Macalester Today Spring 2011

BY BETH HAWKINS

coffee picturesthey don’t call Lee Wallace ’96 Queen Bean for nothing. Ask the CEO of Peace Coffee what’s in that cup of Joe and the answer might be Snowshoe Brew, Twin Cities Blend, or Organic Guatemalan. Or she might describe the bikes that deliver the beans to stores, college campuses, and coffeehouses. Or she might talk about a school that got built thanks to the fair-trade premium Peace Coffee pays the small farmers who grow the beans.

Whatever her answer, Wallace is likely to have a giant grin plastered across her face while she gives it. Her job makes her ridiculously happy, and it shows. It was mostly a lucky accident that she found a position
that combines her dedication to social justice with her passions for travel and natural foods.

A few years back, Wallace didn’t want a salaried job at all. She had parlayed a master’s in public policy and a decade’s experience with business incubators and nonprofits into a comfortable gig as an organizational development consultant. Her plan was to work at home in her pajamas.

One of her clients was the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that promotes fair trade and sustainability. Fifteen years ago it started a for-profit subsidiary, Peace
Coffee, to demonstrate that it’s possible to run a profitable business while also paying living wages to workers both in the United States and in the villages where the coffee is grown.

lee wallaceIn 2006, the group asked Wallace to run the company while it searched for a new CEO. Four months later, the staff asked that she be appointed permanently. She doesn’t wear her pajamas, but she does take her dog, Dixie, to the office. “What makes Lee such a great fit is she has a very thoughtful understanding of what Peace Coffee is,” says project manager Anna Canning, one of the staffers who lobbied for Wallace’s hiring. “She knows that balancing the need to be profitable with the needs of our various stakeholders requires lots of conversations.”

Peace Coffee is part of a co-op of North American fair-trade roasters that imports coffee directly from subsistence farmers in 13 countries. The co-op insulates the farmers from the uncertainties of the commodities market by guaranteeing them a fair minimum price—although Peace Coffee pays well above the minimum—plus a fair-trade premium of 10 cents a pound to be used for community development
projects.

When she travels, Wallace gets to see the results. For example, in Ethiopia, where one of the co-ops is located, average life expectancy is 48, less than a fourth of the population has access to clean drinking water, and nearly 90 percent live on less than $2 per day. When the growers were dependent on middlemen they got lower prices and couldn’t afford basics like wells and roads. On her first trip there two years ago, Wallace visited a health center with a sign identifying it as the “clinic of the fair-trade premium.” When she returned recently, she saw more new buildings that are a direct result of the financially advantageous
relationship the co-op provides.

But big as those improvements are, they’re not what Wallace wants Americans to focus on. “To get people to buy fair trade because X amount of money per bag goes to build a well is too simple and doesn’t
address the broader challenges faced by the farmers we work with,” she says. “An equally or more important part of our work is to fundamentally change importing relationships, not engage in charity.” Maybe this is where her Macalester background comes into play, she suggests. “I am way more interested in supporting structural changes, addressing historical inequities, and partnering with organizations as they work to find solutions to their communities’ problems.”

As a child in upstate New York, Wallace traveled frequently with her grandfather, a State Department Latin America expert. A family friend suggested that internationally minded Macalester might be a place where she’d feel right at home. In college, she was encouraged to combine her interests in business incubation and social justice.

Comfortably past the incubation stage, Peace Coffee has been solidly profitable for more than a decade. Every employee earns a living wage, benefits are available even to retail staff, and a portion of proceeds goes to the IATP to support its work. The company roasts half a million pounds of coffee a year in 40- and 120-pound batches at a “green” warehouse in Minneapolis’s Midtown neighborhood. The goal is to make sure the coffee on the store shelf or in the coffeehouse grinder is as fresh as possible, so batch sizes are determined by deliveries scheduled for the next two days.

Deliveries within 20 miles of the roasting facility are made by bicycle and regional deliveries are made by vans running on biodiesel. Peace Coffee is brewed at several regional colleges, including Macalester, and the company recently opened a coffeehouse in Minneapolis’s Longfellow neighborhood. Future goals include deepening connections between customers and growers—visitors to its website can trace the origins of Snowshoe Brew—by holding classes at its coffee shop and bringing farmers to Minneapolis.

Most gratifying to Wallace, the fair-trade movement’s influence is spreading. The company’s custom blends now can be found on supermarket shelves chock-a-block with organic competitors—which is fine with Wallace: “We got our start in food co-ops, but our idea has always been to show that fair trade is not just a niche, it’s a profitable way to do business.”

It’s good, then, to be Queen Bean.

BETH HAWKINS writes for MinnPost and many other regional and national publications.