Chocolate is a Jewish issue, a profoundly Jewish issue.
We, who were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt, who dedicate one of our most important holidays—Passover—to liberation from that slavery, and whose prayer services remind us of that redemption consistently, are called upon to promote the liberation of slaves in our own time.
It’s not Passover, and yet, chocolate is a Jewish issue as profoundly on Chanukah as it is on Passover. Chanukah, the holiday that encourages us to rededicate ourselves to Jewish values, that tells us again to teach our children about these values, is drenched in chocolate. Chanukah gelt, distributed to children, spread across tables laden with latkes, used as the currency for dreidl games, morphed into chocolate as a 19th Century European innovation, where Jews were involved in the chocolate business. What had once been coins of the realm morphed into chocolate disks wrapped in silver or gold foil.
So, what is the dark side of chocolate?
Much of the world’s chocolate is made by child slaves. Child slaves. Children as young as eight are smuggled across borders to work without pay or choice in cocoa plantations. They work in dangerous conditions, carrying back breaking loads, with chemical pesticides and fungicides. Forget school, or comforting or nurturing or teaching or experiencing compassion, or learning. Slavery in the 21st Century.
Some 70 to 75% of the world’s cocoa beans are grown on small farms in West Africa, including the Ivory Coast. The Ivory Coast, where about 40% of the cocoa beans in the world are grown, is notorious for its illegal child slave cocoa production. The CNN Freedom Project reports that in the Ivory Coast alone, an estimated 200,000 children work the fields, most against their will, to satisfy the world’s hunger for chocolate.
In 2001, New York Congress member Eliot Engel, came across an article describing the situation of child labor—including child trafficking—on the cocoa plantations of Ghana and West Africa. As a large FDA bill was about to come up for a vote in the House, Engel offered an amendment that chocolate companies would have to mark their bars “No Slavery Here” if that was the case. The FDA bill passed the House, but before if hit the Senate, the candy lobby intervened, and the only option became a voluntary clean up of industry, known as the Harkin-Engel Protocol. The candy companies admitted that there was a problem and promised that they would voluntarily clean up the supply chain of the worst forms of child labor by 2005. They received an extension until 2008, and that extension was extended, because little had been done. There is still no assurance that cocoa coming into our ports is free child slavery. A recent study of Nestlé’s production chain by the Fair Labor Association (FLA) showed that child labor still exists, and health and safety problems are rampant, with most injuries due to workers’ use of machetes. Nestlé’s buys 10% of the crop of the Ivory Coast.
And, unless you buy chocolate made from beans that are produced from a single source, like Guatemala, or Ghana, unless it’s fair trade and/or organic, it is likely that your chocolate product has some beans grown in the Ivory Coast. Grown by slaves, just so we can eat chocolate.
Until recently, most, if not all, Chanukah gelt was made from multiple sources, meaning at least some of it was produced by child slaves. This year one company, Divine, has produced and widely marketed slave free, fair trade chocolate. Mama Ganache organic chocolate company in San Luis Obispo also sells it, as does Lake Champlain natural chocolate company. All three also carry a kosher heksher.
The opportunity to put into action our deeply held Jewish values to oppose slavery comes at a price: slave free chocolate seems to run about twice the price of slave produced chocolate. It’s higher quality. It’s tastier. And it comes with the satisfaction that you can put your money to your values.
I’ve tried to imagine going up to a counter that sells both types of gelt and exclaiming that those extra $2 to make sure the gelt I give to encourage my children or grandchildren to study and embrace Jewish values are not worth it. To save those $2, I’m okay with knowing the cocoa beans were picked by children as young as 8, taken away from their parents and never paid a wage. I can’t imagine someone who recognizes that is the underlying message actually completing that purchase.
The issue, in addition to cost, does have some complexity. As a congregation, we can decide to sell only slave free gelt, now that the opportunity exists. As individuals, we can notice where a candy bar comes from. We can consult lists, like this one from UC Davis, or this one from SlaveFreeChocolate.org. We can read labels closely, commit to buying single source, or fair trade, or organic chocolate only. But what about when we see a chocolate donut at Safeway’s? Or the chocolate divinity cake at a restaurant? I’ve taken to asking the source of the chocolate at restaurants and was thrilled to find some of my favorites (such as Trokay) use slave free chocolate, so I can eat without the guilt.
It’s all about education.
And discussion, the heart of education, and dedication to Jewish and indeed human values. (For more information, watch the film, The Dark Side of Chocolate, or check out any number of sites on the web. Let’s use Chanukah to educate ourselves, our loved ones, our community. And let’s make our choices in favor of freedom.
 Chocolate chips, Crunch Bars, Nips, O Henry Bars, Raisinets, etc.