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Feeling Our Feelings About Climate Change

I don’t know about you, but I hate talking about climate change. When I hear a story on the radio about the latest record-breaking severe weather event, I want to plug my ears. Or when I read a news article summarizing the most recent dire scientific report, my eyes glaze over. I think to myself, “Yes, we already know. Everything is very bad and getting worse.” 

Can we take a moment to acknowledge that climate change just sucks

It’s a wrenching, intractable situation that feels crappy to even think about. Most of the time, I just don’t. But it’s not going away—and neither are my feelings about it.

I’m twenty-six. I’ve known about climate change for as long as I can remember, back when we called it global warming, and worried mostly about distant polar bears and coral reefs. I don’t recall when it changed from feeling like an alarming possibility to an unfortunate inevitability, but it has never felt acceptable to me. 

Growing up, I felt frustrated, indignant, and confounded as to how we could have gotten into this mess. Then in college, as I learned about the economic, industrial, and political systems that have driven the climate crisis, I got angry. I channeled my anger into a burst of climate activism—meetings, marches, protests—that never seemed to lead anywhere. 

And now? Honestly, I feel stuck. I don’t like feeling angry. The emotion and the activism didn’t sustain me. I’ve been told and I believe there’s a role for everyone in this struggle, but I haven’t found mine quite yet. 

I suspect that’s true for a lot of us.

Most of us aren’t activists or scientists who spend our days thinking about what the world is facing. Nor are we national leaders or corporate CEOs who have the responsibility and power to make major policy changes to address it. So where does that leave us?

You may notice I’m asking more questions than offering answers, but I’ll start here: I think we need to get real about our feelings. 

It’s the responsibility of our age to tackle the climate crisis head-on; to do everything we can to slow, reverse, mitigate, and adapt to it. But we can’t do any of that if we’re stuck feeling total despair or numbly ignoring it all. 

How I feel on a given day doesn’t really affect how changeable the situation is or is not. Except that it does. Our emotional state affects what we feel capable of doing—and therefore what we are capable of doing. 

While we continue taking everyday steps, as we’re able—voting for reps that take the problem seriously, voicing our support for needed policies, switching to renewables and energy-efficient everything—climate change keeps raging on. As we are bombarded with crisis after crisis, losses large and small, how are we going to keep our heads above water, emotionally? 

Acknowledging and accepting, for one. Not knowing about a problem doesn’t make it go away, just as knowing about it doesn’t make it any worse than before we were aware. I’m practicing bearing witness more and looking away less. 

Grief, despair, and anger are all appropriate responses to what’s happening to our world and our fellow human and non-human beings. Rather than stuffing those emotions down, I’m working on noticing, accepting, and really feeling each of these emotions as they come so that I can move through them. Recently, this has looked like taking time to process between listening to episodes of a podcast series about the origins of the climate crisis. I’m letting myself curse when the host points out something infuriating and allowing tears to bubble up at the heart-wrenching narratives of loss. Rather than forcing myself to listen to the next episode, then getting overwhelmed and giving up, I’m returning when I have the bandwidth to be present with the feelings it brings up.

And next? Let’s create and embrace the cultural transformations this moment demands. Taking climate action includes changing the way we live our lives. Many of the fundamental changes we need—resisting consumerism and rejecting the right of corporations to extract profit at any cost—aren’t fun or convenient. But I believe we have a lot to gain by having the courage to face the emotions and embrace the change!

Can we embrace real connections with each other by carpooling or taking public transit and accept the inconvenience?  Delight at the beauty we see when we take life at the pace of a walk or bike ride? Take satisfaction in buying used clothes, and making them last as long as possible? Accept the joys of giving and receiving by sharing tools, vehicles, homes, land? The nourishment of growing food and sharing it with others? 

It’s easy to feel that if I’m not participating in political activism or putting up solar panels, I’m not being part of the solution. That couldn’t be further from the truth. This thing is too big and far-reaching for anyone to be left out. I love the model put forward by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson to help everyone find their personal path to climate action. She says to ponder three questions: What brings me joy? What am I good at? What needs to be done? Each of our unique roles can be found at the intersection of the answer to those three questions.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information, see Climate Action Venn Diagrams.

I feel excitement and joy when I envision a world that has “solved” climate change, and my role in it. What I see is not just solar panels, heat pumps, and electric cars. It’s also thriving people who care for and are deeply connected to each other and the landscape. How about you?

I recently came across an interview with scholar, writer, and activist Mike Davis, who said: “I don’t think that people fight or stay the course because of hope, I think people do it out of love and anger.” Anger doesn’t sustain me. Hope comes and goes, depending on the day. But love? I think we all have experience acting out of love. And it sure does feel good.

This article first appeared in the Addison County Independent on September 15, 2022, as part of the Climate Matters: Perspectives on Change weekly column.

Ollie Cultrara works at two local farms and serves on the board of the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. They are beginning a Master’s in Leadership for Sustainability at the University of Vermont this fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Climate Matters: Our Agriculture Must Be Transformed for Survival

By now, most people have seen headlines from the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): This is our “do-or-die” moment. Nations need to collectively reduce their planet-warming emissions by roughly 43% by 2030 and stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere altogether by the early 2050s to avoid escalating catastrophic weather events. The U.S., the world’s second-greatest emitter of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate chaos, isn’t even close to being on track to get emissions into a safe zone. The Inflation Reduction Act will help somewhat, but we still have a long way to go and we’re running out of time.  The way we produce and consume food, especially the industrialized food system, which is highly developed in the U.S., is responsible for up to 37% of greenhouse gases; and climate chaos will wreak havoc in Vermont as elsewhere.

Agriculture and food-related businesses (from restaurants to supermarkets to composting) make a big contribution to Vermont’s livelihoods. Before COVID, about 65,000 Vermonters made their living from farms and food businesses. In New England, 219,000 jobs are indirectly a result of food system activity, at a total value of $71 billion. Food production in Vermont is concentrated on dairy, which accounts for approximately 70% of the state’s agricultural sales, uses over 80% of its working land, and helps to maintain our open landscapes. Beef and dairy cattle, however, along with pigs and other farm animals, contribute roughly 27% of methane emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA. Methane is relatively short-lived in the atmosphere, but it is over 25 times more potent at warming the planet than carbon dioxide. In addition to methane, manure applied to fields releases nitrous oxide, an even more powerful planet-warming gas; and additional emissions result from the production of fertilizer and running farm equipment.

The World Wildlife Fund claims that farmers must reduce their production of meat and dairy by a third in the next 10 years if scientific advice on limiting greenhouse gas emissions is to be met. Northern Ireland is already calling for a reduction of 1 million cattle and sheep to meet net-zero climate goals. But in the short term, if conventional Vermont dairy farmers reduce their herds, they move even closer to the bankruptcy cliff; and some argue that dairy production in other states will simply increase to compensate. On the consumer side, increasing numbers of people advocate for “plant-forward” diets, in which meat rarely if ever appears, or vegan diets that eschew meat altogether; and we now know that the production of beans, vegetables, and nuts emit less than half the greenhouse gases of animal products (with beef the biggest emitter). How can we make sense of this? What is a responsible path forward for producers AND consumers?

Producers face very difficult choices because their profit margins are so slim. Report after report tells us that agroecology or “ecological agriculture” that mimics nature, integrates cropping and livestock, incorporates agroforestry, and builds soil fertility is the best path forward. Agroecology is superior to the “climate-smart agriculture” touted by the U.S. government because it is also concerned with farmers’ livelihoods, good nutrition, restoring crop diversity and biodiversity, and building community well-being through investing in local and regional food systems. Yet agroecology is almost unknown in the U.S., although many of the practices that it encourages, such as organic agriculture, agroforestry, and rotational grazing on pasture, are growing in popularity and have strong environmental benefits. Scaled-up, agroecology would bring even more environmental and social advantages.

We would all benefit from more diversified agriculture in Vermont — diversification that will allow us to meet our fruit, nut, and vegetable consumption almost completely from Vermont products — as well as continuing to produce the meat and milk we consume. We ought to reduce red meat consumption substantially for health reasons and switch to pasture-raised meat. Dairy cows bred to beef bulls are a promising way to get better quality beef and diversify dairy farmers’ income. But the surest way to diversify is to make land, technical support, and financial support available to farmers who commit to using agroecology. Most young farmers are excited about its potential, while they are turned off by the prospects of conventional dairy farming. How about making farmland available to dairy farmworkers or other migrants who are fleeing regions made uninhabitable by climate disasters, lack of jobs, or conflict? Many migrants have farming backgrounds and are eager to contribute to their new homes. Food can help to knit together cultures as disparate as Somali Bantu and Yankee, as the Little Jubba Agrarian Common in Maine has discovered.

Climate chaos is a systemic problem that won’t be solved by individual actions. Shifting the responsibility to people who continue eating meat or don’t drive electric vehicles (yet) or haven’t replaced incandescent light bulbs with LEDs is an industry cop-out. These actions are all good, of course, but they aren’t nearly enough. The first thing that needs to happen is to stop drilling for oil and gas, stop pipelines and stop investing in extraction. This requires a big policy shift, based on the recognition that immediate change is essential for survival. It also requires major investments in reducing our need for energy (such as weatherizing and green roofs); subsidizing renewable energy (wind, solar and small-scale hydro in Vermont); and the infrastructure needed to live with renewables (free electric public transportation, standardized charging stations).

The food system also must re-orient to producing healthy food as locally as possible and paying its true cost, making sure everyone can access it by guaranteeing a livable wage to workers and an adequate safety net for children and others who can’t work, and protecting environmental quality so that future generations will have good food and a healthy environment. To accomplish this, we must wrest control from food industries so that farmers and communities can once again have real choices, decent prices for what is produced, and sound nutritional advice.

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Molly Anderson is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Food Studies at Middlebury College, where she teaches and directs the Food Studies Program. She lives in Middlebury and serves on the Middlebury Natural Foods Coop Board and the Middlebury Conservation Commission. She is interested in food system transformation toward healthier, more just, and environmentally sustainable options.

Information and Its Roots Matter

This article first appeared in the Addison County Independent on March 3, 2022, as part of the Climate Matters: Perspectives on Change weekly column.  As the Communications Committee Chair for our Board of Directors, I organize the monthly contributions from our board members for the monthly e-newsletter.   Three of our current directors are writing for the Climate Matters column:  myself, Molly Anderson, and Samantha Langevin.  We intend to share these columns with you, our member-owners, to bring together the values and urgency of climate justice with those of social and food justice, and to show the deep alignment with our Ends:  “The Co-op exists to help our member-owners, customers and the community benefit from Healthy Foods; Vibrant Local Economy; Environmentally Sustainable & Energy Efficient Practices; Cooperative Democratic Ownership; and Learning About These Values.”

Information and its roots matter

By Nadine Canter

While it took me less than a minute to say yes to contributing to Climate Matters: Perspectives on Change, I am a reluctant columnist. I accepted this assignment because it is time. Time to share and attempt a similar path bravely taken by one of the greatest systems thinkers of our time, Donella Meadows (1941-2001).

Meadows resigned a professorship at MIT to become a newspaper columnist after a career in academia where she was notoriously famous for co-authoring the study and 1972 book, The Limits to Growth. The science behind The Limits to Growth showed that there was approximately 30 years left before planetary resources would be depleted. These results were based on data created from groundbreaking computer modeling at MIT generated by Meadow and colleagues in the early 1970s. While 30 years proved not to be a precise timeline, the conclusion— that a global economy based on the extraction of natural resources is unsustainable—is inarguable today. Then, critics in the scientific community of Meadows and her colleagues’ work attempted to discredit and vigorously challenge the results of the research.

For those of us still toiling to bring awareness to the same systemic problems, it is notable that Meadows and her colleagues were struck by the same curse we still wrestle with, the Cassandra Dilemma. The Cassandra Dilemma is the state of being a person whose valid warnings or concerns are disbelieved by others. The term originates in Greek mythology where the story goes that when Apollo was lovestruck by Cassandra, a daughter of the King of Troy, he gave her the gift of prophecy. When she didn’t return the feelings, Apollo placed a curse on her such that no one believed her predictions and warnings of future events. Environmentalist Alan Atkinsson wrote a 1999 book about this curse on the environmental movement.

The experience of being discredited forever changed Meadows. She lost faith in the Academy and saw the wielding of power in a whole new light. In time, she turned to where she believed she could have influence: she called it the Informationsphere.  She writes:  “A society that refuses to consider the idea that there are limits to growth is not going to bring forth a physical economy that fits within the constraints of the planet. A society that thinks there is an ‘away’ to throw things is going to find itself choking on its own waste. People who do not see nature as the support base for all life, including their own, will destroy nature and eventually themselves.” 

Thus, she launched a new direction for her life’s work by writing a syndicated newspaper column (and to note, she also founded an institute focused on sustainability). She created and shared 15 tenets to address cultural realities and constraints that prevent the human species from acknowledging patterns and practices that must be overcome or suffer the consequences. I devoured her column, which was published in newspapers from 1986 until her untimely death in 2001. I live and work by a similar tenet: we humans need to look carefully at our patterns and choices in order to stop depleting our natural resources through our extractive practices that poison us as we transform those resources into energy (food, fossil fuels, and so on) and material goods.  We are insatiable—driven by our consumptive ways that are ruled by a cultural story of scarcity.  In no way do I claim to be free of this same lifestyle.

In my 30-plus years of studying, practicing, and teaching about environmental issues in the context of the Information sphere, my interdisciplinary social science training (I have two degrees in Communications studying the social impact of mass media aka the Informationsphere) is rooted in the following: we obtain our stories (information) from many sources (aka modes) and the stories themselves come in codes with multiple meanings encoded by a creator and decoded by a receiver. Meanings emerge from contexts we typically cannot see, but that we co-create as our dominant social paradigm. This culture—the water in which we swim—forms and holds our worldviews. In most cases, it is manufactured for us by the same people/institutions who wish to extract our attention and sell it, as if our attention and money are infinite resources. They are not.

I am a reluctant columnist. I don’t want you to know my name. Does it really matter what I think? I want you to know and understand what you think about climate change and social justice, as one cannot happen without the other. I want you to know how to make sense of what you hear, read, and ultimately feel. I want you to be able to see the patterns and places where you personally feel empowered to make a change that is neither disruptive nor scary. I want you to be aware of your own power—including the power of the pen, the power of the purse, and the power of community—ideas I’ll address in future columns.  I want you to know that it is OK to follow and lead. That either/or is an expression of fear and limitation, and that both/and should roll off your tongue multiple times each day to support your ideas and visions, your neighbors’ ideas and visions, your personal expansion, and your capacity to love and experience pleasure.

Nadine Canter is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member

A Community Grows with Good Soil: Appreciating Our Staff

I recently took a trip to Northern California, and while there, I went to the North Coast Co-op in Arcata.  It’s a big store, which makes sense for a co-op with around 16,000 members.  As I wandered around produce and bulk, thinking about the dinner I was going to make, I kept thinking about how quiet the store was.  I noticed several customers talking to each other (FYI, a guy named James is about to quit working somewhere, and while it is too bad that he is leaving, the details are too juicy to share in public) and staff talking to staff (which apples to stock?  Did you get to the bananas?) but there were very few conversations between staff and customers.  Now, Middlebury and Arcata have similar energy and comparable politics and values.  Both are college towns that also rely on tourist dollars for their economies, and both are places with a similar emphasis on supporting local agriculture.  Employees in each store are polite and helpful and each space fills an important role in providing food. But this bigger store in a bigger city felt…different.  Why?  It can’t just be a question of scale, though that certainly factors in.  I’ve been pondering this question since I returned home, and the more I think about it, the more I come back to the staff at the MNFC.  It’s a store I’ve always thought has excellent customer service. Perhaps that customer service isn’t just about promoting the business, or increasing sales, but is also about building community. 

Shopping at the Arcata co-op has made me reflect on how I interact with our co-op staff, and how much we rely on the staff in our co-op to build the sense of community that we identify with the MNFC.  I can think of someone in almost every department that I know.  Some of those people I only know from the co-op, it is the only place we interact or see each other.  And I think that shows how important the MNFC staff are to building and maintaining our community.  It also is a good reminder for us member-owners on how we should treat co-op staff.  After all, there are 6000+ of us and 100 or so of them.  Think about those numbers the next time a cashier doesn’t need your member card because they have memorized your last name.

We’ve all heard stories of particularly heinous behavior towards people in the service and hospitality industries.  Employees of airlines, restaurants, hotels, and yes, grocery stores, are bearing the brunt of society’s frustration and anxiety over the last few years.  So I offer a challenge to anyone who is reading this.  On a future trip to the MNFC, tell a staff person something you appreciate about their work.  Or ask their name and say hello. Or strike up a short conversation.  Anything to help return that sense of community that they are preserving for all of us. 

As for the Co-op in California, maybe if I was there on a different day or time, or if I actually lived there, I would have experienced something different. I can admit that my observations could be totally false. But that doesn’t make my observations about our own co-op any less true.  People idolize small towns and describe the experience of going to a shop or store and being greeted by name as one of the perks of small-town life. Let’s celebrate that, and the reverse as well – going into your local grocery store and knowing the names of the people who know yours.

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

In Memory of Louise Vojtisek, a Reminder to Pay with a Co-op Gift Card!

It is with an immensely heavy heart that I share the news that Louise Vojtisek, MNFC member-owner for 20 years, and Board member for 10 years passed away this winter. 

Louise was nothing short of essential and inspirational in her many years on the board. Louise was always first to volunteer for any task or committee, and she served as board secretary for many years. In her last term, Louise was a founding member of our JEDI Committee (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) and she went above and beyond to extend this work through a monthly meeting connecting with representatives from other Co-ops. 

Personally, although I only had the privilege of knowing her for six years, she made a big impact. I will never forget nervously arriving at the annual meeting after being elected for my first term, and immediately being swooped up into Louise’s warmth. “I voted for you!” she said as she marched up to me and brought me into the fold. Just a year later, after my first child was born, Louise knew that I had no family close by or formal childcare, and she offered to help out. Louise will always be remembered by my family because she was the first person I ever left my first baby with as I rushed off for a work meeting. 

Passionate doesn’t adequately describe her commitment to our Co-op and local agricultural community. One of her most well-known contributions was the fervor with which she spoke about credit card fees. Outraged that over $200,000 leave our local economy yearly because of credit card fees at the Co-op, she wrote numerous articles, spoke at the annual meeting, and told everyone at her favorite Otter Creek Yoga class about the many benefits of using an MNFC gift card in lieu of a credit card. Because of this passion, we are re-running one of Louise’s articles in her honor. I know that I will never look at a Co-op gift card without remembering Louise Vojtisek.

– Amanda Warren, MNFC Board President.

From Louise’ original blogpost in 2021:

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 support, 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 was a long-time Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member.  She will be missed.

Who and How your Board Serves YOU

Our co-op stands out nationally. Financially, MNFC is notably robust.  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 keyboard 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.

 

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

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

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.