How dark do you like your Halloween?
Coated with the sweat of greed, please
Ghosts and ghouls. Witches and wizards. Blood-slathered chocolate-frosted muffins. Billions to be made from our obsession with the weird and frightful. Ahh, the creepy scent of America’s favorite scary holiday once again!
What fun costumes will we see this year? Dinosaurs, action heroes, unicorns and pharaohs, Barbies and cowboys, anthropomorphized math equations perhaps, too. Maybe a few children dressed up as slaves on cacao plantations. Young men opting for the ruthless Wall Street trader look. Exhausted moms dressing up as… well, exhausted moms.
But something darker lurks here. Something sweet, alluring, yet so devilishly devious. Something none of us want to see, or read about. And yet we can’t look away. It’s like a horror film. You can’t help it. The numbers are too big, the profits too obscene, the caramel too gooey.
The nemesis of 2 million West African children: the Halloween candy bar.
The scenes below are dramatized, but they describe the hard realities simmering beneath those creamy, shiny, sugary candy bars we buy 90 million pounds of every Halloween.
Here, they are mere appetizers. I serve the full three-course meal on Jessica Wildfire’s portal of doom.
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Now let’s get into the Halloween spirit.
Scene 1: A protected forest somewhere in Ivory Coast
“Here, take this, boy. Let’s go, it’s getting late.”
The spray canister of glyphosate is easily half the size of the child; the heat only makes it heavier. The instructions warn that protective equipment must be worn when deploying this herbicide, but they’re in French, and the boy can’t read—he’s never gone to school. Too scared to ask too many questions, he swings the strap over his shoulder and follows the rest of the men and boys into the jungle. There be trees to burn down and vegetation to spray. Must clear the land for cacao trees.
Here in West Africa, in what’s left of the ancient forests of Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) and Ghana, this is how the story of your Hershey’s milk chocolate bars, your M&M’s, your Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, begins.
Children sold into unpaid labor toil on illegal cacao plantations cut into state-protected forest, unable to see their families for years on end. They survive on bananas and cassava. They handle chainsaws and machetes—the scars on their bodies don’t lie. They carry sacks of cacao beans that can weigh 100 pounds. Remember how much a 13-year-old child weighs.
They're forced to help the plantation owners set fire to the forests to clear the land for cacao. This releases greenhouse gases, adding to the runaway climatic patterns that drive the extreme floods, droughts, and wildfires we’re now seeing daily, and making the planet less livable for all of us. Due in large part to ongoing deforestation to grow cacao, Ivory Coast has lost a breathtaking 90 percent of its forest cover, and Ghana has lost 65 percent.has a sobering graphic illustrating this in his Big Chocolate Goes to Washington post.
As the children and young people toil, day in and day out, unmarked trucks appear to pick up bags of cacao beans and disappear into the forest again, to sell them to middlemen, who sell them to agents of the large corporate buyers, smiling as they nod to their questions about certification and child slavery. Yes, yes, we're certified. No child slaves. No child slaves.
These kids don’t know what Halloween is.
Scene 2: Commodity futures trading desk, New York City
4,751 miles away, a young Wall Street trader checks his screen. Next to his keyboard are a cold cup of coffee and an opened pouch of trail mix with M&M’s, its guts spilled all over his desk. He frowns, leaning closer. He swears.
“What’s up dude?” says the trader next to him, not even looking up from his own screen.
“Damn cocoa. Shit’s too volatile. I keep having to up my margin.”
“Thought it’s been sky high this year.”
The trader leans back in his chair, running his hand through his hair. He pops a few M&M’s into his mouth, oblivious to the irony.
“It’s up overall but keeps going up and down lately. May was the worst. People worried about being fat so they buy less. Then some influencer like Mr. Beast puts out his own bar and everyone goes crazy. Or some African government finally decides to do the right thing and investors flock in. Or it’s climate change, you know droughts and shit.”
“So why’d you get into it? Gold’s pretty stable.”
“I got enough gold. It’s Allie. Always goin’ on about chocolate. She buys the fancy expensive stuff ‘coz she’s worried about the kids in Africa or something.”
The other trader laughs. “How is she letting you sleep in her bed, you’re trading all the slave cocoa.”
“I told her all that Fair Trade shit is fake. Doesn’t mean anything. Anyone can put up a sign. Corruption up and down in those countries.”
“Sounds like DC.”
The trader chuckles. “Yeah. Well when this contract closes I think I’ll just buy her a box of chocolates and be done with it. Alright, ready for lunch? How about that sushi place across the street.”
“Yep sounds good.”
The trader grabs his jacket off the back of his chair, and as he leaves, he flips an M&M at the trading screen. It ricochets, making a tiny red mark right next to the cocoa price blinking on the screen: 3,759 USD/MT.
Scene 3: Costco outlet, Southern California
Further west, somewhere in Southern California, a toddler wails in front of a Costco Halloween candy display. A flustered young mom is trying to calm him down. Her phone is pinging, and her other child, a baby in a stroller, is starting to wake up.
“Mama I want candiiiieeeee! Wanna candiiiieeeee!”
“Yes we’re getting candy, hon, but it’s for Halloween. You can’t have it just yet. We need to save it for all the kids coming to our house. Ok?”
“Nooooo wanna candiiiieeeee now!!”
The child drops his bottom emphatically on the floor, wailing. The mom takes a deep breath, and ignores her precious progeny for a few seconds so she can finally make a decision. She faces a dizzying array of chocolates and candy:
55-oz jars of M&M’s for $18.99;
240-piece variety packs of Snickers, Milky Way, 3 Musketeers and other brands for $24.99;
8-piece bags of Unreal dark chocolate coconut mini bars (her personal favorite) for $12.99;
And numerous other options, mostly Big Chocolate brands.
She runs a few quick scenarios in her head. Her neighborhood is full of kids—that is, after all, why her family moved there—but that means lots of trick-or-treaters this weekend. She’d have to buy at least 20 packages of the Unreal bars to have enough. Or she could do a mix, some Unreal, some M&M packets, and a few others. She hates giving the kids all that junk candy every year, it’s so full of sugar and corn syrup and artificial colors… but the good chocolate is always so expensive…
It’s becoming too complicated. Her child is now turning a shade similar to FD&C Red 40, and people are turning disapproving looks toward her.
She grabs a package of Unreal (for her and her husband) and the 240-piece variety pack for the neighborhood kids. They expect variety, and they like the super sweet stuff. Plus it’s cheap. With her not working right now, she just can’t justify 20 bags of Unreal.
Unreal, I know.
I wish we could sprinkle our holidays with sugar and spice and everything nice and scary—without this matter being actually horrifying to read. We deserve to have fun on Halloween. We shouldn’t have to think about the upstream effects of the candy we buy. Our kids should be able to trick-or-treat with their friends.
True, but also, first world problems.
We’re not the ones having to send our children into plantations because we can’t afford to feed them. We’re not the ones having to figure out how to make $2 a day feed and entire family—although that does happen in this country too and it’s a heart-stopping shame.
Cheap chocolate is the fast fashion of the candy world.
Does this mean you should immediately return your entire Halloween candy haul? Sell your house and do three years with the Peace Corps? Occupy the White House until they regulate those evil corporations?
No. It’s not a black & white issue, although certain stripes in this rainbow are decidedly rather dark. Just like with the plastic recycling issue, the onus should not be placed exclusively on us, the people buying the candy bars. Yet just like with any other issue impacted by the realities of the global supply chain, we are neither helpless victims nor choice-less consumers.
We do have choices, and that gives us a real voice. And you know what singers do with theirs.
There are spots of daylight in this story… rays of sunshine and garlic piercing through Count Chocula’s curtains. And his hours are numbered. There are farmers all over the world, including African countries, who are treated with respect and paid better prices for their beans—mostly by the smaller, bean-to-bar chocolate makers. Askinosie Chocolate is a shining example. Dandelion Chocolate is another.
The large chocolate & candy manufacturers are trying too, but they remain beholden to profits and shareholders.
Local governments are also trying, but they continue to face challenges of corruption and bribery.
The chocolate sector has much work to do.
Something we can all do
But here’s an idea. This Halloween, don’t stay home. Get out there and trick-or-treat. Gather as much of that spooky chocolate & candy as you can. Take a photo of the loot and send it in, and feel free to include any ideas or thoughts on how to make next Halloween healthier and less extractive, more fun and less commercial. I’ll run a photo gallery of the submissions, and we can start a little clean Halloween movement.
COMING UP: Next month we publish our first Cacao Muse Holiday Guide!
December 2023 Update: Scratch the guide. We’re doing a full-blown Holiday Tour!
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