An agronomist connects the dots to build awareness about food insecurity in coffee-farming communities
F4F: Can you tell us about your background and what prompted you to get involved with food security work?
MZ: I’m an agronomist, and have been working in agriculture for more than 20 years. I grew up in Ecuador and, after studying in Honduras, I worked on banana production, exporting melons, and so on. In Honduras, I worked with subsistence farmers who relied on dry beans and corn as the main staples for their families. After a couple of years there, I did my masters in Agricultural Economics in the US, then spent close to nine years working with Fair Trade USA. I worked closely with coffee co-ops in Latin America, East Africa, and South East Asia, helping US companies find Fair Trade-certified coffee to build their sustainability programs. All this work over the years has shown me how food scarcity is prevalent in rural areas all over the world, especially in Latin America. While traveling to East Africa and Southeast Asia I saw it there as well. Rural areas are mainly agricultural, and many people grow only one crop that serves as their sole source of income. These people and their communities tend to suffer from food insecurity. Coffee is the product I’ve worked with the most; I’ve been able to see this issue first-hand in countless rural communities. I really like being a part of the coffee industry, because I see so many opportunities to enrich the lives of farmers. Working with Food 4 Farmers has been an opportunity for me to contribute. It’s an organization using a participatory approach, which is very important to me. I’m excited to serve on the Board.
F4F: When you were studying agricultural economics, what drew you toward coffee?
MZ: While getting my Masters, I was doing work with dry beans, which are very important to subsistence farmers. Later, when I moved to the Bay Area to work with Fair Trade USA, I began working with coffee. Fair Trade USA has a big connection with coffee, and it fit with my larger international interests and the development of social justice in agriculture.
F4F: What’s your favorite thing about your job?
MZ: I get to work with great people. I work with US companies and farmers who want to improve the situation in farming communities, improve the environment for future generations, and promote sustainable coffee. My current work with UTZ — the world’s largest certifier of coffee and cocoa — provides sustainable solutions for companies that want to do the right thing. In coffee, most people not only want to make profit, but also want to improve things for everybody in the supply chain. I like the fact that I can make connections and continue learning. Then I can apply everything I’ve learned in my day-to-day work. And, my background working with rural communities helps me understand and learn from the people we serve. My language skills, my professional skills, and my cultural and professional background all help me connect with people. I like combining my experiences and skills to make this connection.
F4F: What motivated you to get involved with Food 4 Farmers?
MZ: As the issue of food security has become more mainstream within the coffee industry, awareness has grown about this problem. I’ve known Janice and Rick over the years and have seen their work in sustainable coffee, so I was excited about the opportunity to provide my support for the organization. Our board is filled with great people. On a board, you tend to advise and support, you aren’t actually implementing or doing the work. It’s a place for me to continue exploring. I like the idea of being able to help with the mission of Food 4 Farmers and help it grow within the coffee industry.
F4F: What skills do you bring to the table?
MZ: I have a strong background in food security. I’ve worked closely with farming communities, have experience in international development, and work with roasters. I want to continue educating the coffee industry on how to address these issues, and I want to continue learning from the coffee industry. I try to bring a voice to the industry that is difficult to hear: the voice of the smallholder farmer. I think Marcela does a great job of that also. I like doing work professionally that is a little bit outside of what everyone else is doing. I try to see what groups are not being served and try to bring that to the discussion.
F4F: What are your hopes for Food 4 Farmers?
MZ: I want Food 4 Farmers to grow its role in the conversation about food security. I’d like to bring more awareness to industry professionals, and provide ways they can participate and be part of the conversation. I want that part of the work to scale up. I’d like to see people eager and motivated to engage with and do something about food security though Food 4 Farmers.
F4F: One of the most important things about Food 4 Farmers is that it is a long term, in-depth approach to food security. How do you help the organization translate some of the more technical aspects of its work to a larger audience?
MZ: There is strong demand for food security work that goes deep into the community. A participatory approach is very important, but can be complex. As a Board member who is also a member of the coffee industry, I can connect the dots by providing “translation,” helping raise awareness of food insecurity, and with the rest of our organization and peers in coffee, find solutions.