News Update

Interview with Ben Kramer - Executive Chef at Diversity Food Services Inc.

Posted March 18th 2011

Ben Kramer is the Executive Chef at Diversity Food Services Inc. Originally from Vancouver, Ben has been cooking since the age of twenty. He has lived and worked in Manitoba for over ten years, bringing Fair Trade and ethically-produced foods to Manitoba restaurants and cafés.

I met Ben over a cup of Fair Trade tea at Pangea’s Kitchen in Riddell Hall at the University of Winnipeg where he works as the ExecutiveChef. As soon as he began to speak, his passion for the concept of Fair Trade became immediately apparent. Ben’s approach to the topic is a holistic one, “I like to look at the bigger picture. Fair Trade is so important because it makes people consider where their food comes from, and what it has been treated with and how it was made”.

His awareness of food production and ethical trading originates from his days working as a cook in Vancouver, being surrounded by socially-conscious restaurateurs and fellow cooks, who made him question where the ingredients in his restaurant came from, and what the unseen cost of these items may be, such as poor working conditions and unfair wages for the producers. When he relocated to Manitoba, he brought many of these ideas into his kitchen, in a province where great change was already occurring.

For Pangea’s Kitchen, Ben tries to procure Fair Trade supplies for the café from Manitoba suppliers, and is often successful, especially with tea, coffee and chocolate. He admits that at times this proves tricky, and thus must opt for larger Toronto or Vancouver-based suppliers to buy the Fair Trade-certified products that represent 70-80% of the food items in the café. Drawing on a network of suppliers across the country that he has developed over recent years, he is able to obtain the coffee, tea, sugar and chocolate that he uses in his establishment.

Indeed, he has ensured that all of the aforementioned products used in Pangea’s Kitchen have been Fair-Trade certified, but still admits that he can run into problems. “When it comes to getting your hands on Fair Trade bananas or fruit juice, I have to opt for a non-Fair Trade brand, because the infrastructure simply isn’t there to maintain the dependable flow of these items that we would need to stay in business”. It is indeed Ben’s realism and refusal to adhere to strict ideological dogma in his work that he believes allows him to have been so successful in getting Fair Trade into his businesses.

What are the ingredients for a business that successfully incorporates Fair Trade into their menus and stock? According to Ben, you need to be creative and think outside the box. “You need to surround yourself with a staff that is solid, and that is willing to try out new products or new strategies to get people interested in Fair Trade.” He appreciates the ethical advantages of using Fair Trade products, but doesn’t feel like forcing this on consumers is the right way to go. “They should understand what Fair Trade means, but it’s also important to present them with a great product and not bog them down with facts”. He finds that Fair Trade products tend to be higher in quality and that this can prove a major selling point.

And what does he perceive are the barriers to going Fair Trade? Ben argues that the obstacles are mainly in people’s minds. “It’s basically laziness that stands in the way of switching over to Fair Trade” he says. Businesses feel that it will be a laborious and time-consuming process that will not reap any real benefits. When the reality is, in Manitoba today, it’s actually pretty easy to order Fair Trade tea and coffee for your office, and to make sure you opt for Fair Trade chocolate. The benefits, says Ben, are part of the greater picture, and include a fairer world and an assurance that the consumer knows how the producers of their food have been treated, and how they have been paid.

I suggest price and availability as other often cited limiting factors. While admitting that Fair Trade goods are often sold for 10% more that the equivalent non-Fair Trade item, Ben argues that the price disparity is completely justifiable, given that the additional few cents go toward a cooperative in the producer’s town or towards a higher wage for the producers themselves. This is in addition to the higher quality of the Fair Trade products. He also notes that a greater consumer demand for Fair Trade products would not only result in higher availability of these items on shelves, but also lower prices, as has been the case in the last ten to fifteen years in some European countries.

So why does Canada pale in comparison with its European neighbours when it comes to Fair Trade sales or general public awareness? While lamenting what he perceives to be an apathy and disinterest that generally colours Canadians’ attitudes towards social justice and international development issues, Ben also notes that the tide has been gradually changing. In particular, he credits the general public, and their increased interest in what they eat and where it comes from, as being the most important factor in the recent surge in Fair Trade products available in Manitoba and the country.

According to Ben, this is they key to ensuring that Fair Trade continues to grow in sales and awareness in Manitoba and the rest of Canada. Put simply, “consumers have all the power. If there’s a market, there will be a product”. If the general public invests some time into educating themselves and finding out where food comes from and how it was made, then they will therefore shop more carefully and be more likely to choose the Fair Trade options.

But it goes further, consumers must also wield their power to ensure that stores and restaurants carry these products by asking in store, by calling and seeing if their local supermarkets carry Fair Trade options, and if not, why not? Their choices and actions will ultimately lead to changes in availability and greater awareness. “Why do you think Walmart decided to start carrying organic products? Because consumers were demanding organic products and so Walmart had to tap in to that market”. Ben terms this phenomenon “voting with their money”. He hopes that consumers in Manitoba will continue to get informed and “vote with their money” to ensure that the excellent results that have already been attained in Fair Trade education and consumption are maintained to make our world a fairer place.

« Manitobans take the One-Month Challenge

Fair Trade Fortnight, May 1-15, 2011 »

This program was made possible with financial support of the Government of Manitoba,
and was undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada (GAC)

Government of ManitobaGlobal Affairs Canada