September 16, 2019

Thin Months: Why Are Coffee Producers Going Hungry?


Many coffee-producing communities experience “thin months.” These are seasonal periods of limited income and food insecurity in which producers and their families lack access to healthy food. But why does this happen and what actions are being taken to prevent it?

Let’s look at what these producers experience and some strategies to prevent coffee producing communities going hungry. I gained these insights from my work with CIAT, which eventually led to the creation of Food 4 Farmers.

Lee este artículo en español Meses Flacos: ¿Por Qué Los Productores de Café Pasan Hambre?

Cristina Itcep Xeputul, a member of the Maya Ixil cooperative in Chajul, Guatemala, and her husband. Credit: Julia Luckett

In 2007, I accompanied a small team from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) to interview small-scale coffee farmers in Nicaragua. We conducted one-on-one interviews with producers in their coffee parcels, in community cooperative buildings, and in their homes to learn more about their experiences.

The first person I interviewed was a young woman in the tiny hamlet of El Coyolar. We sat in the community cooperative building, which had no electricity. After slowly working through the CIAT questionnaire, I asked the last question: “Did your family have any periods of extreme scarcity of food last year?”

She told me that she and her family faced three to four months of extreme food scarcity every year.

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Rick Peyser conducts an interview on food scarcity and insecurity in El Coyolar, Nicaragua. Credit: Food 4 Farmers

In Nicaragua, the coffee harvest is usually from October to March. The producer explained that by May, the earnings from the previous year’s coffee were largely depleted. This is just before the rainy season arrives, when market prices for staples like beans and corn start to slowly rise until the autumn harvest.

Lack of money and rising food prices results in months of food scarcity. The phenomenon is such a part of everyday life in coffee-producing regions that locals say “está llegando la epoca de las vacas flacas” or, “the period of the skinny cow is arriving.”

CIAT’s research revealed that of the farmers interviewed across Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico, 67% experienced between three and eight thin months of extreme food scarcity each year. 

A combination of low coffee prices, overdependence on a single product for income, no access to finance, and lack of opportunity to make substantive changes have resulted in a poverty trap for many families.

Marcela Pino, co-director of Food 4 Farmers, conducts a community diagnostic interview with a coffee farmer near Chiapas, Mexico. Credit: Julia Luckett

Low Coffee Prices Exacerbate Food Scarcity

Throughout 2019, we’ve seen coffee prices hover around US $1 per pound, and farming families around the world are struggling more than ever as a result.

Last year, the average food costs for a family of five in Guatemala was US $5,616, according to the National Institute of Statistics in Guatemala. Farming families at the Maya Ixil Cooperative in Aldea Santa Avelina reported an average annual net income from coffee of just US $900 in Food 4 Farmers’ most recent benchmark. Since 2010, food costs there have increased by 67%, while the coffee price has decreased by 29%.

While the situation is more difficult than in other years, it’s important to understand that even in good times, when the market is strong, coffee is not enough to provide most farming families with enough nutritious food year-round.

Ripe and unripe coffee cherries on a tree. Credit: Miguel Regalado

Understanding Food Security

Food security isn’t just about having enough calories to survive. It’s about having reliable access to a good amount of nutritious food. During thin months, the people affected may eat the same foods, but consume less of them, or they may rely on less expensive foods that are more likely to lack nutrition. They may also borrow funds to purchase food, leaving families in debt.

The FAO Committee on World Food Security outlines states that food security exists “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” They outline four pillars of food security: 


Is the supply of food sufficient? Can the country produce enough or have the ability to import what’s needed?


Can people afford the available food in sufficient quantities to sustain a healthy lifestyle? This is where volatile coffee prices squeeze many producers and their families.


Do families understand nutrition and the components of a healthy diet? The rise in cheap, processed foods has led to calorie-rich, nutrient deficient diets in many countries.


What political and environmental factors are at work? The effects of climate change and political instability are threatening coffee-farming families around the world, where the effects are most acute.

Members of the CESMACH cooperative during a food security workshop. Credit: Food 4 Farmers

Initiatives to End

Two years after the CIAT research trip, I teamed up with Marcela Pino and Janice Nadworny to create Food 4 Farmers, an organization committed to helping small-scale farmers develop and implement their own strategies to overcome thin months. 

There is no easy answer to solving food scarcity. Each community has different needs that are influenced by their local and national context. This is why any strategy to reducing thin months must be community-based and include local leadership to design, implement, and evaluate their own approaches to food security. 

Food 4 Farmers looks at four main areas to improve food security in a community:

  • Strengthening local food systems
  • Diversifying income and economic independence
  • Developing leaders among women and young people
  • Encouraging sustainable farming practices that promote biodiversity and ecosystem resilience

Members of the CESMACH cooperative attend to their beehives. Credit: Food 4 Farmers

Food 4 Farmers currently works with over 3,000 families in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Nicaragua. The programs vary, according to the needs of each community. Here are some examples of strategies in use to improve food security.

Crop Diversification

A CIAT policy brief outlines how income diversification is an effective way to reduce the number of thin months. It states, “as the number of income sources increased, the thin months tended to decrease. An assessment of livelihood factors showed that social networks, income diversification, and subsistence food production each contribute to farmers’ well-being.”

Beekeeping is one way of diversifying income that works well on a coffee farm. With support from Food 4 Farmers, Maya Ixil producers and members of the CESMACH cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico now use beekeeping to supplement their income and pollinate crops. Research has found that pollinators lead to a 10 to 30% increase in coffee production and quality, showing that bees do more than just boost food security.

Learn more in How Crop Diversification Can Counter Low Coffee Prices

Members of the CESMACH cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico use beekeeping to diversify their income. Credit: Julia Luckett

Social Networks & Sharing Knowledge

A group of 28 women who belong to the SOPPEXCCA cooperative in Jinotega, Nicaragua launched an organic farmers market. This is both an example of a social network and income diversification. The participants have become expert organic farmers and are sharing their knowledge with other communities to enable more people to provide better food for their families and diversify their income.

Members of the SOPPEXCCA cooperative at the farmers’ market they launched in Jinotega, Nicaragua. Credit: Food 4 Farmers

Improved Nutrition & Agricultural Practices

In Popayán, Colombia, the 200 coffee-farming families of Associación Nuevo Futuro struggled to improve nutrition and reduce dependence on processed foods. In response, the association organized an annual food sovereignty festival that highlights ancestral recipes. It has also connected families with local farmers’ markets to sell their organic and heirloom produce, and trained them on rainwater harvesting and irrigation techniques to get them through the dry season.

Food 4 Farmers and Nuevo Futuro developed a food security curriculum to educate families about healthy diverse diets, and food storage techniques to prevent waste. The organizations also helped to develop water management systems to sustain home gardens.

Producers in Popayán were also encouraged to explore farm diversification to reduce reliance on coffee, improve nutrition, and further supplement income by selling excess produce at local markets. This includes initiatives as small-scale as rearing chickens to provide a regular source of protein from both the meat and eggs, as well as supplemental income.

Women near Chiapas, Mexico prepare chickens. Credit: Julia Luckett

How Roasters & Consumers Can Help

When producers struggle to access food, not only to they and their families suffer, but less attention is given to coffee, fewer resources are available for investment in the farm and other business needs, and fewer young people see a future in farming.

The coffee industry has a responsibility to ensure that producers and their families enjoy good, nutritious food every day. But as a roaster or consumer, how can you help? Here are some ideas.

Consider How Much Goes Back to The Community

The FOB price often serves as an indicator of the price paid for coffee, but this refers to the price paid for coffee delivered to the port of origin. Dig deep and get to know where your coffee comes from to understand the farmgate price paid to farmers.

Build in Respect For Farmers

Coffee-farming families are a vital part of the supply chain, Without them, there would be no specialty coffee shops or home brewing. Find out as much information as you can about the people behind the coffee and educate your customers on the importance of paying more.

A farmer in his crops at Finca La Siberia in El Salvador. Credit: Julio Guevara

Certifications Are Not A Complete Answer

Specialty coffee is often framed as a solution for small-scale farmers to differentiate and earn more. But producing specialty grade coffee and obtaining certifications often require substantial investments for many families. Certifications and indicators of quality are tools, not solutions.

Support Communities Beyond Coffee

Purchasing coffee directly from a community can have an impact, but no matter how much you source, coffee alone is most likely not going to provide a living income. Generations of low prices have resulted in a dire situation for many producing communities. Besides sourcing coffee at decent prices, look to other initiatives that directly address food security or income diversification.

Sandra Isabel Obando sells her products at the SOPPEXCCA farmers’ market in Jinotega, Nicaragua. Credit: Food 4 Farmers

Thin months are a physically and mentally stressful experience that no one should have to endure. There is no simple answer to solving the problem, but by paying attention to the coffee supply chain and supporting initiatives that offer training and encourage diversification, you can help to prevent families going hungry.

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Food 4 Farmers is dedicated to long-term collaborations to create a more food-secure future for coffee producers. We’re also actively engaging with other communities ready to build their own food security programs, but new partnerships are always dependent on sufficient financial support. Take a look at our website to learn more about how you can help.

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