Walk into any grocery store -- even a convenience store -- and the first thing you're likely to see is a display of bananas, sometimes on a rack close to the entrance, seductively within easy reach. Easy enough for 85 percent of American households to buy the bright yellow fruits.
The instinct to buy bananas is so automatic that we rarely think about where the fruit we cut up for our cereal or bake into banana bread comes from or who grows it. We head to the farmers' markets and learn varieties of corn, or check whether meat or poultry is sustainably and ethically raised. But when it comes to bananas -- which are cheap, available year-round, nutritious, and wrapped in their own pretty packages -- the fruit gets taken for granted. That's in spite of the fact that the average consumption in the United States is 26 pounds a year.
Now that blase attitude is being challenged. Several companies, including Canton-based Oké USA, are applying to bananas the same Fair Trade standards -- guaranteeing farmers a fair base wage -- that have been used successfully with coffee, chocolate, and other foods. Oké (pronounced O-kay), which started importing organic bananas from Ecuador last summer, sells them at the Harvest Food Co - op in Cambridge; other co - ops in Western Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire; weekly at Harvard on Fair Trade Fridays; and at other universities such as Brown in Providence.
Bananas have a long and tangled history, some of which includes very low wages to workers, political interference, and environmental dangers. But until now, consumers haven't been able to do anything to show their support for oppressed farmers. "Consumers have been cut off from the source," says Jonathan Rosenthal, president of Oké. Buying fruit that guarantees a price to the farmer, he says, allows the consumer "to make a conscious choice so that growers have a better life for themselves and their children." Oké promises farmers from a particular co-operative $8.50 for a 40-pound box of bananas, plus a $1 premium for social projects in their community. In 2006, Rosenthal says, the price in Ecuador was as low as 90 cents a box. "The cost of the box and the liner was higher than that," he says.
On many levels, this puts Oké at a distinct disadvantage, since the company is paying more and importing less than giant corporations. Standing in front of boxes stacked to the warehouse ceiling in one of Yell-O-Glow's 25 ripening rooms in Everett, George J. Markos, a vice president of the operation, explains how bananas go from a dead-green stage to bright yellow and why he's willing to take just one container of Oké's fruit. Amid thousands of containers from Dole, Chiquita, and other mega companies, Oké's 960 boxes (about 90,000 bananas), might not seem worth the bother. When placed together, bananas at various stages of ripeness will eventually ripen at the same time, so the staff must split the Oké boxes among the ripening rooms, which makes the job harder.
But Markos believes in what Oké is doing. "The people with the least bargaining power in the chain are the growers," he says. "We think that [Fair Trade] is a worthwhile social movement."
Because of a checkered history, bananas are ripe for a conversion. The fruit is a relative newcomer to the United States, arriving here in the early 1800s, and for most of that century, it was an exotic treat for the wealthy. By the time the Boston-founded United Fruit Company was bringing in abundant supplies in the late 19th century, bananas had become fruit for the poor.
In the 20th century, the banana trade became entwined with politics. Several American companies bought banana plantations, refrigerated boats, and rail cars for shipping, ultimately wielding a lot of political power. "US companies became involved in the production side, and then turned it into a vastly profitable business," says Amy Spellacy, who is teaching a freshman seminar at Harvard this semester on the cultural history of the banana.
Spellacy's interdisciplinary class combines political reading, economic sources, and literature such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," which fictionalizes the events of a 1928 massacre of Colombian plantation workers. The fruit's cultural history -- from Woody Allen's film "Bananas," about a Central American strongman, to a cartoon image featuring the Argentine star Carmen Miranda -- made for a lively class, Spellacy says.
Today the industry is still dominated by a handful of large corporations, according to the British organization Banana Link. But there are signs that social awareness is gaining. Only one percent of the world's bananas, grown in Latin America, West Africa, and the Philippines, are sold under Fair Trade standards. But consumers in Europe are pushing changes: 50 percent of bananas sold in Switzerland and 20 percent of those sold in Finland are Fair Trade.
When Fair Trade bananas were first marketed in the Netherlands, says Oké's Rosenthal, they became so popular that the company had trouble meeting the demand. The Dutch company AgroFair owns 60 percent of Oké USA; 40 percent is owned by nonprofit Red Tomato organization and 10 percent by Equal Exchange, the Fair Trade coffee company, both based in Massachusetts. Some large companies sell a small portion of their bananas under Fair Trade, but Oké is the only one exclusively following the standards, says Rosenthal. And even giants like Chiquita have adopted standards on labor, environment, and food safety issues, says a spokesman.
For Silvia Guadalupe Arevalo Navaez, bananas are personal. Navaez owns a banana farm south of Guayaquil, Ecuador, and is a leader of her region's cooperative. Speaking to New England consumers through an interpreter last October, she talked about the difference Fair Trade prices have made to growers. "As a small producer, I can provide benefits for my workers. That never happened before." The security of a set price, without intermediaries, means farmers and workers "know that they'll be able to send their children to school." Navaez is sure, too, that her bananas and those of the other small farmers taste better. "From the time the plant grows from flower to fruit -- about nine months -- it needs to be cared for as though it were a baby," she says.
Oké's emphasis on organic also helps the workers, she says. Fumigants, sometimes sprayed aerially, are a real danger to farmers. But, Rosenthal adds, they might also affect consumers. "No one knows what a lifetime of exposure to herbicides" might do, he says.
Oké hopes to be importing 10 containers of Fair Trade bananas a week by the end of this year. So far, getting produce buyers interested in Oké is a challenge, though the price of these bananas is usually the same as others or up to 10 cents a pound more. With Americans taking more of an interest in where their food comes from, Rosenthal thinks that can carry over to the ubiquitous yellow fruit.
Consumers, he insists, "have more power than they're aware of."