How the Forrest E. Mars, Jr. Chocolate History Research Grant was a passport to understanding everything.
If Director of the Sustainability Program and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Sara Ashpole didn’t know that chocolate was the key ingredient to unlocking the complexity of literally everything before authoring the St. Lawrence Chocolate Passport grant proposal in 2020, she knows now.
“My background is in the sciences,” says Ashpole, “so all I had was a love of chocolate to propel this grant.” Ashpole explains that faculty were surveyed in fall 2020 for their interest in developing a collaborative and coordinated “year of chocolate,” focusing on educational and experiential learning for students and the community.
The Forrest E. Mars, Jr. Chocolate History Research Grant was awarded in 2021, and more than 17 faculty collaborators from all areas of study signed on to incorporate chocolate as an academic catalyst or complement to their courses. The funds supported the investigation of historical, cultural, spiritual, and medicinal use of Theobroma cacao—everything from the global economics of fair trade practices to pop culture representations of chocolate in film and digital media; the connection of chocolate to human trafficking and slavery to the ethnobotony of cacao. Even chocolate’s influence on neurohormonal and behavioral, mental, mood, and cognition processes were topics tackled by faculty and students over the course of the 2021-2022 academic year with their findings exhibited at a Chocolate Festival hosted in May 2022.
“It definitely is the type of thing that had its own engine in the way that it operated,” says Ashpole whose Sophomore Seminar and First-Year Programs fully immersed students in untangling the impact and influence of the cacao bean and its derivative product, chocolate. “In many ways, things were not necessarily linear, which is very similar to the way you tackle sustainability.”
“I really think most people are unaware of everything to do with chocolate,” says Ashpole “People don’t realize how complicated it is to make and actually how technology has made it delicious for our palette,” explaining that this project has been a learning curve for her as well.
“I didn’t know that approximately 80 percent of all the cacao bean grinding in the world goes through the Netherlands,” she says, which was just one of the hundreds of geographical data points referenced in a GIS digital mapping app created using Google Earth to illustrate all of the unique locations referenced in the Chocolate Passport project.
Ashpole’s students also had to facilitate at least one open community event which incorporated an element of sustainability. Chocolate tastings, documentary screenings, giveaways, and raffles were a few examples.
“For me, the most successful event was not what I was predicting,” says Ashpole with a laugh. Students decided to host a fundraiser using the Endangered Species Chocolate bar brand purchased in partnership with Dining Services. What they thought would take weeks to sell sold out in under an hour and raised money for the Nature Up North programs. More importantly, the exercise revealed data to Dining Services staff that related to the purchasing habits of the campus community.
“The bars just flew,” says Ashpole. “Salted caramel was the favorite. It was gone in seconds. Very few students made any comment about the price point; they were more interested in learning about endangered species, farming, and the production of cacao.” The students ended up pitching the brand as a new more ethical, fair trade, organic product for Dining Services to consider and the data from the sale provided the rationale for a trial run with Endangered Species Chocolate bars in the fall of 2022.
“Random Acts of Chocolate” on Valentine’s Day was another success story and resulted in 180 individuals across campus being surprised with an organic fair trade chocolate truffle delivery, raising morale and confirming the age-old formula of giving + chocolate = happiness.
“We were able to give out a chocolate to every single person who was nominated,” says Ashpole including the 70 staff members of The Pub and Student Center Kitchens as a token of the students’ appreciation.
“But I would say the best component was running the Sophomore Seminar and the First-Year Program, where students spent every week talking about chocolate and sharing different discoveries through their research.” Ashpole’s inquiry-based learning environment encouraged students to explore within and outside of their areas of interest.
“For example, if a science student did a big research project on the physiology or genetics of the cacao plant, I would encourage them to do a mini project on film or art or literature,” explains Ashpole. “I tried to help them think from a different perspective, to search out new information through new ways.”
Questions included economic and ethical boundaries, child labor and slavery, environmental and social activism, agricultural practices, and endangered habitats. Students revisited favorite childhood stories such as the film “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” through a contemporary lens, and, somehow, Ashpole believes the discussions on any controversial topics were more open because it was rooted in the exploration of chocolate.
Students were really shocked that something that they loved might not be all good and then would have to figure out what that means,” says Ashpole. “I can remember the very first or second day of classes, one of my students came right out saying, ‘we all have the right to chocolate, and it should be dead cheap.’ Then, I watched the student realize over the course of the semester that, maybe, ‘cheap’ chocolate comes at a price to someone else or the environment, or has some other major impact.”
Ashpole says that transformational thinking through the single ingredient of something so comfortable and familiar forced them to reflect on their own values. It also illustrated the diversity of problems that crisscross all social, economic, governmental, and environmental systems around the globe was at times daunting.
“I want to make sure we always look at the positives as well,” says Ashpole who invited speakers such as the owners of 57 Chocolate, a woman-owned, ethically sourced, bean-to-bar chocolate company in Ghana to join one of her classes on Zoom.
“They’re young entrepreneurs, running a small business, hiring locals, supporting their economy, supporting farmers, and supporting the environment with a global brand incorporating all the complexity,” says Ashpole, “and the inspiring solutions wrapped up in a bar of chocolate.”