Since it launched in 2002, Madison, Wisconsin’s Just Coffee Cooperative has been on a mission to connect coffee drinkers to their coffee’s source.
“We’ve always looked at coffee as a way to create relationships, inspire social change and help people look at the politics of consumption,” says Matt Earley, Just Coffee’s farmer relations coordinator, adding that the production chain for every roasted bean begins with the coffee growers. “How do your purchases affect other people?”
That question motivates the company, which over 10 years has devoted itself to working with farm cooperatives and suppliers who pay fair wages to workers, or who are making the costly switch to organic farming processes. But Just Coffee wants to do more. In fact, the company has wanted to do more for a long time, but the slim margins associated with the specialty coffee business have prohibited countless new quality-of-life initiatives.
“We’ve basically been a break-even or net loss company over the years,” says Earley, “We always wanted to work with farm families on issues that aren’t necessarily related to coffee — access to clean water, access to food sources, healthcare, education. We wanted to use some of the money we made with coffee to help fund that, but what we’ve found is that our margins are too tight. It has not been viable.”
So the company decided to create a nonprofit arm devoted to specifically farmers’ quality-of-life issues. Earley says the nonprofit model makes sense on two fronts, as projects need not directly relate to Just Coffee’s coffee business, and people may be more willing to share their tax-deductible donations with a nonprofit outfit than a for-profit company, even if it’s for the same project with full financial transparency.
After several years of work and some partnerships that fizzled, Just Coffee was approached by Community Action on Latin America, a Madison-based group that educates and advocates for U.S. policy change in Latin America. Says Earley, “They came to us and said they wanted to branch out and do a little more work on the ground.”
The two groups have since formed Beyond the Bean, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization that is being introduced to the public this Friday, May 18, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at a free kick-off party at the Cardinal Bar.
With one part-time staff member, a five-member board of directors and a small corps of dedicated volunteers, Beyond the Bean has identified its first project, working closely with an NGO in a highlands region of Chiapas, Mexico, to help supply and build a water holding and filtration for approximately 100 coffee farming families who live without clean water.
“A lot of people there are without a clean water supply, and this is a region that’s really important to us because this is the region where Just Coffee started developing our first relationships,” Earley says.
The project requires a total of $6,000 to $7,000, which Early says is an intentionally modest amount compared to many development projects. “We think this is really doable,” Early says. “We want to see this first project through — we think we can do it — then we want to sit back, analyze what we did and hopefully move forward on another project from there.”