On January 16th the Board of Directors of the Coop met for its yearly day-long retreat. Glenn Lower, General Manager of the MNFC, Greg Prescott, Operations Manager, and Victoria DeWind, Staff Liaison, also participated. We had two 3-hour sessions, facilitated by Jade Barker in the morning and Michael Healy in the afternoon. Jade and Michael are two facilitators from Columinate, a consulting cooperative. Michael has worked with us for many years and knows us well — the board, the store, and our history.
This day together is always a way for us to get to know each other a bit better and also to dive deep into a topic that we decide in the months leading up to the retreat. Last year’s outcome was a new Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DEI) policy. We all felt that that was the first step in ongoing, necessary, and crucial work. During the year, exceptional in so many ways, we all read more, individually and in groups, did workshops and discussed in many different settings issues of access, race, privilege, inclusion, and justice.
We decided to continue that work at the retreat, and, in the morning, Jade helped us deepen our understanding of how our society puts people of color at a great disadvantage, from every point of view. Here are two of the questions she asked us to reflect on and discuss: Why talk about race? What makes it difficult? We watched a video titled “How the Racial Wealth Gap was Created” that analyzed Redlining, difficult to watch, and important to know and digest. She then talked with us about what she has learned about race and food coops. I, personally, learned so much not only from the stories she shared but also from the way she led the session. One sentence she said keeps resurfacing in my mind and encouraging me to stay open: “Everyone has a piece of the truth.”
In the afternoon, Michael helped us reflect on the morning session, on the past year of unlearning and re-learning and to plan for what’s next. One of the outcomes of the retreat is the realization that this is, as one of the board members described it, an iterative process, it starts and it keeps going. We, therefore, decided to create a JEDI Committee (Justice, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion) to do more research and continue discussions, and then advise and keep encouraging and shifting the Board towards more just practices. The JEDI Committee had its first meeting in early February and is being chaired by new board member Esther Thomas. As the committee un-learns and re-educates itself and brings this to the Board, the Board then supports Glenn in turning ideas into practices on the ground in the Coop.
The yearly retreat is something we all look forward to, for the space and time it provides to work “con calma,” as we say in Italian, slowly and calmly. This was our first retreat on Zoom and, despite the concerns we had and the lack of physical togetherness (and missing the Coop’s food…), it worked very well. If I can speak also for the other board members, we always come out of the retreat with a strong sense of connection and commitment, new ideas, and fresh energy.
Ilaria Brancoli Busdraghi is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member
Do YOU love your Co-op? Why not run for the Co-op’s Board of Directors? Board members are elected by our membership and play a very special role in steering our future. But, don’t take our word for it, listen to what a current Board member has to say about serving on the Board:
Consider Being a Board Member…
Election season for the Board of Directors is upon us! I am frequently asked why I choose to be a member of the Co-op board. We are all familiar with the refrain “voting with your dollars” as a shared value of conscious consumers. I choose to spend my money at the Co-op because I believe in this slogan. And, I choose to be a member of the Board of Directors because I similarly believe in the concept of “voting with your time.” Being a member of the board allows me to “spend” my time committing to democracy.
Wendell Berry writes: “No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.” In these unsettled times, participating in the democratic leadership of a cooperatively owned, local business allows me to practice living responsibly in my small part of the world. Our Co-op may seem like a small fish in the big pond of the globe—whether we buy organic, fair trade chocolate chips at the Co-op, or conventional chocolate chips from Amazon may seem dolefully inconsequential in the face of the massive social-justice issues our world faces. Participating in the democratic ownership of the Co-op, however, allows me to devote my dollars, time, and energy (the only resources I am fully in control of) to the pursuit of an alternative to our global status quo.
During our election season, I urge you to remember Wendell Berry’s concept. Your decisions and interest matter – whether you are considering running for a spot on the board, or reading up on board candidates to vote in May. Our Co-op may be small, but participating in the democratic process of our board elections allows us to practice living responsibly in our small part of the world, and thereby living fully in the world as a whole.
Board Recruiting Packets with details on the process of becoming and serving as a board member are available on the website here. Applications are due March 15, 2021. If you have any questions about running for or serving on the board, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amanda Warren is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member
When you purchase food at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op (MNFC), you support the hundreds of local producers who live in our area, and you are keeping the money in local circulation. And, as a member-owner, you own shares in this store and will receive an annual patronage refund based on your purchase history! The shares you hold represent your whole-hearted commitment to community-produced and distributed healthy foods.
Did you know you can increase another aspect of “keeping it local” by simply adjusting how you pay at checkout? In past articles I’ve written to make folks aware of this topic, I noted that MNFC paid more than $100,000, then $150,000, and then the number was close to $200,000 in annual credit card fees! The fees have been increasing each year. Last year in 2020, we paid $272,161 in credit card fees! Consider that this startling amount of money is extracted from our local community and flows to out-of-state banks. Think about what could be done locally with these funds, either through increased community supports, or improvements in customer services. While I certainly do not want to “guilt” anyone for using a credit card, there are options to consider for avoiding those fees. The use of checks or cash is one possibility, but this is not always convenient.
The easiest way to avoid the fees and using up checks or having cash on hand is to use an MNFC Gift Card for all of your Co-op purchases. This card can be obtained from any cashier, and you decide how much money you want on the card. Simply write a check for that amount, then use the gift card every time you shop. The card acts like a credit card with your money on it, but there are no fees. It is another form of “cash” and thus should be kept in a secure place. There is a number associated with each card that can be found on the back. I keep a photo of the id number of my card on my phone so it is always handy and secure. If you lose the card, the card can be deactivated if you have the number, and a cashier can look up your balance and apply it to a new card. The gift card works just like a credit card or check or cash and is linked to your coop account. The balance of the card shows up at the bottom of each receipt every time you make a purchase so you can keep track. When the balance runs low, simply write another check or use cash to load the same card with more money! I tend to reload each month, and it keeps me on my food budget! I remind you that writing a check or using cash to add money to the card is the way to go; if you use a debit or credit card, it defeats the purpose.
There are several advantages to this process:
You can budget what you believe is reasonable for you to spend at the Co-op, say for a month’s time, and keep track of your spending.
Going through the checkout line is extremely quick and efficient. The cashier scans your card, you get a receipt, and you’re done! Nothing to sign, no check to write, no numbers to punch in, no waiting for change. The cashiers like the ease of this process and you’re apt to get some unsolicited positive regard from them.
During the surge of COVID, using the gift card minimizes contact involved with using common pens, dealing with the credit card terminal, and handling cash.
Finally, remember that an MNFC gift card is a wonderful way to give anyone a present, for any occasion. An MNFC gift card can encourage someone new to the Co-op to make their first visit and can introduce long time customers to this very efficient way of paying for purchases.
Most importantly, using a Coop gift card this way eliminates the credit and debit card fees the Co-op has to pay to banks and financial. Don’t forget, debit cards have fees as well!
Once you try it, you’ll wonder why you have not done this all along. It is such a quick and convenient way to pay for your groceries, and keep your dollars local – it is truly a win-win. This is how I have paid for my MNFC shopping for the last five years, and I intend to for the next five years and more! It’s a great intention to set for the rest of 2021, I encourage you to give it a go! I think you’ll love it!
Louise Vojitisek is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member
Since 2018 New Perennials has been in residence at Middlebury College. The College and the surrounding Champlain Valley of Vermont serve as a classroom, laboratory, seed bank, and library to explore perennial thinking and action. In addition to developing courses, scholarly and curricular materials, the Middlebury Hub features engagement with community partners, crop testing at the College farm, an annual conference, and engagement with departments and programs across campus. Students and perennial practitioners come together to grow and root a network of perennial and diverse thinkers and doers.
The College hosts New Perennials Director and scholar in residence Bill Vitek, a philosopher, educator, and long-time collaborator with Wes Jackson and The Land Institute. Bill lives in Middlebury with his family, just a short walk to the Coop. See below for a Q/A to get to know Bill who is new to our community having moved here in the summer of 2019 from Potsdam, New York, where he was on the faculty and was chair of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Clarkson University.
Marc Lapin of Cornwall and I are both a part of the New Perennials team at Middlebury. Since 2018 each fall the three of us co-teach a community-connected learning course in the Environmental Studies Program called The Perennial Turn in Ag and Culture. Glenn and the Coop stepped up to be part of our experiment as one of our first community partners in the fall of 2018. Glenn worked with two students to explore what perennial means and how it applies to the Coop representing the food/ag sphere in the Champlain Valley.
Bill was delighted to help me introduce his work with New Perennials to Coop members and non-members.
Bill, we’ve been working together for nearly two and a half years. I am so grateful you’ve put down roots here and brought this timely work to Middlebury and Vermont, and to be a part of it! Tell us about your new role in residence at Middlebury?
Thanks, Nadine. What a wonderful community my family and I have moved to! And just up the street from the Co-op, a central criterion for my wife Maria while we were house hunting in 2019. It was a momentous and anxiety-filled decision to leave a job and community we loved for thirty-two years and start over again. But the opportunity to explore perennial thinking and action in and beyond agriculture, and to do it in the Champlain Valley with such talented students and socially progressive community partners, felt like the overwhelmingly right thing to do. I spend my days writing and teaching, learning more about the region, and finding connections with folks and organizations who are already working to grow more just, resilient, and joyful communities and regions.
What is Kernza and what makes it Perennial – and what do you mean by “Perennial” culture? Will we be able to buy Kernza flour at the Coop?
Kernza® is the trademark name for the grain of an intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) being developed at The Land Institute. Perennial plants can live for more than one year, and sometimes for thousands of years (think of ancient trees). Kernza roots overwinter and can grow to ten feet, and those roots sequester carbon while providing grain for human consumption. The work of The Land Institute and its more than 60 research partners spanning the globe is to replace the major grain crops (wheat, rice, corn)–all of which are annual grasses requiring annual tillage, weed suppression, irrigation, and lots of labor or fossil-powered traction–with perennial varieties and diverse mixtures of plants that mimic grassland ecosystems. It’s a slow, challenging process of breeding and testing varieties, but progress has accelerated in the past decade. Kernza flour and products made with Kernza are increasingly available to retailers and consumers. Visit https://kernza.org/ for more information.
Perennial culture, in a few words, is the collection of ancient wisdom and rhythms that were lost or intentionally destroyed as large state societies–beginning 5,000 years ago around the globe, and powered by the surplus of annual agricultural practices–overwhelmed the landscape and the multitude of cultures, languages, and farming practices. A central feature of the New Perennials project that brought me to Middlebury is to explore how a return to perennial and diverse agriculture may awaken those ancient practices, and create new ones as well.
Can you tell us about Wes Jackson and The Land Institute in just a few sentences?
I met Wes in 1990 when I invited Wendell Berry to Clarkson University to give a lecture and he turned me down. He suggested I contact Wes. It was the best rejection letter I ever received! Wes has a way of bringing people into his life’s work who span the professions and academic disciplines. I’m a philosopher and he was trained as a plant geneticist. But he’d rather talk about Dante and Darwin Alexander Pope and Alfred North Whitehead than the latest journal articles on plant breeding (though he can do that, too!). Over the years Wes and I edited two books together (he likes to say that I did all the heavy lifting and he gets half the credit; which is true!) and tried to imagine what a curriculum would look like that didn’t assume that humans were at the top and in control, and that didn’t rundown the Earth’s web of life or impoverish billions for the advantage of a few. In 2018 we partnered with a few others and received generous financial support to find out. That brought me to Middlebury and to the work that I share with you, Nadine, and Marc Lapin, and a growing team of students, colleagues, and community members. I’m so grateful to Wendell, and Wes, and all of you.
What has surprised you the most about making the Champlain Valley home, especially for 8 months after you moved in COVID-19 really changed things up?
I like to joke these days, and I wish it were funnier, that one should not pull up well-established roots and try to put them down elsewhere during a pandemic. That said, my neighbors, the co-op, the town and, well, Vermont, have all been wonderfully welcoming to life-long New Yorkers who found it difficult to put those green license plates on their car, and who still–should I admit this?–still listen to North Country Public Radio. When cashier folks ask how your day is going they seem genuinely interested in your answer. And the pace of life is both more intense and laid back if that makes sense. I love the spontaneous conversations that begin on the sidewalks of Middlebury or at the hardware store. I’ve even found some wonderful jazz musicians to play music with–Ron Brown and Bear Irwin. We call ourselves Jazz Essentials and look forward to playing out again one of these days. (Bill has been a working jazz pianist for forty years.)
Did you pick your house location because you can walk to the Coop; how many days, hours, weeks did it take you to become a member?
As I mentioned above, my wife Maria had strong feelings about wanting to be in walking distance to the Coop. At an approximate distance of 900 feet, I guess you can say we are! We were members of our Coop in Potsdam, so there was no question about joining here in Middlebury. But the process says a lot about our whole experience of moving here. Maria and I were in town on one of our many house-hunting trips and stopped in the Coop to stock up on some things before we headed back to Potsdam. While in line we were asked if we were members, and we said no, but we planned to be once we moved, etc. We then decided to just join then and there. It took a few minutes and I apologized to the customer behind us for slowing down the line. She said “Take your time. Joining the Coop is the best thing you’re going to do today.” We said we were planning to relocate, etc., and she told us her story about moving to Middlebury a decade earlier, how it was the best decision she’s ever made, and “welcome!” That experience just about sums it up.
To learn more about the work of New Perennials at Middlebury College, check out our new and emerging website, new perennials.org, where you’ll find a form to sign up to be put on our mailing list. You can learn more about Bill here.
Are Perennial Grains Organic?
Depends on who plants them and how they manage their soils, pest management, etc. The point, I think, is that perennial grains are more easily organic due to fewer needs for weed control, etc.
“No pesticides are approved for use on Kernza. The largest market for Kernza is as a certified organic crop. According to Peters, many growers are using Kernza as a transitional crop to organic.”
As we approach the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, we are reminded of connection to the seasons, to change, to death and rebirth, to darkness and light. The more I pay attention to the seasons, the more rooted I have become. The more I have embraced the seasonal darkness, the more I have welcomed the inner darkness. Solstice is a journey from the outer world to the inner world, and then after a season of darkness, we can transition outward and toward the light. What we learn internally can help us reflect on the work that is being asked to be done as a community and a country.
In the darkness, we are confronted with our fears. In confronting our fears, we learn and can be liberated, we can be reborn. Anyone who does Jungian shadow work is familiar with this. In the “Power of Vulnerability” a talk by Brene Brown, she says that we have to sit with fear as if it were a professor and learn from it. Buddhist philosophy asks us to invite it for tea. Many would agree that this past year with a pandemic and a divisive political climate has been quite dark. Many would also agree we have grown in this darkness. A seed needs darkness to sprout. A perennial needs winter to rest so it can return in the spring.
Having grown up in northern California, I considered myself a light seeker. Moving to Vermont almost a decade ago confronted me with seasons, winter, and darkness. In my first very hard winters here, an older fellow Californian told me it would take me seven winters. That felt long but oddly it was true! I remember reading somewhere that our body fully regenerates every seven years. Seven has always been a powerful number to me, as it is for many. I hadn’t understood my seventh-generation Vermonter husband’s love of winter and the seasonal shifts. They always felt hard for me. Yet somehow in my seventh winter, something clicked. It was a curious journey with a lot of exploration and support, but I got there. I discovered ways to enjoy winter, like a massive tea collection and the ritual of lighting our wood stove. I found hot baths with oil soothing. I also learned mindfulness practices and lots of vitamins that support seasonal affective disorder. I found ways to acknowledge depression and learn from it through therapy. As I cultivated wellness within, I found more energy to cultivate wellness in my family and in my community. Seasonal death guided me to internal death and rebirth.
My work at the college focuses on developing sustainability programs and cultivating wellbeing in people, places, and the planet. I think about sustainability as an interconnected system where everything and everyone matters. I heard a lecture once where a man said that wellness is at the core of social justice work. The field of sustainability used to only be focused on the environment. My work in particular is interested in the sustainability of self. How do we cultivate wellbeing within, mind, body, soul? How do we hold space for people to do that work? As a college student at Middlebury College, I wanted to “save the world”. As I got older I realized I had to save myself to save the world. So that has become my daily practice. How do I live in alignment with my soul? After that, I ask how am I living in alignment with my husband, my children, my community/my earth. It’s all a ripple effect and if I’m not okay, the rest cannot be okay. We are an undeniably interconnected system. I clearly acknowledge the privilege that comes with this. Therefore, I also continuously ask how do we create more access and more inclusion?
On this cold dark November morning, as I write about the continued darkness and the coming light, I wonder what my future self would say to me. What will life look like in 7 years? Will our country come together? Will we grow with the seasons changing? I believe that we are learning from our collective darkness. Our country is doing its shadow work. We are addressing the injustices that this country was built on. We are going through deaths and rebirths. As a Coop and board that is actively doing anti-racism work, I believe that we are working toward a more just society. It’s messy, and we will make mistakes, but we will keep doing the work. The new era is just beginning, and many folks are waking up and remembering we are stronger together. Seeds of justice and hope are being planted and cultivated in the darkness. For someone who used to fear the darkness, I now say please come in for tea and let me listen and learn.
Sophie Esser Calvi is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member
As the Movement for Black Lives has taken hold across our country, no doubt many of you, like me, have been reflecting on how we are in many ways complicit in perpetuating racism and white supremacy and are learning what we can do to uproot these systems. Your board is doing this work too, focusing on both educating ourselves and developing policies that focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This work is meant to help us track the DEI work we are currently doing, and challenge us to continue to do more and better for our Co-op.
I am proud of the work that the Co-op has been doing in this area. One example is the work our Marketing, Education & Membership (MEM) team has been doing to support local farmworkers. In collaboration with the Open Door Clinic (ODC), the MEM team was able to visit with farmworkers at five area farms. While the ODC provided flu shots, our team signed farmworkers up for the Food For All Program. The Food For All Program provides all income-eligible individuals and families in Addison County and beyond free membership to the Co-op and a 10% discount. This program is one of the ways we are meeting our goal of supporting the health and well-being of our whole community. In addition to this direct outreach, the Co-op has also been collaborating with the ODC to develop a food pre-order program for farmworkers. This program will provide an easy way for farmworkers to order cases of select products and receive the 15% case discount on top of their 10% Food for All program discount! The Co-op and ODC were excited to launch a pilot of this new offering in the spring but unfortunately had to hold off on the start due to the COVID pandemic.
An important part of dismantling racist systems is a better understanding of historical and ongoing racial inequalities. In the next six months, I, along with several of my fellow board members, am participating in the Abolitionists Challenge. This program is designed specifically for people involved in the cooperative movement to understand how we can commit to ending white supremacy in both our cooperatives and the larger society. I am excited to be learning alongside others in the Co-op sector from across the country and am hopeful we’ll be bringing back new ideas for how we can continue to push ourselves to do better here in Middlebury, and across Vermont as well.
While we have made some steps like those I’ve listed above, as I dive deeper into this learning, I am understanding that this is work we must continue to do every day, month in and month out, for decades to come. As we continue to listen and learn about the needs of our community and understand how we can be increasingly a part of dismantling the systems of oppression in our country, I am hoping you’ll join us on this journey. If you have thoughts or ideas of things our Co-op can do in this vein, please share them with us. Please feel free to email the Co-op Board or Co-op Marketing, Education, and Membership staff with your ideas and reflections.
Erin Buckwalter is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member
I have asthma. And, yet, we joke a little in our house about masking up – even as we know it is deadly serious – because we don’t enjoy wearing them. However, we do wear them because we believe in public health. I want to protect you and I do hope you will protect me. If we all mask up my immune-compromised son and 90-year old mother who are part of my family pod may be protected as well. Plus, I really don’t want to get the virus myself, I am a woman in her mid-60’s, with asthma.
“Be Mask-u-line,” I say to the men in my life. As I produce yet another version of a 3-layer cotton mask, with adjustable straps (the 7th iteration in design as I try to make a safe mask that someone can comfortably wear all day), I say, “Let me mask-u-late you.”
The fact that wearing a mask has become politicized is not new. We have been here before. Folks refused to wear masks during the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed upwards of 50 million people. The idea that personal freedoms are infringed was argued with the introduction of seat belts and numerous industrial safety modifications.
I am amazed: how can it be that, in our country, thinking about the safety of the collective has, for some, become a personal affront? Some politicians would have us think that caring about the collective smacks of “socialism” or, even worse, “communism,” rather than the golden rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It does not make sense to me.
Luckily at MNFC, mask compliance is at 99.9%. I thank you for wearing a mask, distancing, and looking out for others as well as yourself.
As a member of the MNFC Board of Directors, let me say that I am particularly grateful for your protection of our hard-working staff who are on the line as essential workers. They see hundreds of people a day as they clean, stock the shelves, help and serve you. Thank you for caring both about them and about yourself.
Here are some reminders about wearing a mask.
Everyone can wear a mask safely, regardless of age. Some folks do have underlying medical respiratory conditions that make it a little harder to breathe, but for most people wearing a mask will not impair oxygenation or ventilation. Check with your health care provider about your oxygen capacity, if need be. MNFC provides both masks and transparent face shields for our customers.
The COVID-19 virus itself is so very small and does not travel through the air alone. It hitches a ride on tiny droplets of saliva and water that are exhaled when folks cough, sneeze, sing, and yell. An N-95 mask has multiple layers of fibers that carry an electrostatic charge that helps trap the tiny particles. But N-95 masks are needed in hospitals and are not readily available. Still, there are studies that demonstrate there are several kinds of masks that effectively trap exhaled air and respiratory droplets, thus protecting people surrounding a mask wearer.
Three-layered cotton masks work. Knitted masks do not. Buffs and bandannas do not offer much protection but are better than nothing. Check out this Washington Post article on a study for more information. When masks are worn, there is a demonstrated decrease in viral transmission.
Finally, keep the Three W’s in mind to take care of yourself and others:
Wear a mask
Wash your hands
Watch your distance
We can stop the transmission of the virus if we all follow the Three W’s together!
Thank you for caring.
Kate Gridley is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member
Every New Year, I learn a new slogan for the upcoming year. As the year 2020 approached, I began to see ‘the year of clear vision’ trending.
Seven months in, I see the truth in that slogan. This year has brought to light institutional racism in a way that has captured our countries attention. This form of racism is embedded as a normal practice in our society. It has led to discrimination in the sphere of employment, housing, and education to name a few. Throughout the year, I have had to be honest with myself, reflect on my experiences, reflect on the way I chose to raise my two black identified children, and reflect on the way I engage with my community. My reflection has reaffirmed my desire to be a part of my community. I choose to do this by sharing my perspective gathered from my experiences as a young black woman, a mother, and a full-time professional – a perspective that is unique in our predominantly white population.
I am Esther Thomas, your newly appointed board member. My children and I moved to Middlebury a year ago and have fallen in love with this town and the Co-op.
Last year, I started a nationwide job search and on my list of non-negotiables, I had to find a market that would help support my whole food plant-based diet. After an initial Skype interview, I was invited to come to an on-campus interview at Middlebury College. During my stay in Middlebury, I visited the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. As I walked every aisle, I noticed my household staples such as liquid amino, nutritional yeast, vegan ice cream, and the greatest wheat-free vegan cake – I knew if offered the position I could comfortably accept.
And, here I am. Several months after becoming a Co-op member, I learned of the opportunity to possibly run to become a board member and I was thrilled. I believed it was a great way to be apart of my community and share my perspective. When a position opened mid-year I was happy to accept the invitation to join the board. As a new board member, I am still learning the ropes. I listen more than I speak but chime in when I deem necessary. It has been my pleasure and honor to serve you. I look forward to continuing my contribution.
Esther Thomas is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member
At a rally in Middlebury a few weeks ago to protest police brutality against Black people, a pick-up truck full of young men sped by the line of protesters and one leaned out the window to yell, “All lives matter!”. Maybe he thought he was being clever, but clearly it’s important to keep pointing out why Black lives matter in particular. We are seeing the many ways police target people of color— it’s nothing new, but impossible to deny with video-cams and courageous citizens filming assaults on their smartphones.
If indeed all lives matter, why do Black Americans consistently have fewer opportunities to lead long, healthy lives? And why are people of color up to five times as likely to be hospitalized or to die from COVID-19 as whites? Although injustices in the ways police and courts treat people of color compared with whites are a huge reason, many of the answers are baked into our food system. This food system has been exploiting people of color from plantation days through the present, stealing their land, and denying them access to resources, information, and markets that are open to whites.
We now know that dying from COVID-19 is much more likely for people who have diabetes, obesity, or other diet-related diseases. Diet-related diseases are more common among people of color: for example, diabetes affects 7.5% of the white population in the US, but 11.7% of Blacks, 12.5% of Latinx, and 14.7% of Native Americans. People of color have more diabetes and other diet-related diseases not because they prefer to eat less healthy food, but because healthy food is less accessible and affordable where they live.
Poverty affects the ability to buy healthy food, and people of color are more likely to live in poverty than whites. The percentage of white people in poverty in 2018 was 10.1%, but 20.8% of Blacks, 17.6% of Latinx, and 25.4% of Native Americans. Reasons include big differences in assets held by each race (part of the legacy of redlining), wage and employment discrimination, and the shockingly high rates of incarceration for Blacks and difficulties getting a job after being released. Claims for economic reparations are getting more visibility, as the US learns more about the economic disadvantages borne by people of color. Poverty affects access to education too: plenty of white people have poor diets, but their ability to get well-paying jobs and learn how to improve their health through education is greater than the opportunities open to people of color.
Finally and perhaps most perversely, people of color hold most of the lowest-paid jobs in the food system: farmworkers, food-processing workers, meatpackers, supermarket stockers, etc. These jobs have finally been recognized as “essential”, but fair compensation, protection from COVID-19, and access to healthcare and childcare haven’t followed.
Our food system doesn’t have to exploit people of color. But we’ll need to accept paying the true cost of food (and accept subsidizing more federal food assistance for people whose wages won’t cover that cost). Our expectation of cheap food makes us complicit in this exploitative system.
You may have seen the full-page ads that Tyson Foods put into the Washington Post, New York Times and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on April 26, warning “The food supply chain is breaking” and “millions of pounds of meat” will disappear from the supply chain. It’s very true that COVID-19 has hit hard in huge meat-packing plants owned by Tyson Foods, JBS and Smithfield Foods; and many were forced to close as nearly 12,000 meat-packing and food processing workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and 48 have died. Donald Trump issued an executive order to re-open closed plants soon thereafter, saying that they were “essential infrastructure”; but re-opening doesn’t depend on whether workers receive sick-time, adequate personal protective gear, health insurance or any other protection from the devastation that COVID-19 could wreak on workers and their families. Nor whether undocumented workers (estimated to make up half of meat-packing plant workers) will have at least temporary protection from deportation. Now meat-packing plants refuse to release figures on how many workers are testing positive within their plants, only saying that they will close if more than 10% of their workers get sick.
In contrast, while in Middlebury the coop has seen missed deliveries and shortages of some items, we’ve also had an abundance of good food available to us; and as of this writing, not a single worker has tested positive for COVID-19. Coops are thriving around the country now, as are subscriptions to CSAs. So what’s going on here?
First, we need to recognize the differences between an industrial food system and a more localized and relational one. Industrial food systems like the one Tyson is part of are organized to maximize profit for their stockholders; Smithfield’s CEO Ken Sullivan assured his Board that he would keep the plants open so that they could continue selling pork to China, where prices were 4-6 times higher than in the US (ironically, because another virus, SARS, which originated in a Chinese Smithfield plant, had killed such so many Chinese pigs that prices swooped up). And indeed, now that Smithfield has re-opened the Sioux Falls, ND, plant that was the first epicenter for COVID-19 cases, sales to China have soared even as some parts of the US still have meat shortages.
Our Coop does not operate for maximum profits, and that’s one reason prices we charge are sometimes higher than prices for the same or similar items sold through supermarkets. The Coop tries to sell at fair prices that allow our employees to get decent wages and benefits, compensate farmers fairly for their time, and allow them enough to give their workers decent wages, and provide for community needs such as pantries.
Second, remember that Smithfield pork sausage and Tyson chicken are not essential to health and well-being. The idea that these plants are essential infrastructure is ludicrous. That makes the fact that so much of the agricultural bailout for COVID-19 is being scooped up by the biggest farms and businesses even more disgusting: small-scale farmers are hardly seeing any relief for their loss of business. While most families are getting checks of merely $1200 plus $500 per child, the largest farmers can now get up to $250,000 per person from the new Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, with farm corporations receiving up to $750,000. Contracts for the poorly-conceived food boxes that USDA plans to distribute to food banks are likewise going to big companies like Borden. And none of the money ear-marked for COVID-19 relief is going to farmworkers, including the people keeping most Vermont dairies going. The money from USDA would be far better spent boosting SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) so that people can buy what they need. SNAP isn’t perfect, but it’s the best social safety net we have.
Third, the producers, processors and packers who serve the coop are mostly small and medium-scale. We know many of them personally and we can visit their farms or businesses to see what they do. They don’t pack workers in tight quarters where they are almost guaranteed to get sick or tell them to use hairnets as face-masks (as Smithfield did). Similarly, our meat suppliers aren’t using industrial-scale confined-animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where animals easily transmit diseases because they are packed into unhealthy spaces. Our Coop seeks out ethical suppliers who aren’t trying to short-cut labor and environmental laws.
And finally, it’s the small-scale and local food systems that have been able to adapt most successfully to COVID-19. They are the most resilient food systems. Industrial systems still haven’t been able to shift, months after COVID first emerged. Resilience is hugely important. This pandemic is not the last crisis our food system will face; pandemics are increasingly likely, given the ways that wildlife habitat is being destroyed and how we live today. Climate change will create more crises. Do we want to rely on our local farms as much as possible, or do we want to put our faith with the John Tysons and the Ken Sullivans? As meat-packing workers have realized painfully, “they don’t care about us”.
Local farms aren’t the whole answer: even the coop can only source 37% of our food locally and local farms can’t provide many of the things we like, such as bananas, coffee and chocolate. With good legislation that gets more land into profitable farms, we could raise the potential for food production considerably in Vermont. That said, the most pragmatic upper limit for local and regional food is about 75%, since we don’t have the capacity to grow enough grain here.
The Coop cares deeply for all customers, as well as its producers. As member-owners your continued support will make a difference in how well the coop can show that care: Dan Barber from Stonefield Farms in New York recently surveyed small-scale farmers and 1/3 of them said they anticipated being bankrupt by the end of this year. While small-scale farms are ramping up production, labor is hard to find and they are worried customers will switch back to the cheapest food sources as soon as they can.
We don’t need cheaper food in the United States, we need laws and regulations that ensure a social safety net of reliable, healthy food for everyone (SNAP is a start, but woefully underfunded) and opportunities for decent work. The coop business model is one of the best alternatives for a food business that demonstrates care for producers and eaters alike.
Molly Anderson is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member