It’s Board Election season here at the Co-op! Feeling confused about the election? Check out these answers to three of the most commonly asked questions:
I don’t know a lot about the Co-op…should I still vote?
Yes! You don’t need to have any prior experience or expertise to vote. If you’ve been inside the store, then you have the experience needed to vote.
We recommend you look for candidates who demonstrate a commitment to strategic leadership—leadership that supports the best interests of our Co-op as a whole.
Why should I vote?
It’s very rare that you have the opportunity to make decisions about the leadership of a business, particularly one that plays such a significant role in our daily lives, such as a grocery store. When you vote, you have a direct impact on our community and local economy.
We literally own our co-op grocery store together, as member-owners. Big-name grocery stores are owned by shareholders that do not live in our community–profits from these stores are extracted from communities.
MNFC is different because we own the Co-op together–profits recirculate in our community, and all decisions are made locally by the Board of Directors and the Co-op Management Team.
Does my vote matter?
YES! Our elections are frequently very close races. Directors are often elected by a margin of only a few votes, and we occasionally have ties that result in run-off elections. Your vote really, truly matters!
Many thanks for your time! Please reach out if you have any questions.
On January 28th, the Board of Directors of the Coop met for a day-long retreat. Greg Prescott, General Manager of the MNFC, and Michael Healy a facilitator from Columinate, a cooperative that consults and supports cooperatives, joined us. Michael has worked with us since 2004 and knows MNFC well.
Over the course of the year, a lot of our time as a board is taken up by our Policy Governance work. We monitor the monthly reports of the General Manager in light of the Coop’s Policies and Ends:
Vibrant Local Economy
Environmentally Sustainable and Energy Efficient Practices
Co-operative Democratic Ownership
Learning About These Values
We also discuss issues that we have identified as priorities. Over the last three years, for example, we have focused on JEDI work (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion), a topic that we recognized as a pressing and crucial concern at our retreat in January 2020.
As Michael Healy wrote in his report, this year’s goals were:
Build a common understanding of the board’s and the General Manager’s roles in a strategic planning process, and make a plan for beginning that work;
Identify the board’s priority work for the next 12 to 18 months; and
enjoy each other’s company and build our sense of community and cooperation.
After two years of holding our retreats on Zoom, it was a real joy and relief to be physically in each other’s presence, in the welcoming meeting room of the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society. To mark the return to in-person retreats, we decided to hold a potluck lunch, to share a meal together; the culinary results were magnificent.
We started our day by sharing personal stories connected to an object that each one of us had brought. Then, helped by the presence and knowledge of Michael, we worked first in small groups and then all together to identify the priorities for the coming year(s):
Board recruitment, onboarding, and retention
Ongoing JEDI work
Board-General Manager relationship
Our next step will be to turn this list into actionable items and to make space for them in our monthly work.
I always leave these retreats wishing that we had had more time to be together and brainstorm. For me, a rewarding aspect of our meetings is that they present the opportunity to connect more, both on a personal level and as a Board. The presence of Greg, our new General Manager, also makes a difference: the ongoing conversation with him is integral to our considerations because it helps us not get lost in abstract (albeit very interesting) discussions. It also reminds us that it is the work in the store (by our awesome staff) that allows us to be ambitious in our thinking, and allows the Coop to have the impact it has on the community.
Ilaria Brancoli Busdraghi is the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Secretary
Even though spring feels far away now, we are currently gearing up for our annual board elections and recruiting member-owners to run for the four seats up for election this year. As Board Development Chair, my aim is to share with all of our member-owners more about how our board works, what we do, and what to do if you’re interested in running for one of the board seats.
The board is composed of 11 members who are elected to serve three-year terms. In May 2023, four positions will be up for election. With three board members stepping off the board, we anticipate welcoming at least three new board members this year! The board is currently made up of member-owners who live all over Addison County and who have been co-op members for all different lengths of time. We have a blend of backgrounds including teachers and professors, farmers and gardeners, community engagement specialists, financial professionals, artists, parents, and nonprofit directors. This diversity of backgrounds and skills makes our board stronger. Further, we all have in common a passion for the Co-op and our democratic principles.
You may wonder: what does the board even do? The board has three primary roles: 1) to represent the 6,000+ member-owners of the Co-op, 2) to oversee and support General Manager, and 3) to provide strategic and financial oversight for the Co-op. Board members craft and monitor policies that ensure our Co-op is meeting our mission and our ends. As you may know, last year the Co-op underwent a big leadership transition, with Glenn Lower retiring and Greg Prescott starting as our new General Manager. Your board is focused more than ever on maintaining our Co-op’s financial strength and community focus and continuing the smooth transition of leadership.
Each year, we are committed to recruiting new board members to bring fresh voices and diverse perspectives to our team. Institutional knowledge from longer-serving board members and fresh perspectives from newer board members are equally valuable. Our board strives to be actively anti-racist and inclusive. We welcome participation from community members who share a commitment to anti-oppression work. The board is made up of community members who bring a variety of personal and professional experiences. No board member is expected to be an expert or to represent anything other than their own experience.
I am currently in the first year of my second term on the board and I really enjoy serving on the board. My professional job with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont is focused on building a food system that centers people and our planet, and I’m so grateful for the work the Co-op does to bring this vision to reality locally. I am honored to participate in the democratic processes of our Co-op and am excited to be able to support others in keeping more dollars and decisions local!
There are several opportunities to learn more this month!
We are holding a drop-in Zoom Q&A session for prospective board members on Tuesday, February 7th from 7-8 pm. Join current board members and MNFC’s General Manager, Greg, to learn about the board’s unique governing style and ask questions about the board’s responsibilities. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by February 7th at noon to receive the Zoom link.
Community members are always welcome to attend board meetings. Our next board meeting is on Wednesday, February 15th from 6:30-8:30 pm. If you’d like to attend, please contact our Board President, Amanda Warren, in advance: email@example.com.
From 5:30-6:30 pm on February 15th, we’ll also be having an in-person meet and greet before our board meeting. Please RSVP by noon on February 14th if you’d like to attend – firstname.lastname@example.org.
Of course, we’re happy to connect with you outside of these meetings too! If you are interested in learning more, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me or any of the other board members —we always love to hear from our fellow member-owners.
Erin Buckwalter is Chair of the Board’s Board Development Committee.
“98% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than animal milk mozzarella!” boasts the advertisements for a new variety of vegan cheese I was recently excited to try. A product that is energy efficient, meets my dietary needs (gluten and dairy free), and tastes delicious? A win-win situation! But as I add it to my basket, I always feel conflicted. This cashew-based cheese is certainly not local. What is the true environmental and social impact of this product that is not boasted on the label?
So what is a Co-op shopper to do? The truth is, there is no one way to eat. We all have to make informed compromises every time we fill our shopping carts.
Sometimes I feel like there’s nothing left to eat that doesn’t conflict with at least one of my environmental, social, or dietary criteria. I recognize that statement isn’t true–choosing my foods through these criteria is something I’m able to do because I have the privilege of food security. And yet still, as a conscious consumer who also has dietary restrictions, I am often perplexed by the balancing act of feeding my family. The paradox of choice–a malady of the privileged–sneaks into my consciousness each time I grocery shop.
People have been telling me how to eat for most of my life. Since I was diagnosed with a digestive disease at the age of 10, I’ve had people tell me everything from: “What you eat has no impact on your condition,” to people telling me to eat a highly limited diet. At different points, I’ve been told not to eat: dairy, gluten, all grains, sugar, peanuts, chocolate, onions, garlic, all raw vegetables, tropical fruit, and more. I’ve also had people tell me I could cure my condition without western medicine if I simply ate: beans at every meal and mostly cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage. Or if I just ate a lot of coconut oil. The list goes on. It’s exhausting.
But my choices about what I eat go beyond myself. I believe that grocery shopping can be a radical act. I can use my dollars to support businesses–such as our Co-op–that make a difference in the world as a mission-based retail organization.
I am grateful that the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op strives to meet a variety of people’s needs, wants, and perceptions of the world. The Co-op’s job is to provide a range of foods that meet the organization’s buying criteria, and also serve the Co-op’s Mission and Ends statement. Within that framework, the rest is up to us as shoppers to make our informed compromises–all of which are unique from other shoppers.
To be honest, I’ve continued to buy the vegan cheese even though in some ways it represents a personal tension for me, and a tension between two of the Co-op’s Ends: “vibrant local economy” and “environmentally sustainable and energy efficient practices.” I’m curious: how do you, as member-owners, navigate this tightrope? Is there one End that resonates with you more deeply than another and drives your decisions? I’d love to know: email@example.com
Amanda Warren is our Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board President
The Coop board has been actively engaged in justice, equity, inclusion, and diversity (JEDI) learning during the past five-plus years. Our learning has taken place through workshops, training, book group discussions, board retreats, and participation in the NFCA DEI Community of Practice group. In 2020, the board decided to form a JEDI Committee and appoint a committee chairperson to ensure the continuation of this important work.
I have observed and experienced that JEDI learning takes place on both a group and individual level. This is the beauty of the experience for me. Each board member brings a unique perspective that has been influenced by their own cultural and familial experiences since birth. These experiences have informed our individual sense of identity and how we perceive the world around us. My own learning and self-awareness have been greatly enhanced by the richness of multiple perspectives.
My JEDI learning curve has been steep, and I don’t imagine it will end anytime soon. My learning journey began in a community meeting shortly after Charles Murray visited Middlebury College in 2017. This was the first time I heard the term “white supremacy” used to describe organizations and institutions. I honestly didn’t understand the reference and asked for clarity. The response I received was “figured it out yourself.” I share this experience because it was a learning moment for me despite the feeling of shame of not knowing. A participant at the meeting shared an article about structural racism with me and the invisible became visible.
In 2018, I had an opportunity to participate in an implicit bias workshop in Boston. We were a diverse group of participants which made my workshop experience especially meaningful and memorable. We engaged in an activity called “The Privilege Walk.” Our group of 40 participants formed a straight line across the room and were asked a series of questions. If we answered “yes” we took one step forward and if we answered “no” we took one step back. After the activity, we were asked to look around and share what we observed. The front and middle portions of the room were populated predominantly with white people and the back of the room was predominantly populated with people of color. This was my introduction to the term “white privilege.” This term is defined as the unearned set of advantages, entitlements, and benefits granted specifically to white people over other racial groups. Another eye-opening learning moment for me, my understanding of privilege was expanded in a way that increased my self-awareness about the advantages that I have experienced because I was born in a white body.
There has been lots of research and much written about bias. I have learned that every human brain has biases that allow us to use prior knowledge and experiences to inform our decisions and actions in the present moment and that biases can be conscious or unconscious. Implicit biases are unconscious attitudes and social stereotypes informed by culture, media, and our individual upbringing that occur automatically and unintentionally. Implicit biases affect judgment and decisions and are often incompatible with one’s conscious values.
A few years ago, I had two experiences close together where I became aware of my own implicit bias about how I unconsciously defined the meaning of the word “spouse.” In each experience, I made a quick and unconscious assumption about the sexual preference of the person I was speaking with when they referred to their partner as “spouse.” I apologized immediately and was met with the kind words, “it is ok.” But my judgment and behavior were not ok and out of alignment with a conscious value that I hold. I am grateful for these experiences because they revealed a form of implicit bias that I held that was harmful and outside my conscious awareness.
The Coop board recently met for a full-day JEDI retreat to continue our discussion about bias and structural oppression. When we began this training several months ago, the facilitator mentioned that our work together would be hard and painful. So true, and at the same time, it has been illuminating. I am grateful for the many opportunities that I’ve had to learn in the community and I attribute my personal growth to the many learning moments that felt exceedingly uncomfortable and shifted my perspective in meaningful ways.
Lynn Dunton is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.