Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com. Here are some highlights from this week’s program.
Katie Brown: What is it that we do and one of the things that Katie and some of the other staff at the East End Community School would do was to put food in the lockers of the kids that they knew really needed it. I just kept thinking about the lockers, and then just Locker Project popped into my head.
Bob Garver: We believed that this would also be a challenging place to start a business, but that it would be a great place to be in business in terms of where we were. We were very early with organic and fair-trade coffees, but we had a… we believed that folks shared our value set here and that we have a chance if we worked hard, which we did. Worked very hard.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio, Show #280, Kids, Community, and Coffee, airing for the first time on Sunday, January 29, 2017. What do we do when we find a need, whether in our own communities or in other parts of the world? Today, we speak with Katie Wallace and Katie Brown, who are helping ease the hunger of Maine schoolchildren through their work with the Locker Project. We also discuss the coffee community and the positive impact of fair-trade and organic practices with Bard Coffee co-founder, Bob Garver. Thank you for joining us.
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Lisa Belisle: This morning I have with me two Katies who are doing very important work in the world. The first is Katie Wallace, she is the president and founder of the Locker Project, which works with Southern Maine schools to create programs for providing students with healthy class-time snacks and take-home food. Katie Brown is another founder and also the executive director of the Locker Project organization, and it’s really great to have both of you in the studio with us today.
Katie Brown: Thank you. I’m really glad to be here.
Katie Wallace: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: From what I understand, Katie Wallace, you have a now sixth grader named Ava at King.
Katie Wallace: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: She was sort of your intro to the issues that you have been trying to address with this program.
Katie Wallace: Yeah. When she was in kindergarten at the East End Community School, I volunteered in the classroom, and the time that I happened to volunteer was part of math and then into snack. I was really, really shocked to sit there during snack time and look around and see that half a dozen of our friends were just sitting there watching their friends eat. I spoke to the teacher about it afterwards, and she said that that was completely normal, that not everybody had the ability to bring snack, but her school had a grant in place that provided fruits and vegetables for snack time three days a week, so it was really just a problem two days a week. It seemed like something that myself and my friends in the neighborhood could actually fill that need. We could get snacks into all the classrooms, 24 classrooms, for twice a week. Just like a bag of pretzels or a box of crackers, and then it just grew and it grew and it grew and now we have 19 schools.
Katie Brown: 20.
Katie Wallace: 20.
Lisa Belisle: It continues to grow it sounds like. Katie Brown, what is your connection? How did you get interested in this?
Katie Brown: Well, I was following Katie’s progress at the East End Community School as a friend, and at the time I was serving on the board of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization and writing little articles here and there for the neighborhood newspaper, and one time I wrote a little blurb for her asking for support and donated foods. So many people ended up donating not just a lot of food but some money, which I know helped take the burden off her own cash flow that she was always investing into her program. Then one day, we just met for coffee, and she was talking about the pressure from other schools to grow the program and pressure from potential donors to become a non-profit so that they could donate tax-deductible donations. We just kind of looked at each other, and I said, “Well you know, I could start the non-profit. I’ve had a lot of experience with that.” We sort of had chills for a few minutes and decided to go ahead and do it, and I said, “You could move to the board and be the board president and keep the vision, keep us steered forward with your vision, and you won’t have to spend your own money anymore.”
Lisa Belisle: What was your experience with non-profits in the past?
Katie Brown: Every time I’ve tried to get out of the non-profit field, it’s like The Godfather, I get pulled back in. I’ve always been very mission-driven, and so I’ve worked for, it feels like a dozen, different non-profit organizations over the 20 something years that I’ve been in Portland. They’ve really ranged from more hands-on social work type organizations to more board development, Portland trails, et cetera, et cetera.
Lisa Belisle: Katie, you have kind of an interesting background yourself. You actually work at the Blue Spoon.
Katie Brown: Yeah, a server.
Lisa Belisle: Up on Munjoy Hill, and you’re an artist in addition to being a mother. How did you feel when somebody said, “Hey, why don’t you do this non-profit?”
Katie Wallace: I felt really overwhelmed and I was already burnt out. I had been doing it at that point, it was my fourth year, and putting snacks into the classrooms when April was in kindergarten grew because we got a grant from Morgan Stanley to create a pilot program through Good Shepherd. We went from being able to put snacks in the classrooms to being able to supply students and families with groceries for the week. It really changed over those four years, and I got some press on Thanksgiving one day as ten Mainers to be thankful for. People started reaching out to me to be like, “How is this single mom waitress doing this? We need this at our school.” One of my customers at Blue Spoon, Angela Adams, who is an amazing human being, reached out to me, and she wanted to have a meeting with me to talk about this. I was thinking, “Oh, she wants to donate.”
What she said was, “I can see this being a business,” and I was just like, “Ah,” because I was so overwhelmed. I was doing this with one other mother, Allison Gray-Murray. We were doing it every week. We had just finished delivering turkeys, groceries for the week of vacation, all the fixings for a turkey dinner to 32 families that this school had identified, and I was just so burnt out that when Katie Brown and I met for coffee that cold winter day, I looked deep into her eyes and I was like, “I don’t want to do this.” She looked deep into my eyes and she said, “I should do this.” We just had this moment where we’re like, “This is amazing,” because it needed to happen, and I didn’t want to do it. I was so burnt out, and you were ready to go.
Katie Brown: It was perfect timing. Angela, by the way, joined our board immediately, too, when we formed and she designed our logo.
Katie Wallace: She’s our vice president. I think branding is really important because there’s so much of a stigmatism and shame to poverty, but in our schools, our students aren’t embarrassed. They’re not ashamed anymore. We show up in this really cool looking transit van designed by Angela Adams, and we hand out really good looking produce donated by local farmers and….
Katie Brown: Hannaford and gardeners and….
Katie Wallace: Hannaford…. Yeah, it’s amazing. Not only are we able to get food to food-insecure students and families, but we’re able to destigmatize the shame of that.
Lisa Belisle: Why is it called The Locker Project?
Katie Brown: That was just one of those driving down Route 1 after a party, still trying to come up with a name. We had to register as a corporation and initially was tossing around Food for Thought as the name for the organization, and one morning on NPR, I heard a story where Jeff Bridges was in Arizona at the ribbon-cutting of an organization, I think a school backpack program, food backpack program, called Food for Thought. I decided, “Okay, well it’s not going to be that.” I started really thinking about what is it that we do, and one of the things that Katie and some of the other staff at the East End Community School would do was to put food in the lockers of the kids that they knew really needed it. I just kept thinking about the lockers, and then just Locker Project popped into my head.
Katie Wallace: We were really mindful of not letting the kids be embarrassed by this, so we had a list compiled by the school social worker, the school nurse, the teachers, and even some of the parents themselves of students that could really benefit from this. We had their locker numbers, and while no one was in the halls, we would go and put the food right in their lockers, in their backpacks and zip it up and no one ever had to see it until they got home. The pantry that we kept the food in for the kids to access we kept in the nurse’s office where it’s pretty confidential anyways, so if they needed food for a crisis or emergency or they wanted to be able to pick the food themselves, they could just go down with a teacher or get a pass for the nurse’s office and go get whatever they needed and get some groceries for their family and pack it up, and no one needed to know. It was a very private, respectful way of doing it.
Lisa Belisle: What year did you start?
Katie Brown: Well, you started your program in what, 2010?
Katie Wallace: 2010, and then we got our grant in 2012.
Katie Brown: We started The Locker Project in 2014, so we’ve really been around for just about two and a half years.
Lisa Belisle: What do you think it is about this particular issue that people want to get behind?
Katie Brown: I think that certainly people have a huge heart for those who can’t help themselves and those who can’t defend themselves. Maine loves our children, animals, and seniors. It’s also I think that so many people identify with hunger. So many among us that you would never suppose have either recently experienced it or are very familiar with it from their own childhoods. One out of four children in Maine are food-insecure, and it’s been like that for generations. Statistically, probably one out of four adults among us have experienced childhood hunger.
Lisa Belisle: Now, you talked about social work and the social cause and being mission-driven. What’s your background?
Katie Brown: Mine is just a very loose sort of liberal arts college educated jack of all trades kind of background. I have tons of interests and hobbies and what not, but the one place I’ve really focused so much of my energy is towards mission driven projects.
Lisa Belisle: Why do you suppose that is? What is it about the mission of this or any of the projects you’ve worked on that’s really spoken to you?
Katie Brown: It’s almost like a vacuum. If somebody is in need, I can’t stand for that not to be addressed. There’s always a solution, and when a solution isn’t being found or acted upon, it’s like it makes me crazy.
Lisa Belisle: It’s interesting that you had somewhat of a similar response, Katie, other Katie, Katie Wallace, when you saw that this child or other children in your daughter’s classroom, there was that vacuum. There was that there were no snacks, there was nothing for them to eat. It’s almost like you couldn’t let that go by.
Katie Wallace: They were her friends and her peers and I just…. Once you see something like that, you can’t unsee it, and you can’t ignore it. I have a lot of resources, even though I couldn’t always pay for it myself, I could get other people to pay for it. Everyone wanted to chip in. We have a really amazing community in Portland, and anytime there’s a problem, people are ready to act.
Lisa Belisle: It’s an interesting thing, though, because if people are feeling shame because they can’t feed their children or they’re feeling shame because they are a child who doesn’t have enough to eat, then unless somebody helps you identify this, you can’t really work to help them.
Katie Brown: It’s true. Yeah. So many people grow up not knowing how to ask for the resources that are there. Especially if they don’t know what the resources are. So much of a large component of our work in schools is the real hands-on social workers and nurses who clue into the fact that a child may be hungry, and typically we’ll start to offer a child like that some food and have it confirmed that, indeed, that person needs some, and then that child will start to regularly access our pantry and snacks and take food home to the family and whatnot.
Lisa Belisle: My daughter, who’s in high school, she is a sophomore, and they have worked on hunger as an issue at their high school, and one of the things that they have found is that even though there may be a food pantry that is available to people, it is incredibly difficult for someone to overcome the need to go to that pantry and actually get that food. It’s interesting that this starts even as younger children, where it’s hard to be the one who doesn’t have enough.
Katie Brown: One of the things that we do that has really helped with that and other programs in Maine have too, this is with the encouragement of Good Shepherd Food Bank, is that we set up regular produce tables at a lot of our schools and invite anybody who’s walking by to help themselves. They do, and we don’t screen anybody. We even encourage teachers to take food home. That is so destigmatizing, and it helps people get in the habit of taking fresh, available food so that it’s not wasted. Through those opportunities, we can talk more openly about the pantry that’s also available in the school. You know we have this in the nurse’s office, too. If you ever want to stop by and grab some and take some home, we just don’t want it to get wasted, so please do. That spirals, and so kids feel more confident about taking food that is offered to everybody.
It’s true that as students get older, they’re more stigmatized. We are always challenged at the high school level on how to empower kids to be able to take food home, and so many of the kids are just opting to be hungry, which is such a difficult time in their lives to be hungry, when they’re trying to fit in, not feel so isolated, and focus on their studies for that final push into adulthood. It’s really heartbreaking. A lot of us are brainstorming ways that we can help empower high school age students to help themselves.
Lisa Belisle: What grades do you actually reach now? You said you’re in 20 schools. What grades do you catch them?
Katie Brown: We’re preschool through 12th grades.
Lisa Belisle: This is all within the Portland area?
Katie Brown: Greater Portland. We have ten pantries and ten schools now in Portland, including… we support the intercultural support programs at the Center for Grieving Children as well. We have five pantries in South Portland, just opened a pantry at the Westbrook High School in Falmouth, Saco, and many discussions with other schools throughout Cumberland and York Counties.
Lisa Belisle: That’s interesting that you have a pantry in Falmouth because some people would assume that Falmouth has got one of the highest median incomes in the state, and yet this is a town that obviously has need, not unlike other high-median income locations. Did that surprise you?
Katie Wallace: It’s the real school.
Katie Brown: Yeah. There’s no town in Maine that doesn’t have people who are experiencing food insecurity for some reason. It affects all people, or can potentially affect all people. I know in Cape Elizabeth, for example, there may only be a couple of students at the high school who are ever experiencing food insecurity, but what the folks did there did for those students was they created a snack room and made snacks available to any kid who wandered into school hungry that morning. Plenty of high school students skip their breakfast, and then an hour into school, they’re hungry. These snacks are made available for everybody, and it makes those three or four kids comfortable going and helping themselves.
Lisa Belisle: what type of food did you start with, Katie Wallace, when you first were giving this to the limited classrooms?
Katie Wallace: The very first day, I brought homemade muffins and clementines into Ava’s classroom. The next week, something similar, and it got to the point where the kids in our class would see me in the hall and they’d be like, “What are you bringing tomorrow?” Then I’d be like, “Well what do you want?” They all had input, and they started calling me the snack lady in the school, but what I put in each classroom would be Cheez-Its, pretzels, shortbread cookies, popcorn, and specific classrooms would start finding me and they’d be like, “We really like the Cheez-Its. Could we have Cheez-Its again?” And I’d be like, “Yeah of course.” The whole class had input on it, and it was always on hand for the teachers. Some classes needed three boxes to get through the week. Some classes didn’t need any at all. It was really catered to each classroom, and for myself, Ava stopped eating the snack that I was packing her and she started eating the classroom snack and I would be like, “Ava, that’s not for you. You have a snack.” She’d be like, “No, everyone else is eating it. I want to be like everyone else.” I think that echoes what Katie was saying about how when everyone participates, it destigmatizes it, and it takes the spotlight off the few kids who actually need it.
Lisa Belisle: Food is such an inherently social activity that we all…. If somebody is hanging out, having a snack, then why wouldn’t we want to sit down and have a snack with them?
Katie Wallace: Right.
Lisa Belisle: Now that you’ve grown through the years, what types of food are you providing to these 20 schools?
Katie Wallace: Our mission is focused on nutritious foods, so we really make an effort to get as much fresh produce as possible. We just got a warehouse space, and we’re having a refrigeration unit built out, so we’ll be able to provide more produce, but we have canned produce as well. There’s always rice and beans and pasta and sauce and….
Katie Brown: Certainly a lot of the food that we’re stocking in our pantries is filler food, but that’s important, too, just to keep bellies filled, and a lot of that food is easy to prepare. We have, especially in the last year, provided more and more pop top canned goods like Chef Boyardee raviolis and whatnot because we have kindergartners and first graders who can’t use a stove yet, and if they don’t even know how to use a microwave, they can at least out of the can. Unfortunately, that’s a reality for a lot of people.
Katie Wallace: We also have a lot of students who are actually homeless in the Portland area.
Katie Brown: Actually all towns.
Katie Wallace: The shelters are at capacity, and they have vouchers to live in motels, so they don’t necessarily have access to a stove or refrigeration, so when we shop for them, we shop specifically for things that don’t need to be stored, they don’t need to be heated, and they don’t need a can opener to open. Chef Boyardee isn’t necessarily the best thing to give someone to eat, but it’s something.
Lisa Belisle: You’re sort of starting where they are, rather than coming in and saying, “I’m going to give you some jicama and a mango because those are healthy for you.”
Katie Brown: Exactly.
Lisa Belisle: You’re going to give them something that they can actually use and eat with the hope that you can continue to build on that foundation perhaps over time.
Katie Brown: Absolutely. Every week, we go to the Hannaford in Falmouth and pick up produce that they would have otherwise had to throw out or compost and take it to a number of our schools. I remember that when we first started doing this, when Katie first started doing that at the East End Community School and I would help out occasionally, maybe a child would take an apple, maybe an orange, but everything else, they would just kind of look at and then walk away. Now, the food gets bagged so fast by the students and disappears so quickly, it doesn’t matter what we have, they’ll take onions and avocados and jicama and things that we have to look up on the internet to find out what they are. It’s amazing.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve spoken about Hannaford, and you’ve spoken about a grant that you received from Morgan Stanley at one point. Who are some of your other partners?
Katie Brown: We’ve had many. We’ve been really blessed by some wonderful foundations and businesses. More recently, Androscoggin Savings Bank….
Katie Wallace: Camden National Bank.
Katie Brown: Town & Country, Coffee by Design, they’ve been such great consistent supporters. I don’t want to leave anybody else… Morgan Stanley has gotten re-involved, Offices of Joe Bornstein, Portland Rotary.
Katie Wallace: The Wilkinson Foundation.
Katie Brown: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lisa Belisle: You spoke about Angela Adams as being on your board. Who else do you have on your board that really seems to care about this project?
Katie Wallace: Everyone on the board cares so much. We all work really hard.
Katie Brown: We really have a great diversity of backgrounds on our board, both professionally and in terms of personal interests, and they’re just a force to be reckoned with.
Lisa Belisle: Bringing it back to the original prompter for this, Ava’s now in sixth grade at King.
Katie Wallace: She is.
Lisa Belisle: She’s been with you throughout this journey and seen what it means to actually put the food in the classrooms and in the lockers. How have you noticed her evolving?
Katie Wallace: Oh my god, that’s such a funny question. She’s the opposite of me. I actually learned at an event that Bissell Brothers through (inaudible 25:15) where we made a lot of money, and they completely filled our new warehouse space with a food drive. I learned at that event from a teacher at King that King was really struggling to set up their own food pantry because we weren’t prepared to yet enroll them, and Ava hadn’t told me about it at all. It was student-driven, so they were bringing food, and when I talked to her about this, I was like, “Why haven’t you brought any food in? Why haven’t you told me?” She was like, “”Because I knew you would get involved.” She didn’t want me at the school embarrassing her. She thought I would be there all the time, and this is her time to become independent and break away from me.
Lisa Belisle: That sounds about right for a middle-schooler, really.
Katie Wallace: She would rather see her peers go without just so I didn’t embarrass her.
Lisa Belisle: That could be just a phase she’s working through. What is it that you hope to get out of your work with the Locker Project? You said you’ve now been a non-profit for two and a half years, and you’ve been doing this work for significantly longer. What do you hope to see out of this organization?
Katie Brown: We won’t be able to do it ourselves, but by a growing number of collaborators, we really hope that that statistic of one out of four food insecure children in Maine starts to really shift over, especially, the next ten years. When I first moved to Portland, Maine had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the whole nation and I remember in the 90’s there was a real concerted effort among legislators and social workers and media, et cetera, to try to shift that, and a couple years ago, there was a statistic announced that now we had one of the lowest rates in the nation. I sort of feel like we’re poised to do that with hunger in Maine as well. There are so many people attuned to this issue at the moment and putting their efforts together, and I really think we’re going to see that shift.
Lisa Belisle: How about you, Katie Wallace?
Katie Wallace: For me, I would like to see poverty go away entirely, but if that’s not happening any time in the future, what I hope is that these children grow up feeling really cared for by their community, and they’re able to connect to people and not harbor that stigmatism of shame, and they get to grow into these fabulous adults who remember where they come from and that people were helping them and that’s who they become in the world, people who are able to look around and see their neighbors struggling and ask their neighbor, how can I help you? That’s what I’m hoping for.
Lisa Belisle: I will second that hope and that wish, and I encourage people to learn more about the Locker Project. I encourage people to donate to the Locker Project, or if they need food from the Locker Project, then I’m sure that they can connect you with one of the schools in the area.
Katie Wallace: Absolutely.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Katie Wallace and Katie Brown who are the president and executive director respectively of the Locker Project, they’re both co-founders of the organization. It’s really been a pleasure, and I appreciate all the work you are doing here in the Portland area.
Katie Brown: Thank you.
Katie Wallace: Thank you.
Katie Brown: Thank you Lisa.
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Lisa Belisle: Today I have with me in the studio Bob Garver, who has been roasting coffee for 25 years. He and his wife and partner, Carmen, own both Bard Coffee, a roaster and retailer in Portland’s Old Port specializing in single origin micro-lot coffees and Wicked Joe Organic Coffees, a wholesale coffee roasting company in Topsham specializing in organic and fair-trade certified coffees. Thanks so much for coming in.
Bob Garver: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: I must say that I am a regular enjoyer of Bard and the Bard experience, and I did not actually know that you were also Wicked Joe.
Bob Garver: Yes. Carmen and I own both companies.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about that progression. Did that happen at the same time that you owned this coffee shop and also had this wholesale business, or did one happen first?
Bob Garver: We started roasting coffee in Brunswick wholesale as Wicked Joe first in 2004, and then in about 2009, along with a few others who are not involved anymore, we opened Bard Coffee in Portland in the Old Port.
Lisa Belisle: Why the interest in coffee?
Bob Garver: Well, I’d been in coffee for over a decade prior to that. I started roasting coffee in Santa Cruz, California in 1992 and had a similar experience there. I started roasting coffee in 1992, and in 1993 I opened a small coffee shop nearby so that I could have really direct contact with my customers. It’s difficult sometimes with wholesale, where you don’t always get to communicate directly to the people that are drinking and enjoying your coffee. We did the same thing there. We had a roastery and then a separate coffee shop and we did that for over a decade there from ’92 to 2003. We really decided, we had three young girls, we decided that we wanted to raise them in Maine, and my wife and I are both from the Northeast and we really were coming home, and so we sold our business there, came to Maine and opened Wicked Joe, an organic coffee roasting company in 2004, and then did what we had done previously. We kind of missed having a shop that was our own, so we decided to open Bard so that we could have that direct contact.
Lisa Belisle: What was it about coffee that got you interested in the first place?
Bob Garver: Prior to that, I lived in ’90, in ’91 into ’92 in Turkey, the country, and I just had some really remarkable experiences around coffee, both culturally, having my fortune read in my coffee grounds, but also probably more significantly in relationship building. I would meet with the people that I would work with, and that was how we got to know each other, over coffee. Initially, it was frustrating because I was eager to get to work, but culturally, it was an experience, where we were slowing down, and I really came to appreciate that and got to know, to really know, the people that I was working with much better, which also made doing business a lot better. I just came to appreciate what happens over coffee, probably more than anything, and also the rituals in a place like Turkey are so wonderful that it’s hard not to get sort of caught up in the magic. When I came back to the United States, that was really fresh in my mind, and I saw what coffee could be, I think, and what it could do for people. It’s the rituals and the sort of relationships, I think, that really drew me to coffee.
Lisa Belisle: What were you doing before?
Bob Garver: I was in the service, actually. I was a captain in the army.
Lisa Belisle: That’s kind of an interesting shift from being in the military to deciding that you wanted to work in coffee.
Bob Garver: It is, but it felt very natural for me. I was very proud of my service, but I knew that I wanted to do something different at that point, and I knew that I wanted to do something that was uniquely mine, and coffee really provided that opportunity for me, something that I could be passionate about and hopefully have some sort of an impact.
Lisa Belisle: How did that work with you and your wife and partner, Carmen?
Bob Garver: I started out in Santa Cruz by myself. Carmen and I had originally met when we were both in college in the Northeast. I was out there for about five years before I was able to convince her to come join me and to sort of leave her profession to move to Santa Cruz, live on a sailboat with me in the yacht harbor, which was probably a step down for her, but it was very magical for us and to sort of join me. She joined me as my partner, then, and we’ve been partners ever since. For her I think it was a lot of fun. In the early days, I’d be roasting the coffee, and she would be knocking on doors, usually with at least one baby on her hip, if not both hips, and we had very humble beginnings. We wouldn’t trade that time in our lives for anything. I think that she dove in and embraced it, but it was a big change for her, obviously.
Lisa Belisle: What did she do before?”
Bob Garver: She has a master’s in psychology, and she worked with different populations. I think she was the project manager for the first mobile AIDS van in Westchester County, New York, just north of the city, and then she worked with other populations, such as, she was the director of clinical counseling for a major regional in-patient rehab center working with counseling people that were struggling with these kinds of issues. She was, I think, very good at that, but I think that she was eager for a new challenge, too, and we’ve really built a life together that we’re grateful for and find joy in.
Lisa Belisle: You moved back to the Northeast and at that time, you had three daughters or did….
Bob Garver: We had three daughters. It was the birth of our youngest, Frankie, that really made us feel like we wanted to be closer. We were the only ones in California, on the West Coast, and we really wanted to be closer to our extended family.
Lisa Belisle: You were trying to grow your family and your business and then businesses simultaneously.
Bob Garver: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: And continue your good relationship with your wife. It must have been an interesting time for you.
Bob Garver: It was. You go through a lot of struggles when you’re trying to build a business. Many of the challenges that people face…. When we came to Maine, it’s a challenging place to do business in many ways. We came here, really, because this is where we wanted to raise our daughters and our family. We believed that this would also be a challenging place to start a business, but that it would be a great place to be in business in terms of where we were. We were very early with organic and fair-trade coffees, but we had a…. We believed that folks shared our value set here and that we have a chance if we worked hard, which we did, worked very hard, that this would be a place that we would have an opportunity, a shot, at creating a new life in a different environment. We faced many of the challenges that, I think, small business owners face. Had to start from scratch, and you may be getting at that it’s challenging to work together with the person that you spend your life with maybe in other aspects, I don’t….
Lisa Belisle: I just meant sort of the whole kitten caboodle that you’re raising your daughters and you’re….
Bob Garver: Our youngest had just been born. Our middle daughter, Lizzie, was not yet two, and our eldest Maggie was not yet three. They were babies. It was probably a risky proposition, but we knew that we wanted to be close to our family, and we also thought Maine would be really an ideal place to raise our daughters. We wanted them to have some magic in their life every day, and this is a place where we felt like, just the beauty here and the culture in Maine, was a place that they could have that. The business was really… I don’t want to say secondary, we just wanted a fair shot, kind of. We faced a lot of challenges there as well. We wouldn’t change anything, I don’t think, though.
During that period of time, I fought cancer. We’re trying to raise our daughters. We’re trying to start a business, and the economy wasn’t always supportive of that, and the community here in Maine supported us, and we’re grateful for that, and we were able to really do what we dreamt of, in part because like all small business owners we worked hard and in large part we’re just grateful to the community. Maine has challenges, but the people here really I think embrace the things that are important to us, quality, a commitment to sustainability, and best practices that we kind of embrace, and I don’t know that we could’ve really built our business in the manner that we are proud of doing anywhere else.
Lisa Belisle: Why was it important for you to be an early adopter of organic and fair-trade coffee?
Bob Garver: We had been doing organic coffee since the early 90’s really, selling organic coffees in Santa Cruz, California. It’s just part of our DNA. Fair-trade started to come about a bit later, and it was very natural for us to adopt that, initially because we really understood what was happening to small farms in the United States and what that does to the fabric of communities. This was a way to really connect with small farmers. It was very difficult as a small coffee roaster to be able to purchase from very small farmers, and the only way that they can do that and to sustain that way of life is through these cooperatives, and so we were drawn to fair trade. It was a natural evolution. When we were able to start doing that, it was natural for us to do that. That was just our lane, it just flowed naturally.
As we’re able, for the last ten years or so, we’ve been making a lot of our own trips and visiting not only individual farms and farmers but cooperatives and mills and things so that we, on top of the certification that we have, we’re also building very direct relationships. The two are not mutually exclusive. That’s just been a natural evolution. I don’t know that we ever made a conscious decision around that. I think it was just kind of our makeup and who we were, the kind of business that we wanted to operate.
Lisa Belisle: Where does your coffee come from?
Bob Garver: We purchase green coffee from really all over the world. All coffee is grown in the tropics, and so there is basically a band around the equator so to speak where coffee grows. We purchase from all coffee growing regions, from Central America and South America, from Africa, and then from Southeast Asia, which would be Sumatra and Java and places like that.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve described having very direct relationships with individuals who are growing the coffee. How does that benefit them?
Bob Garver: It can benefit producers in a number of different ways. Some of the ways that I think are unexpected is that by visiting with them and building these relationships, it gives them confidence. They know that we’re committed to that relationship. We’re demonstrating commitment by going, which initially I thought that because we gained so much from doing that, we’re more involved and collaborative with them as our relationships grow, and that has a very profound impact on quality and consistency and we know, so we’re benefiting, hopefully as much, it’s beneficial to both parties. We’re getting quality and consistency and they’re getting commitment from us. It’s very challenging for growers. They face a lot of challenges most people couldn’t really grasp. It’s a very difficult life sometimes in these places. Not only by establishing these long-term relationships are we able to help support that way of life, which in turn benefits us because we’re getting these great coffees, we can count on getting those coffees, but for them, I found that there’s such a tremendous amount of impact for them because as quality increases, we get to pay them more for their coffee, which we don’t object to because we want the highest quality coffee.
Probably more, like I started to say before, I think one of the most profound ways is just the sense of confidence, I think, that is engendered in them in terms of their relationship with us. They know that if they do their part, which is to work hard like we do and to create really great coffees, use best practices is very important to us and that’s part of what we’re visiting for, to see what’s going on there and to make sure that they’re sort of representing themselves properly, to make sure that the impact that we think we’re having is actually happening. They come to it with a level of confidence that, assuming that they do those things that we’ve agreed to, that we’re going be there next year for them.
That is huge because there is so much uncertainty in the supply chain in terms of what’s going to happen next year. They know that because they have a partnership with us, that they can count on us through thick and thin, and we know that we can count on them through thick and thin as well. It really is very symbiotic and mutually beneficial, the investment that we’re able to make. We’ve also had producers come visit us here in Maine. It’s not just one way, although we do the lion’s share of that travel, but we’ve had some of our producers come visit us here. That’s really exciting, obviously, for our staff and people, and we can share that with them directly.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve also described a situation whereby money that is put into the fair trade system ends up being distributed for good purposes, for building of infrastructure and schools, and basically, in bettering the communities that are supporting the growers.
Bob Garver: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: What types of things have you actually been able to see when you’ve gone to visit?
Bob Garver: Oh boy. We’ve seen roads that service communities that didn’t exist before, because some of these farms are very remote, so now they have access to the communities. We’ve seen roads that were in very poor shape one year and much better shape the next year. I’ve got pictures of one year visiting a farm, where there are no electrical lines or poles in that community, and the next year, when I take a picture of the same thing, I see electric lines. That’s huge. I’ve seen schools that were built and in the process of being built with those community premiums.
I’ve seen waste management systems set up which is really powerful, improved water systems for the community. Microloans that go to support the families frankly not being so dependent on the coffee income that they have, but that they can start either small businesses within the family that support that or they can plant other crops on the farm, which adds more biodiversity and makes a better farm and a better environment for their families and their children to grow up in. I’ve seen so much impact, and I think what’s most powerful about that model, now we make direct contributions, by the way, to farmers and things that are above that. It’s personal. We’ll go and talk to a farmer or a partner and say, “What can we do to support you? By the way, because it benefits us. If we can improve quality….” They might say, “I could use another solar dryer,” and we’ll say, “Well, how much is that going to cost?” This benefits us, right, but also it will benefit them.
We’re having a conversation, collaborating to the point where now we’re participating in decisions around what varieties to grow, based on what the market here demands as opposed to what they’ve necessarily traditionally grown, and what kind of quality we’re looking for that’s going to enable as time goes on for them to demand even more for their coffee, which benefits them because quality improves, and if something was to happen to us, they’re much better for the relationship they have with us. I think what’s most powerful, though, about all of that is that we’re listening to them, not telling them what we want to do for them, but asking them what they need, and either we can partner in that with them in very personal projects or through the fair-trade premium system. Through the fair trade premium due to our purchases, over $500,000, a half a million dollars, have gone into the communities we work with. Last year alone, over $100,000 went to our partners, and even more will go this year.
They get to decide what they want to do with that money, and I’ve spoken directly with so many of our partners, and I’ll say, “What is this doing for you? Is this benefiting you, this relationship, right?” We want to make sure that we’re not kidding ourselves and “What do you love about this and that?” Almost universally, many of them will say, “I love when we get together as a community and we vote on what we’re going to do with our premiums.” They’re providing great coffee to us and part of the benefit to that is not only to each individual farmer who’s guaranteed a living wage through the purchases, but on top of that the communities benefit. That’s where the communities also come together through these organizations, and they make a decision on what they want, not what, like I said, what we want to do for them. That I think is most gratifying and it’s really fun for me now to go and see what’s happened when I visit next year, and I’ll see the changes and that, I think, is really exciting and gratifying because our business is changing, too, and we want to share that with them because we’re better, and I think all of our staff, which we care about most, are hopefully benefiting from the relationships we have with these farmers and cooperatives and mills. We want them to know that as well.
Lisa Belisle: It seems as though it is now possible to have a career in coffee. I know that you have many long-term employees and I think we had one of them, Brittany, on the show a few years ago. It’s been actually very important to provide these long-term opportunities to people in our community because I think sometimes, initially it was possible to just say, “Oh, well somebody so and so is a barista and that’s just a part-time thing,” but you’re actually, these are careers that you have been able to make possible for people. It’s an important thing that you’re doing.
Bob Garver: Yeah. Yes. That’s one big change in coffee and the way people view coffee, just like people view…. The coffee community and opportunities in coffee have changed in similar ways to craft beer and artisan food, and the whole scene in Maine is really vibrant and quality focused. In coffee, it’s been really wonderful to see the opportunities. Coffee is a big industry. I think a lot of people do come in as baristas, and some really fall in love with it. Some of it, some people are, obviously it’s a transitional type job. There are many that really, really fall in love with it because it is, it’s amazing. We love coffee. We love doing what we do. We love roasting coffee. We love brewing and preparing coffee for people and the hospitality aspect of that. We love interacting with farmers at origin. It’s a very big and complex kind of industry, and there’s a lot of room for people to grow frankly.
Yeah, we’re trying very hard to get people out to participate in industry events, which is professional development, and actually getting people trained and investing in training ourselves so that people that are interested in making a career out of it have an opportunity, whether it’s moving into the roasting side of the house, there are people that have been in roasting that are now moving into the travel and green coffee purchasing part of the house and taking some of the load off of me in that regard. Often, the place where that starts is at the barista level, where our baristas are very highly trained. We’re incredibly proud of our staff. We’ve got people that are extremely talented, and that applies to both at Bard, the staff there, and also at our roasting business. We don’t exist without them, and we’re not great without them. We’re trying to be great. Not big, but just great. Our employees make that happen, and that’s facilitated by the industry. The industry is just a great place to learn and grow, and it often starts at the barista level.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Bob Garver, who has been roasting coffee for 25 years and who along with his wife and partner, Carme,n runs both Bard Coffee and Wicked Joe Organic Coffees. It’s really been great to have this conversation with you. I appreciate the time you’ve taken to come in. Thank you for the great coffee.
Bob Garver: Thank you.
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Lisa Belisle: You have been listening to Love Maine Radio, Show #280, Kids, Community, and Coffee. Our guests have included Katie Wallace, Katie Brown, and Bob Garver. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a previous of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Dr. Lisa and see my running travel, food and wellness photos as bountiful1 on Instagram. We’d love to hear from you, so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. I hope that you have enjoyed our Kids, Community, and Coffee show. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your day. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is made possible with the support of Berlin City Honda, The Rooms by Harding Lee Smith, Maine Magazine, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music have been provided by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producer is Paul Koenig. Our assistant producer is Shelby Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Lisa Belisle. For more information on our host’s production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at lovemaineradio.com.
Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com. Here are some highlights from this week’s program.