Grabbing a random box of chocolates at the local pharmacy might not be the best way to treat your mom this Mother’s Day—or any other occasion when you want to give sweets to your sweetest.
After all, hiding in the centers of traditional bonbons are not-so-savory secrets about the chocolate industry. Large chocolate companies have long promised to phase out child labor in the industry. Yet investigations and extensive studies have estimated that more than 2.1 million children in Ivory Coast and Ghana still do the dangerous, exhausting work of cocoa harvesting. At its worst, this practice can also involve trafficking and slavery.
As the dark side of chocolate comes to light, chocoholics can rejoice that fair-trade options are readily available. And entrepreneurs like Lagusta Yearwood, creator of Lagusta’s Luscious, are crafting sweets that are not only swoon-worthy, but also use ingredients that are kinder to the earth and more equitable to the workers who harvest and trade them.
Lagusta’s Luscious is just one company representing growing concerns about the sourcing of chocolate. A number of Jewish organizations are deeply involved with the issue: Fair Trade Judaica and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights have partnered with Equal Exchange to provide kosher—and even kosher for Passover—fair-trade chocolate products.
“Human dignity and worker rights are core Jewish values, and Jewish ethical consumers want to be able to make purchases that are in line with those values,” observes Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, deputy director of T’ruah, “Child labor and child slave labor are well documented in the chocolate supply chain, but thankfully, we have alternative in fair-trade chocolate, and T’ruah promotes that alternative to the Jewish community so that we don’t have to push our values aside when we go to the grocery store.”
Yearwood is also concerned with the well-documented problems with human rights abuses in the chocolate industry. “And while fair trade isn’t a perfect system, it does help to ensure that you’re not eating something that was produced in ways that would make your stomach turn,” Yearwood says. “In addition to using organic and fair-trade chocolate, we also don’t use chocolate from West Africa, where most of the worst labor abuses have been reported. There are interesting things happening in that region, however, with people in their local communities attempting to change the system and produce ethical chocolate. It’s something I’m always watching.”
When Yearwood founded Lagusta’s Luscious in 2003, she was a young vegan chef who wanted to create a company that reflected her commitment to feminism, social justice, animals and the environment. Though the word “vegan” isn’t bandied about in the company’s branding, it’s the guiding value of the business.
She credits her late mother as an inspiration for her business and lifestyle choices. Pauline Dubkin-Yearwood was a longtime journalist for the Chicago Jewish News. “My mother was a deeply kind and compassionate person,” says Lagusta, “so I try to carry those qualities over into my everyday life and my work.” She was impressed by how her mother came home from her “day job” and delved into personal writing projects. “She was a passionate vegan, so I’m always motivated to do better work for the vegan community because of her.”
The Lagusta’s Luscious shop where the chocolates are made opened its doors in 2011. It’s in the village of New Paltz, New York, a picturesque college town just 90 minutes from midtown Manhattan—yet a world away. Yearwood shares the shop with Maresa Volante, whose Sweet Maresa’s Macarons are an egg-free, dairy-free and gluten-free version of the traditional meringue-based cookie. Yearwood’s second location in New Paltz is just around the corner from her chocolates shop. Commissary! (exclamation mark on purpose), serves “coffee + tea + noshes”—and, of course, chocolates. A “Mitzvah Wall” (right) near the register encourages customers to purchase a treat anonymously, to be paid forward to a future customer.
Do Lagusta’s Luscious customers come first for the chocolates, or for the ethics behind them? “I think it’s probably about 50/50,” muses Yearwood. “We don’t market our products to vegans, because it’s better vegan activism to have non-vegans eat our wares, but it’s always nice to have vegan customers, who are so appreciative and sweet.”
The chocolates are not only divinely decadent, but also beautiful to behold. The barks look like miniature abstract artworks, dotted with dried fruits and bursts of sweet, smoky and savory flavors. Note that while Lagusta’s Luscious products aren’t certified kosher, they’re created in a facility that’s completely pareve.
Running a business (or in this case, three businesses: Lagusta’s Luscious, Confectionary! in New York City and Commissary! in New Paltz) can be a challenge, but Lagusta’s passion to make the world a better place keeps her motivated. “As a vegan anarchist feminist, I have a passion for transforming the world according to my own values. At its root, that’s what gets me up in the morning: changing the world.”
Lagusta’s Luscious, 845-633-8615, 25 North Front Street, New Paltz, NY, Tuesday–Friday 12 pm–7 pm, Saturday–Sunday 10 am–7 pm, closed Monday. Vegan. Not kosher.
Confectionery! (a joint shop from Lagusta’s Luscious and Sweet Maresa’s), 646-869-0133, 440 East 9th Street at Avenue A, New York, NY, Monday–Saturday 12 pm–9 am, Sunday 11 am–8 pm. Vegan. Not kosher.
Commissary!, 845-288-3426, 11 Church Street, New Paltz, NY, Open every day 8 am–8 pm. Vegan. Not kosher.
Photos by Evan Atlas