction: Chocolate, Child Labor and Choosing Fair Trade.” The events take place Tuesday, April 5 at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay and Thursday, April 7 at the Women’s Building in San Francisco.

At both events Schatz, 58, will screen the documentary film “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” followed by a discussion and, just in time for this year’s seder, a tasting of kosher fair trade chocolates.

“Passover is a time we are obligated to tell the stories of our own Exodus,” Schatz says. “We are told that in every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as if we personally were redeemed from Egypt. Though we may not be actual slaves today, our history moves us to ask, where is the slavery of today?”

Though she founded Fair Trade Judaica in 2008, and had been active in other global fair trade campaigns, Schatz hadn’t know much about abuses in the cocoa industry until she saw the documentary.

“I saw the film last September in Boston at a fair trade conference,” she recalls. “I started crying, and I have not purchased non–fair trade chocolate since then. It inspired me to do this campaign.”

The film follows Danish journalist Miki Mistrati into the sordid world of human trafficking and slave labor in West African countries such as Mali and the Ivory Coast (the latter supplies 40 percent of the world’s cocoa).

There  he filmed appalling scenes of children being kidnapped, abandoned and recklessly endangered. Back in the elegant offices of European chocolate makers, he found not much more than ignorance and crocodile tears.

Ilana Schatz

Chocolate is one of West Africa’s main industries, with more than 1.5 million small farms and plantations dotting the region, few providing much more than a subsistence living.

About 10 years ago, word filtered out that children as young as 10 were employed on cocoa farms. The work is extremely hazardous, with machetes as the main tool, and unregulated toxic pesticides in constant use.

A 2009 report found that children do the gathering and heaping of cocoa pods. That same study noted 15 percent of children reported forced or involuntary work, with more than half sustaining work injuries.

Police raids rescued scores of children who had been smuggled into the Ivory Coast from neighboring countries. The children told authorities they were forced to work for long hours without pay and were not free to leave.

There is some good news. Most global chocolate companies have signed an international protocol that bans child labor (though enforcement is spotty). As Schatz notes, there are several fair trade chocolate companies that buy cocoa harvested in a strictly ethical manner.

She says the first step in combating abuse is to raise awareness. “It’s a matter of education and sensitization,” Schatz adds. “Over our lives we do make changes. It depends on our values.”

For her, those are straight-up Jewish values.

A resident of El Cerrito, Schatz has a long track record in social justice work. She was the founding director of the Volunteer Action Center of the Jewish Community Federation of the East Bay, and serves on the board of the Northern California Community Loan Fund.

She founded Fair Trade Judaica because she wanted to put a Jewish stamp on her social justice activities. The turning point came after a 2003 trip to Nepal. She asked a local seamstress to make her a new tallit, and that led her to imagine combining Judaica with fair trade practices.

“I wondered if there were other fair trade Judaica products and went through 30 pages on Google,” she recalls. From there she and her husband, David Lingren, launched a website, collected product samples and shopped them around at Bay Area Judaica shops, who were “happy to hear about them,” she says.

Since then, her nonprofit has generated income by repping fair trade products, doing consignment sales and even developing original products, such as fair trade Tibetan prayer flags with Jewish blessings inscribed on them.

“Fair trade is so reflective of Jewish values,” Schatz says. “There is total overlap. It’s about acting on Jewish values in day-to-day consumer decisions.”

“Beans of Affliction: Chocolate, Child Labor and Choosing Fair Trade”
takes place 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 5 at the JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St.., Berkeley. $6-$8. Also Thursday, April 7 at the Women’s Building, 3543 18th St., S.F. Information: (510) 848-0237.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.