a word from the board

Considering Supply Chains

Until recently, many of us never thought about supply chains… but suddenly we’re seeing empty shelves in markets again and getting worried.  Supplies of rental cars in some cities are so low that renting a car will cost more than your airline ticket, and some schools are having so much trouble securing food for students that they are discontinuing lunch service.  Even at the Co-op, we’re seeing empty shelves and can’t find goods that are usually in stock.  What’s behind the difficulties, and why are they happening now?

The large-scale issue is that the pandemic revealed the unsustainability of just-in-time manufacturing systems and persistent inequities in labor— including low wages and poor working conditions.  Labor shortages upstream have impeded the delivery of products to the end-user (us), and a glitch in the system can cascade down to affect many products and supply chains.  The food system hasn’t been designed with buffers that would help overcome shortages.  All incentives for business point toward keeping just enough stock on hand to deal with current demand, to avoid costs of storage.

During the pandemic, people shifted from buying services (including restaurant meals) to buying goods.  Thus demand increased, especially for imported goods; but freight deliveries backed up because there aren’t enough workers to load containers or drive and unload trucks.  In some cases, it’s an issue of wages that aren’t high enough to hold workers on the job; but workers also get called out to take care of kids who are sick or quarantined, and anybody with a respiratory illness has to quarantine until results come back from COVID tests.

What does this mean for us and our Co-op?  First, department managers haven’t been able to order the quantities of food they normally would.  The number of cases of product that can be ordered from our major supplier has been cut down to about 70% of pre-pandemic levels.  Then when deliveries arrive, we often discover that something ordered wasn’t available or can’t be supplied in the quantity ordered.  Special orders were discontinued because they cut into the case limit but only served individual member-owners.  This management decision was made to try to serve as many customers as possible.

What can you do, as a member-owner?  Not much!  This is a problem that needs to be worked out at the food distribution system level.  That will happen eventually, although the experts tell us that problems are likely to last through 2022.  President Biden recently ordered Los Angeles docks to begin working 24/7 to relieve the bottleneck of freight that is waiting to unload.  But California’s dock bottlenecks are just part of the problem with the supply chain.  And of course, with vaccine apartheid* continuing (which increases the risk of new and more deadly variants of COVID emerging), there’s no guarantee of a return to “normal”.   What we can do is be patient and recognize that Co-op staff are working hard to try to meet your needs.  And remember that all food supply chains rest on a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem.  So, protect pollinators in your yards and don’t cut down trees!  Pollinators are endangered, and trees are sequestering carbon.

*what the U.S. is doing with vaccines is just like food apartheid or racial apartheid.  Wealthy nations are gobbling up the vaccines and now moving to booster shots, while poor black and brown nations are less than 5% vaccinated.

Molly Anderson is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member

The Leaves They Are A Changin’

 

When I returned to Vermont as an adult it was “seasons” that I was most excited about, those regular markers to break a year with change.  Though my childhood self would completely disagree, spring and fall are now my favorites because they are nothing but change.  Their transitory nature can make them seem fleeting and all too quick, but it is that same nature that gives them a sense of movement, of things, happening.  It is incredible to see how quickly the static green buzz of summer can become crisp and swirling fall.   Each year I look forward to seeing those changes in the landscape.  There is a tree on my commute that I watch for each fall, trying to catch the exact day that it finally and completely is so orange it glows.

Autumn in particular also makes me think about other kinds of changes in our community.  In the kitchen I work in we have gone from 40 employees to about 7, an example of what basically all restaurants are experiencing.  We have seen the end of construction on Main Street, changes to our school district, stores close, and new ones open.  And while many facets of this have been difficult, I think (and hope) that as a group we are getting really good at adaptation.

Another change I think about is my transition onto the MNFC board this past June.  Almost immediately my appreciation for our local Co-op was deepened as I saw the hard work and serious thought that staff and board members give to the behind-the-scenes work of stewarding this community resource.  

Another big change is Glenn’s announcement to transition away from General Manager.  I, like many others, have a hard time imagining the Co-op without Glenn physically in the building.  He is just always there in my mind, in the way that as a kid you can’t imagine your teacher anywhere but physically in the school, even during breaks. 

But just like watching that one tree turn a perfect, blazing orange can be exciting, so too are the transitions around us.  What can we bring to our thriving Co-op with a new manager?  How can we get better at adapting to the next big change? What group of people can we assemble to make a new team?  I have no idea, but I’m excited to find out.

Samantha Langevin is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member

First Steps

I started on the board during a pivotal time in our nation, having my first zoom training with Glenn & Kate in June 2020.

In the same month, George Floyd was murdered. It brought light to a flame that is still burning—the Black Lives Matter movement. The world watched as a man screamed for life, his mother. and uttered his last words: “I can’t breathe”. Those 9 mins and 29 seconds caught on video shook the country, awakening awareness in some, and a reminder to others.

Some of us took to the streets to protest, others got more involved in their community, many just continued the work they were already doing, some ignored, and others remained numb. In our community, flames were caught. As a board, we began to discuss Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion–JEDI–as it related to the Co-op. 

As we mapped out what it would look like, the board decided to create a committee that would lead the charge. In March of this year, I became Chair of the Justice Equity Diversity Inclusion (JEDI) Committee for the Middlebury Natural Foods Cooperative. Since becoming chair, I observed the committee’s eagerness and desire to act and came up with a plan. Seeing this eagerness, I took a step back and reflected. I wrestled internally as I asked myself how we can “be the change” in this new space. How do we move the focus from deliverables and concrete results to regrouping and starting inward? Can we do this alone? Do we need facilitators? How do we create a safe space so we can process & be honest? Where do we begin?  

Thus, I heard the call – we began inward. This included a mix of activities that allowed us to work on our own biases hidden in plain sight. Our refocus became a process of unlearning together, learning together, sharing together, creating a safe space, to be honest, and process together.  

As a committee, we continue to connect, build trust, and reflect. Our first step was a retreat this June where we created a safe space for everyone to reflect on their own privilege and experiences. As the facilitator, I lead by inviting everyone to be present, talk about their own privilege and fears around this work through a series of activities.

This is just the very beginning; we know this is the work of lifetimes to repattern and know ourselves first.  We are invested in doing the work for ourselves, as a board, staff, and the Co-op. What will it look like years from now?  We have no clue, but we are committed to showing up together to keep taking that first step over and over to do the work.

Esther Thomas is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member

What Does It Mean To Be A Member-Owner?

Are you a member? Do you have a co-op card? Are you a member-owner? Can I use my mom’s membership? What about my partner’s membership? Can I serve on the board if someone in my household is a member-owner? These are all questions that circle around on a daily basis, and as a board we recently discussed that there can be confusion on what it actually means—both literally and symbolically—to be a member-owner of the Middlebury Natural Foods Cooperative.

The confusion I see most often (and I’ll admit is what I also got confused about before joining the board!) is: who exactly is a member-owner? A member-owner is an individual. Although the benefits of being a member-owner, such as the physical co-op card, the weekly Member Deals in the store, and Co-op Connection discounts, extend to the member-owner’s household, a member-owner is one person only. This one person holds equity in the co-op in the form of the annual $20 membership payment, which accrues up to $300 in share purchases, at which point they have purchased a full share. This investment is also fully returnable if an individual decides to end their membership at the co-op for any reason. 

While individuals within the member-owner’s household receive the discounts and benefits, the member-owner themselves is the only person who can vote on essential issues and elections. A member-owner can sell their shares to another when they join households; however, that individual is giving up their vote. For this reason, many individuals in long-term partnerships ultimately decide to keep their shares so both members of the household can vote. Furthermore, the person who is technically the shareholder in the household is the only one who can serve on the board. 

Although it may seem simply like semantics, the term “member-owner” is enormously significant. Being a member is so much more than the discounts. As the MNFC website states: “Co-op membership is co-op ownership!” Unlike having a frequent buyer’s card at a pharmacy, or a membership to a gym, being a member-owner of the co-op means you own part of the business. 

Each year, if the co-op has been profitable, member-owners receive a portion of the profits directly back. This is called the “patronage dividend” and member-owners receive these checks in July. Although it may seem like a mouthful, the term “member-owner” is what the co-op’s staff and board members use both because it is the most accurate, and because it reflects such an important sentiment. As a member-owner, you literally own the store and are part of a community of friends and owners. By being a member-owner of the co-op you are voting with your dollars and making a statement about the importance of community-owned businesses. 

So is it worth it to be a member-owner? I’ve often seen people calculate how much they would need to spend at the co-op to “pay back” their membership fees through their patronage dividend. This is certainly an important question; however, it does not represent the full picture of what it means to be a member-owner. For me, voting with my dollars, and spending my money investing in a local and cooperatively owned business is a deeply meaningful use of my money.

Amanda Warren is the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board President

Talking with Megan Brakelely at The Knoll at Middlebury College.

Walking the TAM from either direction to The Knoll at Middlebury College is an other-worldly experience. From one direction the path meanders along open fields and through a little magical forest filled with fairies. From the other side, the path winds alongside another type of current (pun intended) day magic – large flat square objects that follow the sun transforming sunlight into electricity to support the renewable power portfolio of Middlebury College.  Once upon The Knoll the Labyrinth and Dalai Lama rock beckon the visitor to slow down and just be, surrounded by the vast perennial, vegetable, and flower beds. 

The Knoll is tended by Middlebury College students under the guidance of Megan Brakeley and other Middlebury staff.  Megan brings a great vibe and deep experience with farming to her tending of The Knoll similar to her predecessor Jay Leshinsky balancing and harmonizing the needs of non-human living beings with human living beings.  Megan graduated from Middlebury College in 2006 with a degree in Spanish and a minor in Environmental Studies. After seven years of learning from her students and the land through teaching and farming after graduation, Megan pursued a Masters of Environmental Management from the Yale School of the Environment.

I’ve known Megan since her days in the Center for Community Engagement at Middlebury, and have been witness to what she calls one of her superpowers, “navigating and advocating for different kinds of spaces.”   Whether you are a silphium (The Land Institute’s perennial sunflower) in need of some ground to call home, a student finding your “place” at Middlebury, or you are seeking an organizer with deep knowledge of sustainable farming who is calm and centered (Megan is on the Organizing Squad VT Releaf Collectively) you will not regret knowing Megan. 

As a mentor for students and a mentee of many others as she expands her connection to the BIPOC farming community in Vermont, she feels fortunate that Jay worked alongside her as she transitioned to running The Knoll. Megan brings a great laugh, a huge smile, and a deep knowing that is instantly comforting.  While many of us at the Coop know Jay from his many years on our Board of Directors, serving as president, Megan has been grateful for his stewardship at The Knoll.  The Knoll was founded by students just a couple of years ahead of Megan at Middlebury who also benefited from Jay’s wisdom.  “Jay is someone who holds experiences and lets them soften him.  He has a gentleness with others, is always curious, generous, generative, and creates space for others,” Megan reflected. Jay and Megan shared stories and tea during early morning meetings at the Wilson Cafe on campus during the transition. Jay shared the origin story of the Knoll with Megan at that time, which emerged from many voices and many hands to come into the shape it is today.

One of the things Megan brings to her work, and to these uncertain and even chaotic times, is curiosity about leadership.  What does it look like to support sustainable farming practices in Vermont – in the BIPOC community beyond her Middlebury College work?  How are these spaces held, how are they re-claimed?  Megan is stepping into her own as a leader, accomplice, and amplifier as she considers the current state of the world and her place in it.  She works for the shift believing in the work required to change the dominant power structures to create access, equity, and inclusion. “Leadership, representation, fresh ideas, and familiarity with reimagining and thinking outside existing hegemonies matters,” Megan observes. “What does it mean to ‘center voices’ in a holistic way where we also acknowledge past harm, work toward making amends, and do the real reparative work to actively resource the people who can transform and guide this work?”  These are ideas and actions the Board’s recently formed Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) committee is addressing.

And, how does all that relate to growing food in the role of the educator? Megan brings her questions and her insights “growing food means becoming intimate with multiple intelligences, seeds, dirt, weather, tending.  How can we as a community feed and nourish each other? What does it mean to be free and in service to each other and the land?”   

Recent good news is that the summer intern program will be back this summer at The Knoll where students collectively work the land taking the blank garden spaces and choosing as a group the story the land will share during a 16-week space.  “Working with natural systems is always an adventure, we work hard, are thoughtful, do our best, and then roll with what comes each summer,” Megan said.

Nadine Canter Barnicle is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member and a member of our Communications and Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committees.

 

 

Behind the Scenes

Every business has a team of people working behind the scenes and the Coop is no exception. As Board Treasurer I would like to shine a light on the Finance Department and team members: Steve Koch, Grace Sauerwald, and Kerry Dashnaw and thank them for all their good work behind the scenes…especially during the pandemic.

A transition is underway this month in the Finance Department and I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank Steve Koch, Finance Manager of the Coop. For the past 17 years, Steve has successfully led and managed the Finance Department and will be retiring in June 2021. Much change has taken place during this time. When Steve began working in 2004, the Coop had 1,580 member-owners, 32 staff members, gross sales of $4.2 million, and 3,000 square feet of retail space. Moving to the present moment, the Coop has 5,456 member-owners, 91 staff members, gross sales of $19.6 million, and 9,000 square feet of retail space. Did you notice that I express change in numbers? This was intentional because these types of changes have a direct and seismic impact on the Finance Department. More people, products, and data to track. In addition to the daily work of the office, Steve managed two rounds of member loans ($400,00 in 2004 and $1 million in 2017) and tracked construction costs for the new store and store expansions (large and small) over the years. No easy feat!

I have had the unique opportunity to work closely and collaboratively with Steve during the past six years in my role as the Board Treasurer. Steve’s deep historic and financial knowledge of the Coop has been a gift and supported the work that I do on behalf of the Coop Board. As an accountant myself, I am grateful for his attention to detail, his ability to converse articulately about complex financial matters, and most importantly his integrity that he brings to all his work. Steve, please know that you will be missed.

On behalf of the Board thank you for all the work you have done to leave the Coop in a strong financial position, and we wish you all the best as you step into the next chapter of your beautiful life. Have fun sailing, paddling, and working in your woodshop!

Lynn Dunton is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op board member.

Who and How your Board Serves YOU

Our co-op stands out nationally. Financially, MNFC is notably robust. We are also lucky to have a general manager who has won national awards. Additionally, unlike many co-ops who struggle to recruit and retain board members, our board of directors is remarkably stable and there are consistently more candidates who run than available seats. As Board Development Chair, I’d like to share how our board approaches this unique quality of our co-op. 

As a board, we are constantly balancing two distinct needs: 1) authentic representation of the member-owners and 2) consistent leadership to support the general manager. Often, these two needs can feel at odds. We are committed to recruiting new board members to make sure we have fresh voices bringing diverse perspectives to the board room. We are also committed to supporting our general manager–our number one job as a board–and to achieve this, the institutional knowledge and unique skills that come from serving multiple terms on the board are invaluable. 

We have discussed term limits for board members and gained insight from our peer co-op boards that do and do not have term limits. Historically, the MNFC board has voted against term limits for two main reasons. First, we have seen organic, steady turnover of the board as a result of the democratic process. In the last five years, there have been six new members out of eleven total seats and every year has resulted in at least one new member joining the board. Second, we are aware of the perils of losing a key board member without a skilled successor–treasurer, or president for example–simply because their term is up. 

Diversity and inclusion are central to our work as a board. The board needs to feel like an open and inclusive space for all member-owners, and the diversity amongst member-owners needs to be represented in board seats. Beginning in 2019, we enhanced our recruitment process and expanded opportunities for prospective candidates to learn about the board. Moving forward, we will begin this process even earlier in the year, and provide mid-year opportunities for candidates to explore the opportunity to sit on the board. 

We want to hear from you. As a board, what can we do to improve this unique balancing act? Let us know: board@middlebury.coop 

Amanda Warren is Chair of the Board’s Board Development Committee.

 

Unlearning and Re-learning – Engaging with Justice, Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity

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

Just Two Weeks Left To Submit YOUR Application for the Co-op Board!

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 board@middleburycoop.com.  

Amanda Warren is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member

 

 

 

Check Out Faster and Keep Your Dollars

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 Vojtisek is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member

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