LAFAYETTE -- When Jane Shafer was 11 years old, a teacher at the school she attended in the Ukraine told her parents, "If it gets really bad, I can probably hide her."
Shafer remembers, 17 years later, that "No one was killing people, but there was a lot of anti-semitism."
Her life, from persecuted Jewish schoolgirl to Whole Foods marketing team leader in Lafayette, was transformed by an interest-free loan from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society Foundation.
"I can connect to the fact that a little bit of money can really change someone's life," she says.
Which is why Shafer is uniquely suited -- perhaps even born -- to participate in the Whole Planet Foundation.
The private nonprofit organization established by Whole Foods Market makes small, interest -ree microloans to the poorest of the poor in 49 developing countries where Whole Foods sources products. Approximately 92 percent of the loans support female entrepreneurs, with the average loan size only $235. Most astounding is the repayment rate: 97 percent.
"As long as you repay your loan, you are guaranteed to be given another loan," Shafer explains. "A lot of them are repeat borrowers and they're able to incrementally get themselves out of poverty."
Surprisingly, the recipients aren't required to deliver a specific health food product to the marketer's store shelves in the U.S. On the organization's website, one story tells of Karen, a seamstress who used an initial
When a school group from Orinda's Glorietta Elementary School visited the Lafayette store recently, Shafer used the opportunity to expand the second graders' understanding of global foods. Stacy Howard, a teacher at the school for 17 years, was thrilled when nearly all of the students brought five dollar donations for the foundation.
"It's one of our favorite field trips," Howard said. "We talked about where vegetables come from, walked into a big refrigerator, made peanut butter, and watched a fish person crack a crab.
"You can talk about producers and consumers. but to actually be in a store, it was different. They were amazed at all the places food comes from."
To maintain that sense of wonder in its employees, Whole Foods regularly sends them on field trips of their own.
Hoping to travel to India, Shafer's enthusiasm spills over in a bubbling description of the future trip.
"It's not a 'Let's go to India!' excursion; it's a down-and-dirty trip," she said. "You get to be right in the middle of what's happening. If someone gets money for a stove to make food that she sells out of a window in her home, you might go with her to get the stove."
Nick Heustis, Whole Foods' associate marketing coordinator for Northern California, is equally impassioned about his experience in Ecuador. Traveling to the Whole Trade Flower Farms, one of only nine Fair Trade certified farms in a country with 600 rose farms, he was transfixed by the Gallindo family. A housing project funded 100 percent by Whole Trade Flowers allowed a mother with three children to become a homeowner.
"Their pride in showing off (their) new home was captivating. Both of the young boys insisted on showing us their shared room. The smiles never left their faces as they told us their story," Heustis writes, in an email.
He says that knowing the growers "on the other side of the chain" has increase his urgency, when explaining to customers how their purchasing decisions have the power to change lives.
In Lafayette, Shafer is looking forward to sharing the success stories of small-business owners in distant countries with the next group of kids. Like her, the next generation of Americans will both give and receive, through tiny acts of generosity aimed at the enormous task of wiping out world hunger.