The March of a Sudden Stop through May Ruminations

A collection of thoughts from March through May, 2020

The whispers of worry on the wind have become realized. The virus is at our shores. The Hawai’i Cacao Express is slowing to a sudden stop. The groan of steel from the halting wheels serve as introductory music to the calm voice of the conductor informing us of the news.

As of March 23rd, all Hawai’i residents besides essential employees are to stay home and shelter in place. As someone who lives and cares for susceptible family members I am relieved for the caution, while at the same time worried for what promises to be a long struggle to contain this new infection.

Even before receiving this bad news, my life since visiting Tom Sharkey’s farm in early February had already been a chaotic roller coaster of emotion. There was a painful family death that coincided with my son turning one, as well as the dissolving of a promised lifetime romantic partnership. The mix of joy, pain from loss, and confusion was potent for me and in some regards stripped away my expectations of what the future will bring. Now unfortunately, I’m not alone. I can feel it in the air, this year is bringing a storm of great change for us all. Still, there is much to be grateful for at this point in time, and in light of this pandemic, I never cease to appreciate how lucky I am. My particular train car of isolation is roomy, filled with the good company of my household, and stopped amid a fairly cool rain forest with vibrant blooming flowers.

Best of all, I’ve got local chocolate in reserve and am fortunate enough to know a few vendors who are offering curbside pick up of certain brands of Hawai’i chocolate. Koana, the coffee shop in Mountain View, has been a favorite of mine in this period. The owner not only offers a few local chocolate maker’s products, he’s also concocted his own “Chocolate Lava Mix” which is a hot chocolate mix that offers a delightful warming punch of spices. Because of its intensity, I like it as an occasional treat on the nights where curling up under a blanket with a warm mug in hand just feels so right. When he first described this drink mix to me it sounded as though he’d been working with a local chocolate producer to source the chocolate from. I’m greatly looking forward to picking his brain about the drink’s creation in the future.

You can see the Koana website here: https://www.alohakoana.com/

All in all, I’m amazed with how much the days seem to fly by in our halted passenger car just taking care of our daily needs and listening for news. It is a time of simple pleasures at home, and a reminder to me that you don’t need much to celebrate holidays when you’ve got a festive spirit. Though occasionally thoughts will strike me, like “This time in April there was supposed to be a chocolate festival.” and everything feels surreal again, as though I suddenly realize I’m in the wrong timeline of reality.

Hawai’i’s cacao industry is often on my mind. Especially the farmers and chocolate makers who put so much into their endeavors. All of our small businesses are hurting right now, and I’m sure they’re no exception. Several local businesses have already had to shut down. Many in the community have lost their disposable, if not all of their income, and this pandemic is predicted to affect tourism for years to come in Hawaii. That’s a major sector of the State’s economy, roughly 23%, according to an April article from Hawaii Public Radio.

(Read the article here: https://www.hawaiipublicradio.org/post/experts-77-hawaiis-economy-isnt-tourism-policymakers-can-take-steps-reopen-it)

I write this blog for fun, and have only just begun. But these fragile times make me wish I had the power to offer these people, who work so hard to make the product I love, a little more economic stability. At the end of the day, I am but one consumer.

May has come. The last year of my twenties has arrived and it’s starting by mirroring the experiences that many are having at home right now, video chats, revisiting old hobbies, experiments in the kitchen (With chocolate, of course!), and even ill advised D.I.Y. haircuts. Businesses are cautiously opening back up in the community with restrictions, but I’m still largely erring on the side of caution and haven’t gone out much.

Hawai’i is calm and, for the most part, full of aloha spirit in these trying times, but the chaos on the mainland has not escaped our ears or hearts. In the wake of George Floyd’s horrific and very public death, I, like many others, began to reflect on my knowledge of systemic racism and if I might unintentionally be contributing to the problem. What kept echoing in my head were the many shared variants of the phrase “It’s not enough to not be racist yourself, you must be actively anti-racist.”

On May 30th it hit me, when it comes to chocolate, I’ve been part of the problem. Years ago when first learning about chocolate production in Hawai’i, I found out that a good portion (About 70% according to slavefreechocolate.org) of the world’s chocolate is produced in West Africa, in countries that use slave and some of the worst forms of child labor. Big American candy companies have been profiting from and actively been contributing to the problem for years. I often told other people about it as a further selling point for buying Hawai’i chocolate.

Although I prefer high quality local chocolate any day, I also love chocolate in all forms, baked goods, cereal, ice cream, candy bars, hot chocolate mixes, sauces, etc. So even after learning about the ethical issues with mass produced chocolate, I continued to thoughtlessly buy and eat chocolate wherever I came across it, even buying Swiss Miss hot chocolate powder not a week prior as part of our household groceries. It is to my great shame that I realize I conveniently forgot about the suffering black cacao farmers an ocean away every time I wanted to indulge myself in a product that likely was sourced from them. I knew better then, and I’m going to act better now.

As the disgust with my own actions hit me, I swore off buying any new chocolate whose source I couldn’t verify was slave free. I had a talk with my family. My parents understood. My 90 year old grandfather, not so much. He doesn’t see how eating his favorite chocolate covered ice cream cones contributes to the problem. Even my parents, who were supportive, struggled at first. They either accidentally bought things out of habit or were tricked into thinking a chocolate product was sourced more ethically than it was. It’s not easy even for myself. Cacao byproducts are in so many things, and many large companies have made it intentionally hard to determine where and how they source their cacao. It’s a complicated issue that I was happy to learn several organizations are trying to systematically tackle. My favorite informative nonprofit I’ve found so far on the topic is the website I referenced earlier in this post, slavefreechocolate.org, but I look forward to discovering others doing good work in this area. Especially a local organization.

Lasting change in an industry doesn’t happen overnight, but I intend to be part of the positive pressure that will open more people’s eyes to consuming chocolate responsibly. I hope that one day the only guilty pleasure associated with chocolate, will be accidentally eating too much of it in one sitting. In the meantime, it seems the best way to be sure that your cacao products are slave free is to know thy farmer. I’d better start meeting more of them.

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