board news

It’s Patronage Dividends Time of Year – Just What Is This??

As explained on the Co-op’s website, “Patronage dividends are a traditional way for Co-ops to share profits back with their members. As Member-owners of the Co-op, you also own the profits, and a patronage dividend system allows us to share and reinvest those profits in a transparent, mutually beneficial way.”

The annual patronage dividend refund system is four years old.  This year, the Co-op Board of Directors voted unanimously to refund members 50% of the total patronage.  Last year’s refund was 40%. For a variety of reasons, General Manager Glenn Lower suggested we increase the refund to 50% for this year.  By early July, if a member-owners’ patronage dividend is more than $5.00, they will receive this refund in the mail.  Patronage dividends less than $5.00 will be combined and donated to the local food shelf.  Glenn and staff determined that pooling these small patronage dividends to make a meaningful donation in honor of these members was a better use of Co-op resources (time, paper, ink, postage) that would be expended to send these small checks through the mail.

Many of you have received these dividends in past years and wondered why and how this system works.  Member-owners receive a share of the profits from Co-op business in proportion to how much they purchased during the Co-op’s fiscal year (April 1 – March 31).  The more you shop, the more you are eligible to earn.  At the end of the fiscal year, if the Co-op is profitable, we as a Board of Directors review any anticipated projects and financial needs for the Co-op. We then use that information to determine how much of the profits to retain, and how much to give back to member-owners.  The amount retained stays in the Co-op, but please note, it belongs to the member-owners as a group and becomes part of what we own together as an investment in community ownership. The remaining profits are then returned by check or voucher to the member-owners. Law requires that at least 20% of patronage be returned to member-owners.

Nearly 80% of all sales this past year were to current member-owners! The return to each member-owner is slightly less than 1% of their purchases for the year. An estimate of the break down is below:

  • If a member spent $10/week=$4.70 will be donated to the food shelf
  • If a member spent $25/week=$11.74 in the patronage check
  • If a member spent $50/week=$23.48 in the patronage check
  • If a member spent $100/week=$46.95 in the patronage check
  • If a member spent $200/week=$93.91 in the patronage check

With 5,880 current member-owners, 3,717 members will receive a check for $5.00 or more, and the remaining patronage for the 2,163 members with a refund below $5.00 will be pooled for that donation to the food shelf. 

For more information about patronage, please see Your 2019 Patronage Dividends Check Explained

Sophie Esser Calvi is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member

Co-op Elections Process

It’s May! Spring is in the air! The flowers have bloomed after the April rains; people are planting gardens and opening windows for the first time. Of all the traditions and changes that come with May, though, I’m most excited about voting for my board directors at the Middlebury Coop!  While voting happens in May, the recruiting process happens throughout the year. Members of the Board Development Committee (BDC) typically start meeting with potential board members as early as November for the next year. As your board, we are always thinking about the future of the organization, and part of that is exploring who might be a good board member in the future. (Hey you- yes you- reading this- have you ever considered running for the board?)

This year the Board had a more formal “board recruitment/election” process starting in January. We started by inviting anyone interested in running for the board to come to an “Eat and Greet” conversation with current board members. There were three Eat and Greet sessions so members could come and learn about the board process, check out a board packet, and begin to wrap their mind around policy governance.  Policy governance is the formal set of rules the board abides by to make sure the coop is running smoothly. To be sure everyone interested had a chance to learn more about the board, we also set up a few sessions of tabling at the demo counter. We talked with dozens of potential new board directors!

The process to run for the board includes filling out an “application” that includes a short list of questions and meeting with a board member. The awesome staff at the coop compile the application Q/As into a ballot, which is sent out via snail mail as part of the Annual Report to all members. If you haven’t already received your ballot in the mail you will soon. This year we ended up with a slate of five candidates running for three seats on the board. If taking part in the most glorious tradition of democracy isn’t enough reason to vote, the ballot is also a coupon for $3 off your next shopping trip to the coop!

As you read through your ballot and consider your possible future board directors, consider this too: We will hold elections every May!  Do you think you would be a good candidate for the board? Come to a board meeting, or connect with one of us. We are always ready to have a conversation with you!

And as you ponder that, GO VOTE!

R.J. Adler is a Middlebury Co-op Board Member

RJ Adler ( Incumbent)

Rising to the Call of Spring…Hope and Renewal

I think about culture and meaning all the time.  It’s pretty much at the root of my life’s work.  As a Board Member of the Co-op and chair of our Communications Committee, I tap into those roots to consider how we as an organization strive to provide healthy living options to nourish our community’s bodies and souls.  Spring fills me with light – and it’s not just the longer days, it’s because we all rise up to greet each other with a little more energy and a little more warmth.   To me, it comes down to these smallest interactions, human to human, living being to living being. 

Of late I have been considering how we come to know the meaning of our place, our responsibilities, our safe havens.  How do we as a community open to love and acceptance, and inclusivity?  I am so proud of what I see happening all around me.  I see so many of us leaning towards hope and doing our best to avoid being trapped by the manufactured cynicism and fear that dominate what Donella Meadows called” the information sphere”.

As a Co-op, our culture is all about interdependence.  Member-owners rely upon the sound business practices of our management team and board of directors to bring us healthy choices because after all “food is the most important pharmaceutical we have,” according to neuroscientist Richard Davidson in a recent On Being Interview.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”   Dr. King’s “we” refers to humans, but what if adjust the meaning of “we” to be inclusive of all living beings?   I am truly grateful for the local families and individuals who farm in Vermont braving the elements and uncertainties to bring us local meats, vegetables, fruits, and even some grains.  What if we thanked not only the growers of our food, but the food itself for nourishing us as Robin Wall Kimmerer points out is done in her native traditions.

And this month brings us spring in the lunar calendar – the well of hope to be replenished.  It’s a reward for getting through the darkest hours in the northern hemisphere.  The days are getting longer, the sugar maple’s sap is rising from the root to sweeten our lives.  I am so very grateful for this time of year where I can stand up tall, reach for the sky and plant my feet deep into the ground – so that my sap can rise with that of our fellow being, the Sugar Maple Tree.

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

Our Food Waste Practices – Keeping Up with Our Ends and Meeting the New Law

As my hero Jim Henson anthropomorphized through his alter ego Kermit, “It’s not easy being green.”  That is unless you are the Co-op with a staff, management team and board who aim to be “green” every day.  This means having systems and practices in place that nourish and protect our bodies and the earth.  Not an easy thing to do when you are a business that deals in perishables and foods with shelf lives. I was fortunate to work with 16 Middlebury College seniors this past fall in the Environmental Studies Community-Engaged Practicum (ES401).  We studied Climate Change and Solid Waste in Vermont and beyond by evaluating the goals and impacts of implementing Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law (ACT 148).  Much of this article borrows from the research these students conducted.

Act 148 was passed in 2012 to increase diversion rates of solid waste into recycling programs keeping recyclables and organic materials out of landfills.  Aside from being difficult to site, landfills are also some of the largest sources of greenhouse gases. The law requires that Vermonters divert all compost and recycling from landfills.  The law prioritizes alternative food waste options, encouraging donation, composting, feeding livestock and converting to energy with the goal of re-conceptualizing how we manage and think about food waste – it as a resource, not waste.  The restructuring of the waste system through Act 148 is being implemented in stages. Initially, the law applied only to large producers of waste, but smaller producers are being phased in year by year, requiring proper sorting of trash, recyclables, and compostables down to the household level.

Our Co-op will need to be in compliance with Act 148 by July 2020.  As I looked into how we are preparing for this new law, it turns out we are way ahead of the game.  You see, in 2017 we donated perfectly good food (12,619 pounds to be precise) that we could not sell to the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO).  And, that is not all –  food that cannot be donated goes to compost. This compost is primarily picked up by area pig and poultry farmers, but we also have Casella check once a week for any remaining compost unclaimed by farmers.  We generate approximately 82,125 lbs/year of post-consumer scraps as compost which come mostly from the Produce department, the deli kitchen, some from Bulk, and also from the compost bin near the cafe where customers deposit their lunch scraps. All recyclables and food scraps produced and disposed of by the Co-op are already being properly sorted and leave our site free of cross-contamination between trash, recycling, and food scraps.

On a larger scale, the diversion of food scraps from landfills is important in reducing the methane emissions produced by Vermont. The environmental impact of food waste is of a high magnitude; “if global food waste was a country, its carbon footprint would rank third, behind only China and the U.S.” (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2013).  Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the decomposition of organic wastes such as food scraps in landfills are a contributing factor to climate change. In landfills, the decomposition of food, the single largest component of municipal solid waste reaching our landfills in the United States, accounts for 23% of all methane production in the country (Gunders, 2012). The anaerobic decomposition that happens when organic materials are placed into landfills produces the methane, a greenhouse gas with an effect approximately 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide (CalRecycle, 2013). Their organic nature and high moisture content cause food scraps to decompose faster than other material in the landfills. As a result of the rapid decomposition, the methane is often released before landfills are capped, directly releasing it into the atmosphere without any opportunity for capture (Gunders, 2012). Diverting the materials that are a primary source of methane production would work to reduce the harmful environmental effects of the landfills.

Perhaps Kermit (aka Jim Henson) didn’t quite have it right – we can look to the leadership of the Co-op and say it can be “easy being green.”

Please note the primary source for much of this article appears in:  “Middlebury Union High School Food Waste Recovery Initiative Final Report.” Middlebury College Environmental Studies Program, ENVS0401B, Fall 2017.

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

Are We Embracing the Entire Community?

Many cooperative grocery stores across the country are asking themselves whether they are embracing the entire community they serve. This is an especially important question for food cooperatives to explore because of their guiding values of democracy, equity, and equality. I am pleased to report that the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board stepped into this conversation at a recent monthly meeting and is committed to figuring out what we can do better to support our cooperative values of inclusion and accessibility.

For me, attempting to answer this question feels a bit daunting because my perspective is limited by my life experience. As a self-identified white woman and member of the dominant culture, I only know what I know. I need more information! Fortunately, the organizations that support food cooperatives (National Cooperative Grocers & Cooperative Development Services) have begun tackling this question and are sharing what they have gleaned thus far. Here is what I learned:

  • Many of the “new wave” food cooperatives have reached their 40-year anniversary. Middlebury Coop just celebrated this milestone!
  • In most food cooperatives across the county, nearly everyone involved, from board members, staff, management, and customer base is white.
  • Many people agree that racism is a societal problem yet they are challenged to recognize how long-held beliefs and biases could be informing individual and organizational values.
  • Being able to “see” outside dominant culture requires personal dedication to understanding how white supremacy works as a system that keeps people divided and oppressed.
  • Transforming organizations and institutions takes everyone’s participation.
  • Attempting to have meaningful and genuine conversations about race in food cooperatives will be challenging.

What I was surprised to learn is that the lack of diversity at our Co-op may not be just about the demographics of Addison County. I imagine that examining and assessing the organizational culture at the Middlebury Food Coop may be more challenging because of our demographics, but we have much to learn from other food coops in our small state and across the nation. The challenge for me personally is how to unearth/ recognize my biases and to “see” outside the dominant culture that I live and work in. I am eager to hear how others perceive/experience the Middlebury Food Co-op and to expand my perspective so that I can more fully engage in conversations about race and food cooperatives from a more informed place.

Please share your thoughts:  board@middleburycoop.com

Lynn Dunton is a member of the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board of Directors

Do Food Co-operatives Have a Role in the Era of Big Organic?

Most of the grocery world from giants like Kroger and Walmart to community-owned food coops and privately held natural food stores are trying to anticipate and prepare for the effects of the Amazon purchase of Whole Foods Markets. The Amazon purchase is one of many examples of increasing centralization of the organic and natural food system that includes producers, distributors and especially retailers.

The Whole Foods purchase brought to mind a book I recently read titled Organizing Organic. The author, Michael A. Haedicke, recounts the history of organics in the food economy.  From my vantage point (I was born the same year Paul Keene started Walnut Acres one of the first commercial organic farms) many of the people interviewed for the book were familiar to me and several were Vermonters.  Haedicke believes that from its beginnings as a movement (to counter “conventional” agriculture) after World War II organic agriculture contained both a transformative sector and expansionary sector. The transformative sector held decentralization, social justice, and local control as core values. While the expansionary sector also held these values it also saw the expansion of organics to larger markets as key to a successful movement.  As I read Haedicke’s analysis, he suggests that organic food market expansion through consolidation, centralization, and efficiency has become the primary driver in the organic sector and transformation relegated to the sidelines.  Haedicke interviewed several administrators of large organic retailers. Consistently they expressed the rationale that bigger meant more organic food which created more organic farms. What could be bad about that?  Haedicke doesn’t come to any conclusion as to the good or bad coming from the primacy of expansionism. What I have seen is that big organic can cut some prices for consumers and get more product to more places. But I have questions: What are the social costs of consolidation and centralization? Can the consumer cooperative movement expand organic (and local) and retain the commitment to community?

Haedicke also came to the conclusion that consumer food cooperatives attempted to balance transformative values and expansionary competition better than any other sector of organics. Why did this happen? Many of the “third wave” (MNFC is one of them) of consumer cooperatives originated with the blossoming of the organic movement in the 1970’s. Their values mirrored the values of the transformative sector of organic agriculture. Another possible reason is in the very structure of consumer cooperatives. Consumer cooperatives are “enterprises owned by consumers and managed democratically which aim at fulfilling the needs and aspirations of their members. They operate within the market system, independently of the state, as a form of mutual aid, oriented toward service rather than pecuniary profit”. To me, the phrases “managed democratically” and “oriented to service” most clearly differentiates cooperative food stores from big organic retailers.

In today’s world of increasing “big” organic (either large corporations or the state as in China) and centralization of power, operating within the market system and at the same time being oriented to service rather than profit is a quite a challenge. Our member-owners, as those of most consumer cooperatives, have differing needs and aspirations.

How does a democratically managed cooperative integrate those needs and aspirations into a market economy business? One key way is by member/owner participation. Participation can be running for the Board of Directors of the cooperative or choosing to vote in the election for directors. It can take the form of voting for policy (as in the case of the MNFC member/owners voting in favor of patronage dividends two years ago).  It can be sharing viewpoints with Directors at a Board meeting or in community forums like our Co-op Conversations that predated the expansion. It can be putting suggestions in the suggestion box in the store or talking with friends and neighbors about co-op issues. It certainly can be shopping at the store as those everyday decisions affect the products we carry.

So my answer to the question “do food cooperatives have a role in the era of big organic” is rather a request. Continue to participate and we will all help to arrive at the answer.

Jay Leshinsky is a long-serving member of our Board of Directors

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