Grounds that give: Spolight on Café el Zapote

The Honduras farmers benefiting from the Café Hacia El Futuro Cooperative. The pickers currently work in El Zopote, Copán, a region within Honduras.

Meg Grice

Amid the numerous missions and projects accomplished by St. Thomas Aquinas, a co-op between members of the church and farmers from Central America continues to grow in Ames’ local parish.

Café el Zapote is a cooperative exchange of coffee and pay between St. Thomas Aquinas and coffee planters in El Zapote, located in the Copán region of Honduras.

Through this co-op, planters with Cafe Hacia El Futuro Associacion are able to receive around two and a half times more than what the coffee would sell for in their native country, $2.25 as opposed to 75 cents per pound.

The planters in return, pay their pickers more. Café el Zapote Inc. takes a margin from sales to continue coffee sales for the following year.

The program, started in 2015, quickly grew despite assumptions. Emily Seibel, the current president of Café el Zapote Inc., suggests the idea came about through a mission trip. After visiting Honduras, someone decided St. Thomas Aquinas needed to take action.

“They roasted it just to sell here at Mass one weekend, and it didn’t even last through the whole weekend,” said Monica Reinken, a member of Café el Zapote, Inc. “I’ve been there twice so that’s what peaked my interest in helping with this.”

The group gains support from the Honduras Committee at St. Thomas Aquinas, which partners with a sister parish in Honduras. The committee helped Café el Zapote Inc. purchase the first bulk amount of three hundred pounds of coffee. Café el Zapote quickly surpassed the original amount. 

In 2018 the group continued to grow the co-op by acquiring 5,000 pounds. 

“We used to send students there to do mission trips, so that’s where the original idea started,” Reinken said.

Currently, the group sells 14 ounce bags for $10 on the second Sunday of each month at St. Thomas Aquinas in addition to St. Cecilia and St. Peter and Paul churches in Ames. Burgies, a coffee business with various locations in the Ames area, stores and roasts the coffee. Burgies buys some of the coffee to sell for their own business as well.

The committee, made up of 12 members, is a mix of parishioners and students. Volunteers additionally assist with the packaging and bagging process.

“It’s not limited to just students or parishioners, either, it’s just whoever is interested in the mission, too,” said Brandon Walls, an alumnus of Iowa State and member of the organization. 

Though the scale of the effort continues to grow, the organization struggles with expanding the market and continuously Inc.reasing the purchasing amount from the coffee growers in Honduras.

Seibel recognizes the stress in trying to sell as much coffee as possible, as the farmers have more than enough to sell. Through a contact in Honduras, Seibel was informed that the opportunity in the number of farmers could Inc.rease due to the success of Café el Zapote’s partnership.

“I think we’re getting to a point where we’re almost not selling enough to meet the needs of the farmers,” Walls said.

“I think if you look at the amount that we’re importing and selling it’s almost like a small business, so for a group of volunteers to run that and grow it is a pretty big commitment,” Reinken said.

SInc.e Reiken has been involved, the program has grown with more volunteers assisting with the bagging, roasting and sales processes. Walls said the group has essentially become a non-profit organization.

From their time and dedication in helping this Central-American plantation, Seibel, Walls and Reinken all agreed the work going into assisting the farmers with innovating their established business has been a major takeaway from this co-op. Rather than thinking of the act as charity, Reiken views the organization as an outlet for a partnership.

Just after tasting the coffee for the first time, Seibel said she spoke with one of her friends about the organization and learned they needed some help with marketing. SInc.e then, the co-op has added to her work experience as a business major by means of marketing.

“This is one of my first leadership roles, and [I] just learned about what it takes and how vital having a great team is to being successful,” Seibel said.

Walls said he has always been driving towards being more service-oriented. Knowing the help the organization provides has furthered his experience in both service and marketing. He noticed the connections between St. Thomas Aquinas, the church’s sister parish and the local farmers after he visited Honduras on a separate mission trip.

“To me that was just, like, such a small world that, it was just a good way to reconnect with what my interest are in terms of Central American culture,” Walls said. “It’s been another good way to reconnect with my faith as well.”

Those interested in getting involved are free to contact the organization at [email protected] Volunteers are always welcome to help package and become part of the team.