You may not think about where your chocolate comes from every time you take a bite, but one Missouri chocolate maker wants that to change.
Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate in Springfield, Missouri is a "bean to bar" chocolate maker. Meaning he processes cocoa beans in his factory to make his chocolate bars. There are a lot of steps involved to turn cocoa beans into chocolate candy, all steps that Askinosie knew nothing about until 10 years ago.
"I had no idea where chocolate came from," Askinosie recalls. "No idea."
Up until that point, Askinosie had been working as a lawyer. He was good at his job. He won a lot of cases. But his heart wasn't in the work anymore. He needed a change.
"I had a very simple prayer, which was 'Dear God, please give me something else to do,' for 5 years," says Askinosie.
Then it came to him. He was making chocolate desserts at home when he had the idea to try to make chocolate from scratch. Within months Askinosie was in Ecuador researching cocoa bean harvest techniques.
Now, 10 years later, Askinosie has a successful chocolate business. He's buying cocoa directly from farmers in Ecuador, Honduras, Tanzania and the Philippines. He's developed relationships with them, shares profits with them, and features their pictures on the covers of the chocolate bars.
He's also setup school lunch programs to help malnourished children living around some of the cocoa farming communities.
"I want to do everything I can to raise awareness in the world of the plight of the cocoa farmer," says Askinosie. "And not think that what I'm doing is enough. It's not enough."
Breaking down the economics of the average chocolate bar
Kristy Leissle researches cocoa and the cocoa trade. She has another nickname, "Dr. Chocolate," which is a name she admits she didn't give herself, but it stuck. She says most of the money stays with chocolate makers and retailers, and very little of it ends up to the farmers.
"You know, for us [chocolate is] very much beloved. It's a symbol of so many things, for love and romance, for comfort and celebration. And the farmers that I worked with in Ghana, they have those associations, they know them. But they don't practice them," she says.
That's because the average cocoa farmers receives 1-3 dollars a day. Seventy percent of the world's cocoa comes from West Africa, where the work is tough and the pay is low.
"They don't run out and buy chocolate on somebody's birthday or give it to people for love reasons, because they can't access it, and they can't afford it," says Leissle.
Growing consumer awareness about chocolate
According to Leissle, who's been monitoring the growth of bean to bar chocolate makers, in the past 10 years consumers have become more aware about where their chocolate is coming from. Ten years ago there were only a handful of bean to bar chocolate makers in the U.S., Askinosie being one of that group.
And now there are at least 150.
"We are starting to shift away from chocolate as a thing you can just have sitting on your desk at work, and just eat mindlessly just for a fleeting moment of pleasure," says Leissle. "Chocolate is a tremendous luxury, that I have to invest in and that I have to know something about."
"It's about the chocolate. It's not about the chocolate"
Askinosie says that a lot. We sit on top of a bag of cocoa beans at the factory. The room is filled with them.
"What I mean is currently we have a nutritional program in Tanzania for school kids for school lunches, and we have one in the Philippines, and we just launched a new program in the Philippines last week," he says.
Soon the programs will be serving over 2000 kids in 2 countries. "That's not about chocolate," says Askinosie.
But he admits, getting high quality beans and producing chocolate is, obviously, about chocolate.
"The tension can be messy, about how it's about chocolate, it's not about chocolate," says Askinosie. "And we think that something good comes from that place of tension. It's almost like this Zen tension between these good works that we're trying to accomplish and at the same time trying to make the best chocolate that we can have."
Suzanne Hogan is a reporter, announcer and producer for KCUR 89.3.