Part I – Erin Meagher, Fairtrade Movement with Kelapo
Erin Meagher is the developer of Kelapo™ Extra Virgin Coconut Oil, a product manufactured and marketed by Beneficial Blends LLC, headquartered in Tampa, Florida. Prior to creating Kelapo, Erin was a high school business teacher with a passion for motivating students to pursue entrepreneurship. While still teaching, she discovered extra virgin coconut oil. She launched Kelapo on 2009 with the goal of producing the very best quality coconut oil on the market, while ensuring fair and ethical treatment of the farmers who cultivate it. She insists the farmers be protected under the IMP Fair Trade Program, that they are organic-certified, and that the company engage in eco-friendly practices. Erin holds a Bachelor of Science degree from NC State University in Business Marketing Education.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello! Hello everybody! I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’re listening to It’s All About Food! Thank you for joining me today. It’s June 18, 2013, almost summer! Really looking forward to summer, it feels like summer right now, a bit hot, humid. And it’s all good!
So, I wanted to bring up a few items that I’m really excited about in the news – sort of good, sort of not so good. But it’s important that at least the conversation is out there. So, the first thing that I wanted to bring up is we’re all a big fan of McDonald’s, right? Well, McDonald’s, they’re in the news. It’s about what’s going on in Bolivia. They’ve been trying to get a foothold in Bolivia now for 13 years and the Bolivians have basically said – Forget about it! They’re more interested in natural foods and not fast foods and they just didn’t get sold on it and McDonald’s is out of Bolivia. That’s really exciting. There’s always been some really fascinating things going on in Bolivia. I can’t say I’m an expert about the country, but they are definitely a nation that stands up when it’s time to. You may remember what happened with their water when the country privatized it and water became so expensive and people were out in the streets. They couldn’t even collect rain water and they ended up throwing out that contract because it didn’t work out as it was supposed to.
Okay and the other thing in the news. I want to direct you – if you have a chance to read an article at motherjones.com. Mother Jones is a really great magazine, if you don’t know about it. And they’ve got an article called Gagged by Big Ag, and I’m in the middle of reading it right now, so much great information in there. A whole history of what’s been going on with our government and Big Ag. Whatever happened to free speech and whistle-blowers? Well, what’s happening now with whistle-blowers who are bringing out the horrific things that are going on in factory farms is they’re being arrested and put in jail. And there are laws that support it. So this is something we all need to get educated about and do more about it so I will give you some time to read the article and then we’ll talk about it soon, how about that? Great, all right!
So now, let’s bring on the first guest for the show today and I think it ties in kind of nicely to what I was just talking about and you’ll see why. So, Erin Meagher is the developer of Kelapo, extra-virgin coconut oil, a product manufactured and marketed by Beneficial Blends, headquartered in Tampa, Florida. Prior to creating Kelapo, Erin was a high school business teacher with a passion for motivating students to pursue entrepreneurship. While still teaching, she discovered extra-virgin coconut oil. She launched Kelapo in 2009 with the goal of producing the very best quality coconut oil on the market while ensuring fair and ethical treatment of the farmers who cultivate it. She insists the farmers be protected under the IMP Fair Trade program, that they are organic certified and that the company engage in eco-friendly practices.
Welcome to It’s All About Food, Erin!
Erin Meagher: Hi Caryn! Thanks for having me today!
Caryn Hartglass: You’re very welcome. So, if you were just listening, I really wanted to talk about the fair trade movement and finding a certain amount of responsibility with making products because certainly, Mc Donald’s has been very irresponsible with its products, what it puts into its food, where it gets it from, and now what’s going on with factory farming and the laws that support really horrific treatment not only of animals but the people that are employed at these companies. So let’s talk about a little bit first about you and how you became an entrepreneur and then we’ll get more into the meat, the coconut meat of the conversation.
Erin Meagher: Yeah well, like you mentioned in your introduction, I used to be a high school business teacher. It was my first job out of college and part of my classes were teaching entrepreneurship, accounting, computer classes to mostly juniors and seniors, and it was wonderful. Teaching is an extremely hard job, if you’ve ever done it or know someone who does. They put so much time and effort into teaching and not a lot of rewards or recognition back for what they do.
Caryn Hartglass: I think it’s really important that you said that and I agree with you. Teachers do not get the credit they deserve.
Erin Meagher: Not at all and to hear people even trying to say, is it even a profession, that’s a whole another radio interview.
Caryn Hartglass: Ah, right!
Erin Meagher: But I was working along and I was very enthusiastic about teaching these students – Go out there, start something; you could be in business for yourself. You could go to school and start something on the side and I was just very passionate about it and they have looked at me and they have often asked me why I wasn’t out there doing something. And I think at that time the answer to that was I just didn’t know what I wanted to do yet. I’d always come back to these two things, education and business and it wasn’t until I found coconut oil myself because I like to lead a very healthy active lifestyle and someone told me coconut oil was really healthy for you. So I said, okay, I’ll give it a try. And then I was convinced of its health benefits by the local paper in Tampa Bay, there was an article of a woman’s husband who had Alzheimer’s and she was a doctor and she started researching ways to help him and one of the things that she found was your brain uses coconut oil as an energy source and so it started helping his symptoms, to alleviate some. And I was like – wow can the food that we’re eating actually have that much direct correlation to our health? And that’s what got me hooked and I started doing lots more research on coconut oil and seeing how it’s good for your immune system, your digestive system, your metabolism, and from that point on I really devoted myself to spreading the message about coconut oil and making sure that there was a really high quality coconut oil on the market.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, and that’s the part that I really want to get to. How you started your business, how you found the coconuts, and all about fair trade. Because I think that’s something we all need to know more about and if people are thinking about starting businesses, this is definitely one way to go. Why don’t you tell me what your business is about, rather than me doing all the talking?
Erin Meagher: I’m in the natural foods industry, and we’re all very conscious now about gluten-free, trans fat free, vegan, non-GMO, all those really hot button issues. And we’re all talking about how good and healthy our products are for you and all of that. But we can’t forget, just because we’re in the natural food industry and think – oh, we’re doing so good for people because we’re providing a natural product, is where are those products coming from? And how are we sourcing these products? Unfortunately, we cannot grow coconut oil plantations in the US. We get too cold. So you have to go outside of the country to source coconut oil. And it’s a completely sustainable process. The oil comes from the meat, the fleshy part of the coconut, which is pressed to produce the oil. And coconut palms produce all year long so you’re not cutting down a tree and you’re just harvesting the fruit of the tree and the tree continues to grow and reproduce. So it’s great sustainability; but then you also need to look into quality and then the practices, the fair trade practices, which is really important. We like to contribute to communities with which we do business and we’re doing business in Sri Lanka, the Philippines. We want to make sure that there are really good working conditions for those workers. I can’t go over there and see myself, otherwise I would but I need to trust somebody else to do that, regulating or policing for me, and that’s what I feel comfortable with by sourcing fair trade certified products.
Caryn Hartglass: Have you ever been to those countries?
Erin Meagher: I have not yet.
Caryn Hartglass: Maybe you’re going to want to do that sometime.
Erin Meagher: I definitely want to. Starting a business is really hard, getting something from the ground up. So I have lots of contact with my suppliers. They, luckily, come to the US. So I meet with them several times are year. We’re in communications through emails and things like that so we’re always talking about what’s going on. And eventually, I’ll get there and get to see it for myself. But I am lucky enough that they come over to the US so I can build those personal relationships because I wouldn’t want to do business with someone who I don’t know who they are, can’t put a face with a name. So that’s great. In our situation, we have that.
Caryn Hartglass: Very good. Well, I just have to say a few things with my own personal experience with coconut oil. I know that there are a lot of people that are really passionate about the health benefits and I’m kind of on the line about that. I’m not sure if coconut oil is healthy or not healthy and those that believe in it and want to use it, it’s a great thing. I’m personally, I don’t use a lot of oil in my diet but if I’m having something rich for example, coconut oil is a great substitute for butter, which I’m vegan and I don’t like to use animal products. So coconut oil really has come in handy as a great substitute because it’s so rich. But what I love coconut oil for is not for inside my body but outside my body. I put it on my skin, I put in on my hair. I use it as a makeup remover. I love it! If I could bathe in it, I would!
Erin Meagher: You can. Just put a little bit in your bath. I’ve done that before.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, there you go! But I always like to point out that it’s not just what we put in our body. More and more people are becoming used to reading the fine print on food labels but we also need to be reading the fine print on our personal care products. There’s so much junk in personal care products and there’s nothing better than pure organic coconut oil.
Erin Meagher: Especially because this is a food grade coconut oil. You have different grades of coconut oil. And since it’s such a high quality food grade, and you can ingest it, that makes it even better for your hair care and skin care applications. Last night I put in on as a moisturizer on my face and I’m always using it for different things. If I get a nick or cut, I’ll apply coconut oil to that as well. Or it’s good for after sun skin care, for moisturizing and pain relief.
Caryn Hartglass: What I love about it is once it’s on your hair or once it’s on your skin, it doesn’t feel greasy. There were times in my life when I tried olive oil and all other kinds of natural things and it just didn’t work. But coconut oil, it just goes right in and feels great. So I just like to stress how great it is outside of your body! But it’s also good as an animal fat replacement and it has a lovely flavor.
Erin Meagher: And it’s as versatile as butter, so from savory to sweet dishes. You can make sweet potato fries. And like you mentioned, it’s also a great vegan option. It’s also good for people who have allergies to peanut or other things. A true coconut allergy is very rare. So a lot of people are kind of replacing it there. Or any kind of dairy substitute too, sometimes the coconut oil can work.
Caryn Hartglass: So you’re working with coconut oil and I know that you’re making some other products with the coconut oil like a spray and little individual sized oils for traveling which can be convenient. Are you considering other coconut products in addition to coconut oil?
Erin Meagher: Right now we’re just focused on coconut oil. That was the whole basis of starting the company really. I wanted to find the highest quality product, the transparent sourcing that we talked about – the fair trade sourcing. And we wanted to educate people about how they use it. So we have our jars of coconut oil which are pretty standard. We package in amber glass jars. We have the new packets which I always carry with me wherever I’m going; the spray, which is new. So if you’re doing pancakes, you have a convenient spray. Because people who’re switching to coconut oil every day, they still want that convenience factor. Just because they’ve decided to switch to a healthier alternative doesn’t mean they want to go back to just having the jars, so the spray. We have premeasured baking sticks. That’s another convenience factor. Making chocolate chip cookies, these baking sticks are premeasured like your sticks of butter.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow.
Erin Meagher: You measure out a half cup, put it in your bowl, keep moving. You don’t even have to get you measuring cups out any more.
Caryn Hartglass: I think I’ll have to try that. You’re probably aware that a lot of people are up in arms about palm oil and how unsustainable it is, and coconut is very different like you explained. At least my understating is.
Erin Meagher: Yeah, it is. I was just having this discussion today about palm oil because we were talking about red palm oil. And I know that there are now sustainability for palm oils and I know that our favorite Dr. Oz has really talked about red palm oil lately but that’s even touchier in terms of having a product sourced outside the US, that has sustainable practices first, and then after the sustainability which is a huge issue right there, is fair trade practices. Are those workers getting better wages? How are their working conditions? If it is fair trade certified, who’s certifying it and where is that money actually going? Is it going back to healthcare and education in those communities? So those are more questions that conscious consumers could ask about red palm oil versus our fair trade certified coconut oil.
Caryn Hartglass: So this fair trade program that you’re talking about and specifically with your product, what is that guarantee that the people are making your product in Philippines and Sri Lanka?
Erin Meagher: The Fair for Life certification is a third-party certifier that is not related to our source. So we can’t pay them to say – give us this certification. We can’t pay anybody off for it. They go in and they do yearly audits to make sure there’s no forced labor, there’s no child labor, there’s equal treatment. The health and safety is good. They have good wages. So they also evaluate environmental issues, water conservation, energy management. It’s really great because the palm tree is a tree of life. There’s so many different things that they’re doing over there. They actually recycle the palm fronds as fertilizer for the palm trees. Oxens pull carts of coconuts so that they’re not using oil or polluting by using any cars or motors. So they actually have this whole great sustainable cycle of reusing all the products. All the husks and things that they don’t use can be used for feed or go back towards housing. So it’s really great what they’re doing in these areas, and then some of the other things that the Fair for Life certification is just the social impact. What’s going on in these areas, the impact it’s having, and a lot of people are willing to join these projects. Because for the most part, in Sri Lanka for example, that country has been through a lot with war, and the 2004 tsunami that went through there. People are just looking for work that can help bring them out of these situations and with these fair trade certified projects, they’re willing to work and actually have a great source of income for their families and it’s something that helps them out.
Caryn Hartglass: Now I’ve heard… I love the fair trade certification. I love the organic certification, but more people are becoming familiar with the organic certification and in some ways how difficult it is for smaller farmers, small scale farmers to do all of the paper work. They call it a lot of red tape and it’s expensive and difficult. And I don’t know if that’s true or not. I’ve heard things on both sides of the argument but some people say that it’s becoming similar with the fair trade certification. Sometimes when something becomes more popular and more government gets involved, then it gets a little heavier and not as cool as it used to be. So, I don’t know! Is it difficult to get a fair trade certification and how do you feel about where it’s going?
Erin Meagher: I would say it is difficult to get a fair trade certification. I’m put through audits. I have to do things that meet certain requirements to make sure that we keep that fair trade certification which on one end is good because if we’re being put through these tests, then we know it’s legitimate. They actually care about giving out the certification. They’re not going to give it to anybody for just a little bit of money. But that does make it more difficult because it’s more scrutiny that I’m put under and the more time and the more effort and things that for me as a smaller guy is put under. That makes me question – is this something I want to keep up with. If the bigger counterparts aren’t doing it and I’m making sure that I’m going the extra mile to do it, is it really worth my time and my energy because I have to jump through so many more hoops to have it than my competitors that don’t have it. So that’s kind of where your moral compass lies – what you’re willing to give up for business and what you’re willing to stand by; and the organics is kind of the same way. I’ve heard from different people. I have a friend in Argentina. He has olive oils and I was asking him if he was going to get his certified organic. And he’s like – you know Erin, it’s so hard. You have to go back five years from the date of which you want to get your organic certification and you can’t have used any of these certain pesticides or fertilizers or different things and even if we’ve been relatively clean, if even one showed up anywhere along the line, it’s going to be really hard to get our certification. So for him, it doesn’t make sense. So I think there are both sides of the story and we probably have an argument for both.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, as it goes with most arguments, but I like what you said and I really wish that something like fair trade certification, maybe we can give it another name, but it’s something that all businesses really need to comply with. That’s a major problem that we have. We need some sort of certification where we know every business is treating their employees fairly, where they’re getting livable wage benefits, and that they’re not damaging the earth in any way. Most companies in the United States couldn’t be certified because they’re doing so many terrible things even if they’re making a decent product. So I think fair trade is a good thing but we really need to expand on it and really bring it here.
Erin Meagher: Yeah, and that’s part of being a consumer in the market place because I have had a lot of people tell me – Well, fair trade is great but when it comes down to it, I’m just going to buy what’s cheaper on the shelves. And that’s really disheartening because if it’s something out of sight, out of mind, that doesn’t really matter – I’m watching my check books this week and I can only spend 10 dollars on this product so I’m going to make sure that I’m going to find the lower cost option – that’s hard. I’ve had buyers, even some people at Whole Foods say that end the end of the day, the consumer doesn’t care that much about fair trade. So we’re doing what we can on educating people to bring it to the fore front so that more people care and more people will have that part of their buying decision when going to the store.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s all about education and education, of course, takes money. It’s hard. You’re starting a business and there are so many things that you need to do but fair trade is really important. Now my understanding is that fair trade started with coffee and I don’t know how many products it’s expanded to. I’ve seen fair trade chocolate. Do you know how many products are now considered fair trade?
Erin Meagher: Fair trade chocolate is huge. The whole Bean-to-Bar movement with chocolate is really big. There’s fair trade tea, coffee, chocolate, coconut. I’m trying to think of the other ones, really, anything that you’re trying to be sourcing outside the US. I’m sure there’s somebody there that can certify it for you.
Caryn Hartglass: Now if anybody’s confused, we’re talking about fair trade and we’re not talking about free trade because free trade is a whole another bag of worms. They’re not the same. And free trade is really nothing about free or freedom or anything. It’s pretty ugly and all the agreements we’ve gone into with other countries to get free trade, I think, have done a lot more harm than good in terms of shutting down a lot of mom and pop businesses and small farmers in support of the larger corporations. Fair trade, remember, is good. Free trade is nothing like it!
Erin Meagher: Fair trade is all about the workers and their conditions and things like that, making sure they have good sustainable working conditions.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay Erin, we just have a couple of minutes left so you’re going to be at the Fancy Food Show in Manhattan next week or in a couple of weeks?
Erin Meagher: I was looking at the calendar. It’s a week and a half. The 29th through the 2nd at the Javits Center. It’s the first year it’s coming back to the Javits since it was under construction. It was in DC before. So we’re really excited to get into the city. This will be our first show in New York.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, I’m going to be there. I was just at the book expo at the Javits and now I’m coming to the Fancy Food Show and I’m really looking forward to it and meeting you and maybe sampling some of your coconut oil and who knows, I might need a little on my skin. It might be hot and frizzy and humid so I could just put a little on my hair at the last minute and keep looking slick and smooth.
Erin Meagher: I have lots of samples for you!
Caryn Hartglass: Anything else you want to share with us about Kelapo and coconut oil before we go?
Erin Meagher: Sure! If you want to find out more about our specific fair trade, you can go to our website kelapo.com or for recipes, we have a great blog wearecoconuts.com and we have more nutritional and ideas for using coconut oil in your kitchen.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, I see I was pronouncing it wrong. It’s Kelapo!
Erin Meagher: That’s fine. Chefs who know, use Kelapo!
Caryn Hartglass: There we go! I like that! Okay Erin, thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food and all the best with your product and I’m sure you’re helping a lot of people in Sri Lanka and the Philippines so thank you for that!
Erin Meagher: Thanks Caryn, see you in New York!
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you!
So we’re going to take a quick break and be back in a moment and start breathing deeply because we’re going to be talking about stress, but there are great solutions for it. So, stick with us!
Transcribed by Jothi, 7/24/2013