THE BLOG
08/04/2014 05:08 pm ET | Updated Oct 04, 2014

I Ate Hershey's Kisses With Cocoa Farmers in the Ivory Coast

The above video of cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast tasting chocolate for the first time has been making its rounds, and, in fact, has been pointed out to me about eleven-thousand times already. (Seriously, thanks for thinking of me folks; I'm not complaining.)

Like the reporter in the video, I traveled to Ivory Coast to meet farmers and lugged along some chocolate. I assumed they had never eaten chocolate and that I would blow their taste buds with Hershey's bars and Hershey's kisses.

I assumed wrong.

Here's a video from my own experience followed by an excerpt from Where Am I Eating? An Adventure Through the Global Food Economy:

In much of the reporting on Ivorian chocolate, a reporter asks if the farmers have ever tasted chocolate and then the reporter is shocked to learn that they haven't. The reporter files his story full of indignation: "These farmers brave snakes and swing machetes to harvest cocoa and they haven't even tasted chocolate." The cruel irony! The humanity!

"Have you eaten chocolate before?" I asked.

Yes. Yes. Yes. They all have.

"Want some?" I reached into my bag and pulled out a few Hershey's Kisses followed by Hershey bars I had grabbed from the emergency s'more section of our pantry before I left my home in Indiana.

I passed the slightly melting bar to Serdge, who broke off a piece and gave it to Jack, who passed it along to a tall farmer named Francois. Each person gently pulled back the wrapper and took their bite. Lips smacked and Michael, a father of three, was the last to join our chocolate communion. He broke off three pieces, handed two of them to boys next to him and then popped in his own bite, overacting a smile and sounds of pleasure to the delight of our group.

They asked me about the price of chocolate and I did some math. An individual Hershey's bar is roughly one-tenth of a kilogram, and costs $1.

"Ten dollars per kilogram," I said.

They leaned back and made various sounds of shock, no doubt including a few swear words in disbelief. They are currently receiving 50 to 60 centers per kilogram of cocoa beans.

They ride the highs and lows of chocolate while the consumer always pays the same amount. It seems like I've been buying $1 Hershey bars forever.

What is the price of chocolate? That is a good question. And it's exactly what I came here to find out.

***

So the cocoa farming video went viral. Great!

But I think many of us are watching the video the same way, say, that we'd watch a video of an elephant seeing the ocean for the first time or one where cows are released in the pasture for the first time. But the cocoa farmers are people. They are struggling farmers trying to support their families by selling a commodity into a supply chain dominated by just a few players, including Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland.

The tragedy isn't that they've never tasted chocolate; it's that they are valued so little. That they often have to rely on slave labor. (The industry relies on 160,000 slaves in Ivory Coast.) That they long for knowledge on how to farm better, but receive little help. That all of the value to their product is added on another continent. That cocoa is one of the world's most volatile commodities, and as the price rises and falls so do the futures of the children of the cocoa farmers.

Yes, there is a sweetness in the joy the farmers get from tasting chocolate for the first time, but there is also tragedy. As consumers, we can encourage the industry to change by buying Fair Trade Certified chocolate, which pays farmers a premium and reinvests in the farmers' local communities.

If we really want to put smiles on the faces of cocoa farmers, we'll support a business model that allows them to send their kids to school and provide for their families.