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Chocolatey Food for Thought

Chocolate is one of the most popular sweets around the world – over 3.5 million tonnes of it are consumed annually. The global chocolate industry is worth $103 billion dollars, but we often do not think about the cost of our favourite treat beyond its price in a shop.

Raw cocoa is derived from the seed pod of the cocoa tree, grown mostly in tropical areas of Africa (70%) and South America. Cocoa farmers do physical labour in harsh heat and humidity with no shade, receiving, on average, less than $1 per day. They are also exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals in pesticides due to overuse on crops, which can sometimes be old and diseased. Farmers only receive about 6% of each chocolate bar’s sale price, while manufactures and retailers keep 80%. Additionally, despite calls for change, child labour remains prevalent in the industry: 2.1 million children work in cocoa plantations, where they are vulnerable to trafficking, slavery and other violent labour practices.

Deforestation is occurring at a rapid rate as farmers clear forests to make room for cacao plantations. In West Africa, where two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is produced, the illegal clearing of tropical rainforests has accelerated in the past decade. The Ivory Coast has lost an estimated 80% of its forests in 50 years. Soil erosion, caused as a direct result of deforestation, renders the land less fertile for cacao plants, creating a vicious cycle of more land clearing for minimal return.

In addition to the environmental problems caused by the farming of cocoa, single use plastic packaging in the food industry creates a great pollution problem. Most chocolate products are packaged in some form of plastic, and while there are biodegradable alternative packaging products being developed, companies are slow to take them up as they are more expensive.

Chocolate manufacturing companies are beginning to make changes to their cocoa purchasing requirements which are designed to support producers to grow more sustainably and reduce child labour. Consumer demand for more ethical and sustainable chocolate products can influence the manufacturing company’s raw material choices.

Secondary school students are invited to partake in a program at Ballarat Tech School, where they design and produce their own sustainable and ethical chocolate.

Student teams are assigned a client charity for which they are to produce and market a chocolate product by the end of the day. Within each team, students are assigned roles as tech specialists, food specialists, and materials specialists. While each of the specialists work on individual tasks throughout the day, they have numerous team meetings where they discuss what they have done and their research findings to make collaborative decisions. ‘It’s all about teamwork,’ says Kirstyn Hall, who developed the Ballarat Tech School program.

The tech specialists design and engineer chocolate moulds from scratch. They work with 3D digital design program, TinkerCAD, to design the shape and then 3D-print a plastic positive mould (i.e. the form the chocolate will take). While that is happening, food specialists learn about the chocolate production process and use Thermomixers to make chocolate from its constituent parts, including mixing in their flavours of choice. Meanwhile, the materials specialists investigate types of packaging materials, and make and test the quality of different bioplastics themselves.

Once a positive mould has been 3D-printed, tech specialists create a negative mould that the liquid chocolate is to be poured into by the food specialists. Using a vacuum form machine, a heat-softened plastic sheet is wrapped over the positive mould to create the desired shape. The tech specialists also make graphic designs for the packaging, which comes together with the materials specialists’ design of 2D nets to form their biodegradable chocolate box prototype.

After lunch, it’s dessert time. The food specialists learn how to conduct a taste test survey, which they conduct with the entire class and the teams pick their favourite chocolates. The project comes together as the chocolates have set in their moulds and are ready to be put in the boxes. Student teams market their chocolates, “selling” their chocolate products to the rest of the class on behalf of their charity client.

Throughout the program, the students drive the project and take leadership of their work, while the Ballarat Tech School staff provide support. The focus of the program is group work, as one person would not be able to complete the task alone. Students are also encouraged to create designed solutions, evaluate ethical issues, and use logical, strategic, flexible and adventurous thinking together.

The Chocolate Program at Ballarat Tech School provides an “applied taste test” of the technologies and processes behind producing chocolate commercially. Students are challenged to identify their strengths, take on new technical skills, and collaborate to bring the project all together. ‘Chocolate is really a vehicle to do all this with,’ says Kirstyn.

Chocolate does not have to come at a steep human and environmental cost. Students are encouraged to consider and even promote the importance of buying ethically produced chocolate that does not exploit cocoa farmers or support child labour. They are also encouraged to think about the sustainability of all food packaging. They then apply the technical skills they learn to design, produce and market a sustainable, ethical product – and have a chocolatey treat to munch on at the end of the day.

Catriona Nguyen-Robertson

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