board news

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.

 

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

Working Toward Dismantling Racist Systems

As the Movement for Black Lives has taken hold across our country, no doubt many of you, like me, have been reflecting on how we are in many ways complicit in perpetuating racism and white supremacy and are learning what we can do to uproot these systems. Your board is doing this work too, focusing on both educating ourselves and developing policies that focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This work is meant to help us track the DEI work we are currently doing, and challenge us to continue to do more and better for our Co-op.

I am proud of the work that the Co-op has been doing in this area. One example is the work our Marketing, Education & Membership (MEM) team has been doing to support local farmworkers. In collaboration with the Open Door Clinic (ODC), the MEM team was able to visit with farmworkers at five area farms. While the ODC provided flu shots, our team signed farmworkers up for the Food For All Program. The Food For All Program provides all income-eligible individuals and families in Addison County and beyond free membership to the Co-op and a 10% discount. This program is one of the ways we are meeting our goal of supporting the health and well-being of our whole community. In addition to this direct outreach, the Co-op has also been collaborating with the ODC to develop a food pre-order program for farmworkers. This program will provide an easy way for farmworkers to order cases of select products and receive the 15% case discount on top of their 10% Food for All program discount! The Co-op and ODC were excited to launch a pilot of this new offering in the spring but unfortunately had to hold off on the start due to the COVID pandemic.

An important part of dismantling racist systems is a better understanding of historical and ongoing racial inequalities. In the next six months, I, along with several of my fellow board members, am participating in the Abolitionists Challenge. This program is designed specifically for people involved in the cooperative movement to understand how we can commit to ending white supremacy in both our cooperatives and the larger society. I am excited to be learning alongside others in the Co-op sector from across the country and am hopeful we’ll be bringing back new ideas for how we can continue to push ourselves to do better here in Middlebury, and across Vermont as well.

While we have made some steps like those I’ve listed above, as I dive deeper into this learning, I am understanding that this is work we must continue to do every day, month in and month out, for decades to come. As we continue to listen and learn about the needs of our community and understand how we can be increasingly a part of dismantling the systems of oppression in our country, I am hoping you’ll join us on this journey. If you have thoughts or ideas of things our Co-op can do in this vein, please share them with us.  Please feel free to email the Co-op Board or Co-op Marketing, Education, and Membership staff with your ideas and reflections.

Erin Buckwalter is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member

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)

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