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Montclair brews a fair-trade pot of coffee

The Star-Ledger, NJ

Maxwell House Special Delivery has been the java of choice in Montclair’s town hall, where a coffee machine in a hallway off the manager’s office provides the daily caffeine fix.

But Maxwell House’s “good to the last drop” blend, which traces its aromatic origins to 1892 and whose slogan is attributed to a 1907 comment by President Theodore Roosevelt, might not be welcome in town hall.

In its place might be the fair- trade variety — the product of a resolution, adopted by the governing body, that declares Montclair to be a “fair trade town.”

Look for the fair-trade label on the java being sipped by Montclair’s elected councilors at conference meetings, by staffers at the libraries, perhaps even on town-purchased cotton Little League uniforms, all in the name of economic justice and environmental sustainability.

“It’s a means to an end. None of these items come with big price tags … really just a few cents more,” Mayor Jerry Fried said after last month’s unanimous vote making Montclair the first in New Jersey to wave the “fair trade” banner.

For one, Stephanie Sheerin is thrilled with the resolution, which establishes “a policy to maximize the purchase of fair-trade certified coffee, tea, sugar and other products in the process of procuring necessary goods” for Montclair’s government.

She’s the one who approached Fried after stirring the fair-trade pot at Montclair’s First Congrega tional Church with a “It’s Only Fair” holiday sale, something that mushroomed into fair-trade teas, fashion shows and, of course, the post-worship rite of coffee hour.

For her, the seeds were planted some 17 years ago, she said, when the new Rutgers-New Brunswick grad volunteered for an 18-month stint in Kenya. “I saw firsthand the difference it could make in someone’s life when they had decent employment,” she said.

Perhaps nowhere is the fair- trade fervor more prevalent than at Terra Fair Trade Eco Market and Tea Salon on Montclair’s Church Street.

Outside, the window is filled with fair-trade notices from one touting the governing body’s declaration to one advocating the pre- Halloween sale of certified chocolate under the heading “Fair Trade is Boo-Tiful.”

Inside, java drinkers sit at small tables as they sip fair-trade-certi fied drinks. The shelves are lined with Equal Exchange coffee beans, priced $10.25 a bag, and a Green Mountain fair-trade blend from the Kenyan Highland Cooperative, for $9.75.

The gift merchandise is crafted from raw materials readily available in developing countries: rice bags from Vietnam turned into shopping bags, a tote bag made from juice cartons in the Philippines, tin-can art from South Africa, and organic cotton plush toys from South Africa.

“This is really more than a store. This is a vision,” said Kate Jackson, who was manning the cash register last week. “It’s really an attempt to be more than a place of commerce.”

Montclair is in the vanguard of fair-trade towns, whose numbers are in single-digits in the States but reach into the hundreds in the United Kingdom and Europe. (The U.S. organizer can be found at transfairusa.org)

“Montclair leads the way again,” said Joseph Hartnett, the township manager. “We’ll bring it up at a department head meeting, looking at our purchase practices … It’s going to take a while to sort that out.”

The criteria to get on the list includes having houses of worships that serve fair-trade products; schools that embrace fair-trade, such as the Fair Trade Club at Montclair High; and stores and res taurants that offer at least two fair- trade products.

There is no shortage of those in Montclair, with The Bread Company on Walnut Street, Go Lightly on South Fullerton Avenue, Gifts at 16 on Church Street and Whole Foods on Bloomfield Avenue among the fair-trade sellers who get to display the fair-trade seal in their windows.

With an economic downturn in full swing, Sheerin knows the angst about spending more for fair-trade products, which she said can be found affordably priced everywhere from Trader Joe’s to Costco.

“Right now, people are really nervous, ‘Oh God, the last thing I want to do is pay more,'” she said. “It can give us a chance to empathize with those having trouble making ends meet … (but) it really won’t register on anyone’s taxes.”

At town hall now, the coffee varieties run from a Stop & Shop brand called Honduras San Marcos Estate in the recreation department to Folger’s Classic in the clerk’s office — obtained out of pocket from the municipal employees.

The designation — which comes with voluntary goals rather than obligatory ones — doesn’t extend to personal purchases, but Hartnett said fair-trade is taking a front seat at town hall. “We’ll certainly encourage it,” he said.

At Kraft, the maker of Maxwell House, meanwhile, spokesman Richard Buino said the food giant has since 2003 aligned itself with the Rainforest Alliance, which has its own sustainable farm management guidelines and its own seal, featuring the image of a frog.

“We do sell Yuban coffee in the U.S. that’s Rainforest Alliance. We have eight different Rainforest products,” he said. “We are the biggest buyer of Rainforest-certified coffee in the world.”

Philip Read may be reached at pread@starledger.com or (973) 392-1851.

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