Every business has a team of people working behind the scenes and the Coop is no exception. As Board Treasurer I would like to shine a light on the Finance Department and team members: Steve Koch, Grace Sauerwald, and Kerry Dashnaw and thank them for all their good work behind the scenes…especially during the pandemic.
A transition is underway this month in the Finance Department and I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank Steve Koch, Finance Manager of the Coop. For the past 17 years, Steve has successfully led and managed the Finance Department and will be retiring in June 2021. Much change has taken place during this time. When Steve began working in 2004, the Coop had 1,580 member-owners, 32 staff members, gross sales of $4.2 million, and 3,000 square feet of retail space. Moving to the present moment, the Coop has 5,456 member-owners, 91 staff members, gross sales of $19.6 million, and 9,000 square feet of retail space. Did you notice that I express change in numbers? This was intentional because these types of changes have a direct and seismic impact on the Finance Department. More people, products, and data to track. In addition to the daily work of the office, Steve managed two rounds of member loans ($400,00 in 2004 and $1 million in 2017) and tracked construction costs for the new store and store expansions (large and small) over the years. No easy feat!
I have had the unique opportunity to work closely and collaboratively with Steve during the past six years in my role as the Board Treasurer. Steve’s deep historic and financial knowledge of the Coop has been a gift and supported the work that I do on behalf of the Coop Board. As an accountant myself, I am grateful for his attention to detail, his ability to converse articulately about complex financial matters, and most importantly his integrity that he brings to all his work. Steve, please know that you will be missed.
On behalf of the Board thank you for all the work you have done to leave the Coop in a strong financial position, and we wish you all the best as you step into the next chapter of your beautiful life. Have fun sailing, paddling, and working in your woodshop!
Lynn Dunton is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op board member.
As I look at the myriad bills presented across the country right now designed to limit access to voting – and as I remember with horror the January 6 insurrection at our nation’s Capitol by folks refusing to believe the results of the November 2020 election – I find a glimmer of hope in how we practice democracy at MNFC.
What IS democracy? Many of us believe this is our ability to cast a vote. The history of our country is partially a tale of who has had the right to vote, how, and when. Years ago, I painted the posthumous portrait of Marilla Ricker (1840-1920) for the New Hampshire statehouse in Concord. A young widow, with property and means who paid taxes, she was not allowed to vote because she was a woman. She is known to have said, “This is taxation without representation!” at her little town hall in Dover, NH. She walked in every year to try to cast her vote. A freethinker, she spent her life as a suffragist and also became the first woman lawyer in NH, as well as one of the first women in the nation to argue a case before the US Supreme Court. She died in 1920, just after the first election in which women were allowed to vote; it’s not known whether she was physically able to get to the polls to cast her vote.
We know intuitively that an active and healthy democracy is much more than voting, however. True participation has preconditions: the freedom to express one’s opinion, and the opportunity for active participation in the conversations and arguments around the issues and candidates for whom we cast votes. Howard Zinn describes democracy as more than a series of votes: it is a series of actions. We also know that the process by which we select our leaders matters.
At MNFC, collectively owned by US, we are our member-owners. We are our democracy. our participation, our care, our questions, the flow of ideas as we develop policy and make decisions, all of this is integral to the cooperative model. Our board meetings are open to the public. I speak for the board when I say, we welcome all questions and concerns.
All member-owners have opportunities to engage and participate in conversations about our values. I dream that the ways the coop model practices democracy could serve as a model for our country: no gerrymandering, no electoral college, fewer regulations on when and how to vote, no ID laws, no disenfranchising voters based on their color, race, or identity, no long lines because of closed polling places.
Every spring, member-owners are invited and encouraged to participate in our annual May election. For the most part, the May election is exclusively focused on Board of Director elections. Each year one-third of the board is up for re-election and new candidates are encouraged to run through an extensive outreach process.
This year there is a record number of candidates (12) for the four open seats on the Coop’s board of directors. Of the 12 candidates, four are incumbents, all of whom served as we collectively navigated the stormy seas of the pandemic and resulting economy. Eight candidates are community members: farmers, producers, educators, coaches, health providers – each a member-owner of our vital organization — with a variety of perspectives and life experiences.
A board candidate does not need to be wealthy or “connected” to run. They simply need to be a member-owner, interested in the mission of MNFC, and open to exploring how the board of directors functions before choosing to run.
As a member-owner, we get to choose the design of our board of directors. Does the board reflect our community? Are there folks with skill sets (finance, legal, communications/ marketing/education, health, agriculture) that enhance the board’s intelligence? Is the board balanced by gender, race, socioeconomic status, and age?
And May right now is our election month. Each member-owner votes for board candidates and access to voting lasts all month long – electronically – see below for more details. Watch your regular mail for our annual report that includes the ballots with all the candidates’ profiles and instructions for casting your vote.
To vote, you need to be a member-owner. In my household of two, I am the member-owner. If my husband wishes to vote, then he needs to become a member-owner as well.
If you have any issues with the electronic interface – such as no computer or Wi-Fi connection — please bring your ballot into the Coop with you on a shopping day and a staff member will help you go online to cast your vote in the store.
I relish the notion that we are member-owners of MNFC voting with our minds and hearts, not simply consumers voting with dollars. Thank you for being part of the conversation.
If you have any questions, or want to know more about any of the candidates, please don’t hesitate to contact Amanda at firstname.lastname@example.org
We will announce the winners at this year’s Annual Meeting, held remotely on June 2, at 6:30 pm. Click HERE to find out more.
If you are a member-owner, and would like more information about how to vote in this year’s Board of Directors Election, please click HERE to find out more.
Kate Gridley is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member
As we approach the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, we are reminded of connection to the seasons, to change, to death and rebirth, to darkness and light. The more I pay attention to the seasons, the more rooted I have become. The more I have embraced the seasonal darkness, the more I have welcomed the inner darkness. Solstice is a journey from the outer world to the inner world, and then after a season of darkness, we can transition outward and toward the light. What we learn internally can help us reflect on the work that is being asked to be done as a community and a country.
In the darkness, we are confronted with our fears. In confronting our fears, we learn and can be liberated, we can be reborn. Anyone who does Jungian shadow work is familiar with this. In the “Power of Vulnerability” a talk by Brene Brown, she says that we have to sit with fear as if it were a professor and learn from it. Buddhist philosophy asks us to invite it for tea. Many would agree that this past year with a pandemic and a divisive political climate has been quite dark. Many would also agree we have grown in this darkness. A seed needs darkness to sprout. A perennial needs winter to rest so it can return in the spring.
Having grown up in northern California, I considered myself a light seeker. Moving to Vermont almost a decade ago confronted me with seasons, winter, and darkness. In my first very hard winters here, an older fellow Californian told me it would take me seven winters. That felt long but oddly it was true! I remember reading somewhere that our body fully regenerates every seven years. Seven has always been a powerful number to me, as it is for many. I hadn’t understood my seventh-generation Vermonter husband’s love of winter and the seasonal shifts. They always felt hard for me. Yet somehow in my seventh winter, something clicked. It was a curious journey with a lot of exploration and support, but I got there. I discovered ways to enjoy winter, like a massive tea collection and the ritual of lighting our wood stove. I found hot baths with oil soothing. I also learned mindfulness practices and lots of vitamins that support seasonal affective disorder. I found ways to acknowledge depression and learn from it through therapy. As I cultivated wellness within, I found more energy to cultivate wellness in my family and in my community. Seasonal death guided me to internal death and rebirth.
My work at the college focuses on developing sustainability programs and cultivating wellbeing in people, places, and the planet. I think about sustainability as an interconnected system where everything and everyone matters. I heard a lecture once where a man said that wellness is at the core of social justice work. The field of sustainability used to only be focused on the environment. My work in particular is interested in the sustainability of self. How do we cultivate wellbeing within, mind, body, soul? How do we hold space for people to do that work? As a college student at Middlebury College, I wanted to “save the world”. As I got older I realized I had to save myself to save the world. So that has become my daily practice. How do I live in alignment with my soul? After that, I ask how am I living in alignment with my husband, my children, my community/my earth. It’s all a ripple effect and if I’m not okay, the rest cannot be okay. We are an undeniably interconnected system. I clearly acknowledge the privilege that comes with this. Therefore, I also continuously ask how do we create more access and more inclusion?
On this cold dark November morning, as I write about the continued darkness and the coming light, I wonder what my future self would say to me. What will life look like in 7 years? Will our country come together? Will we grow with the seasons changing? I believe that we are learning from our collective darkness. Our country is doing its shadow work. We are addressing the injustices that this country was built on. We are going through deaths and rebirths. As a Coop and board that is actively doing anti-racism work, I believe that we are working toward a more just society. It’s messy, and we will make mistakes, but we will keep doing the work. The new era is just beginning, and many folks are waking up and remembering we are stronger together. Seeds of justice and hope are being planted and cultivated in the darkness. For someone who used to fear the darkness, I now say please come in for tea and let me listen and learn.
Sophie Esser Calvi is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member
National elections are here again and although they’re always tense for one reason or another, this time they’re especially fraught. The stakes are extra high; the rhetoric is super caustic, and the electorate is bitterly divided. So at a time like this, it’s hopeful to recall that good, fair, democratic elections actually do exist: right here at our co-op.
Every year, the entire membership elects representatives to its board of directors who act on its behalf. The election cycle actually begins long before voting takes place in May. Starting in February, with the help of the co-op’s marketing, education, and membership team, we begin to publicize the election and invite any member-owner who’s curious to consider running for the board. Announcements are put on signs inside and outside of the store; placed in both the electronic and paper versions of our newsletters; bannered on our website; and posted to all of our social media channels. You don’t need special skills or qualifications, we explain; you just need to want to serve your co-op.
To get a sense of what’s involved, we say, download a copy of the new director application packet, or pick one up in the store. Call us, write us, send us an email. Sit and chat over coffee and Zoom. Drop into a meeting to get a firsthand look at your co-op’s governance in action (they’re held online these days, but that makes them even easier to attend in some ways. Just send us a note and we’ll send you a link to the next meeting).
Our recruitment efforts don’t end there, however. Both directors and staff reach out to anyone they think might be interested in running for the board: who knows anyone who might know someone else. We really shake the tree. By mid-March, everyone who wants to run, including incumbent directors, has submitted their application. These applications, by the way, are designed to convey a general sense of who applicants are to the membership and why they are interested in running. They are also designed to be straightforward and easy to complete. We don’t want any barriers to entry in our process. Everyone, absolutely everyone, has a fair shot. (Each year, we review this application process and ask ourselves whether there is anything challenging in it, anything that’s ambiguous, sends a mixed message, or could possibly come across as discriminatory or biased. If there is, we fix it or take it out.)
The application essays are posted on our website, as well as printed in our Annual Report. In April, while the reports are being printed, we continue to publicize the May elections in every way possible. We are always trying to make the elections more accessible to more of our member-owners. A perfect example was this past election when we switched to electronic voting. This took the form of links to a very simple voting page being sent to everyone via email. (Anyone without internet access could also stop by the store to vote.) The result was that we nearly doubled our turnout, which says a lot because we already had very high voter turnouts compared with other co-ops.
So in a time when many election processes are controversial, and surrounded by a noxious cloud of alternate facts, filter bubbles, and distrust, it’s good to know that here, at least, we’re doing it right. (In a future newsletter, I’ll describe the board’s officer election process, which may possibly set new standards among co-ops for fairness and transparency.) As always, write any time with suggestions, comments, or questions: email@example.com.
Tam Stewart is the president of the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board of Directors
In August, we’ll be voting for the Board of Directors and the bylaws, again.
Last May 2019, the membership voted on the Board’s proposed new bylaws. That vote passed with members voting 623 YES (97%) and 19 NO (3%).
Why are we voting on bylaws again?
Section 3.2 of the new bylaws explains that members can petition to request a special vote or meeting. In fall 2019, one member utilized this procedure, acquired the necessary member signatures on a petition, and presented it to the Board of Directors. The petition requests for a vote on two bylaw changes which will appear on the August 2020 ballot for members to decide.
What are the bylaw changes being voted on in August 2020?
Shall the MNFC reinstate the wording “goods and services at the lowest possible cost” under Section 1.3: Objectives of the MNFC?
Shall the MNFC reinstate the wording “Member-owners shall also be permitted to contribute services for additional discounts and other entitlements as determined by the Board” under section 2.2 Membership of MNFC?
Why did the Board propose bylaw changes in 2019?
Co-op leadership (Board + Management) found that the old bylaws were outdated in numerous ways, as a result of remaining mostly unchanged for nearly 40 years. The goal was to make them clearer, simpler, and even more consistent with our values, and consistent with the best practices of our peer food co-ops.
What was the 2019 bylaw revision process?
Fall 2018 – a committee (board, staff, others) formed to review the old bylaws, as well as recommendations from peer co-ops and consultants, to create the first draft.
Why does the petitioner recommend voting YES on the ballot? Please see a statement from the petitioner, below:
Why Maintain Lowest Possible Cost?
Affordability is important for many members and selling things at the lowest possible cost was only mentioned in the by-laws, not in any of the board policies, the co-op mission or ends statements. Since the co-op already endeavors to offer goods at the lowest possible cost, why not let people know about it and state it somewhere in our official documents to help prevent us from going backward on costs?
It’s not like the requirement to sell food at the lowest possible cost prevented the co-op from treating vendors and staff fairly while also balancing fair returns and wages for producers and staff. There’s no evidence that producers or staff were treated unfairly during the last forty plus years this wording was in the bylaws. The fact that many vendors and staff have worked with, or for the co-op for decades, suggests that they feel MNFC treats them fairly.
Why Keep The Volunteer Worker Requirement?
Volunteer workers are the most powerful way to develop a strong sense of ownership and build customer loyalty while reducing labor costs, and helping provide goods at the lowest price. A worker discount is also the fairest, most equitable way to provide lower costs. Coupons and special deals are wonderful, but sales on nuts or beef, are of little use if you have allergies or are vegetarian. Special deals also promote impulse purchases compounding the problem of hyper-consumerism, while worker discounts are used primarily for purchasing required items.
Potential liability concerns have been addressed through the reduction of volunteer worker participation. The co-op used to have lots of volunteers work daily. So many people used to volunteer, that at one time MNFC hired a volunteer coordinator. Eventually, the 20% “super-worker” option was discontinued and now volunteer workers only receive a 10% discount. Over the years, volunteer numbers were gradually reduced. Today the co-op typically prefers to have a maximum of two volunteers daily and work is limited to only packaging bulk items.
The co-op could also allow owners/members to volunteer in the community in return for a discount, as Onion River does, eliminating liability concerns while meeting the bylaw requirement.
Given the historical trajectory of reducing volunteer numbers, reducing the hours that can be worked, reducing the discount, and reducing job availability, it’s likely that at some point without a by-law requirement, the volunteer worker program will eventually be eliminated.
The Co-op Leadership recommends voting “NO” on this 2020 ballot for the proposed bylaw changes.
Why does the Co-op leadership recommend voting “NO”? Below please find a statement from your Board of Directors: – The current Bylaw 1.2 states: The Cooperative will be owned by its members. The objectives of the Cooperative are to provide a democratic, member-owned cooperative organization; to provide healthy foods and other useful goods and services; to encourage patterns of production and consumption that are ecologically sound and healthful; and to serve as a center for activities, education, and services consistent with these objectives.
Lowest Possible Price: The phrase “goods and services at the lowest possible price” was removed in 2019. Lowest possible price is a strategy employed by our competitors, Walmart in the extreme case; a strategy we believe wreaks havoc on the community, economy, and environment. Our goal is to provide the fairest prices possible to customers, while also balancing other factors such as a fair price to farmers/producers, and fair compensation for employees, all while keeping the co-op financially sustainable.
Member Worker Program – members can sign up to work in the co-op for a 10% discount. We love this program and our member workers and plan to continue this program into the foreseeable future. The bylaw review process removed this wording from the bylaws to allow flexibility in the future. During the past 10 years, many of our peer co-ops have been forced to change their member-worker programs because of worker insurance liability or employee union contracts which do not allow non-union workers to do union work. Our co-op may face similar challenges in the future, and we want to have the flexibility to make required changes if necessary.
This petition process highlights one of the many ways in which the cooperative model is unique – it is democracy in action! We thank you for your engagement and participation.
The Co-op Leadership: General Manager Glenn Lower, Board of Directors: R.J. Adler, Molly Anderson, Nadine Canter Barnicle, Erin Buckwalter, Ilaria Brancoli Busdraghi, Lynn Dunton, Sophie Esser Calvi, Kate Gridley, Tam Stewart, Louise Vojtisek, and Amanda Warren
At a rally in Middlebury a few weeks ago to protest police brutality against Black people, a pick-up truck full of young men sped by the line of protesters and one leaned out the window to yell, “All lives matter!”. Maybe he thought he was being clever, but clearly it’s important to keep pointing out why Black lives matter in particular. We are seeing the many ways police target people of color— it’s nothing new, but impossible to deny with video-cams and courageous citizens filming assaults on their smartphones.
If indeed all lives matter, why do Black Americans consistently have fewer opportunities to lead long, healthy lives? And why are people of color up to five times as likely to be hospitalized or to die from COVID-19 as whites? Although injustices in the ways police and courts treat people of color compared with whites are a huge reason, many of the answers are baked into our food system. This food system has been exploiting people of color from plantation days through the present, stealing their land, and denying them access to resources, information, and markets that are open to whites.
We now know that dying from COVID-19 is much more likely for people who have diabetes, obesity, or other diet-related diseases. Diet-related diseases are more common among people of color: for example, diabetes affects 7.5% of the white population in the US, but 11.7% of Blacks, 12.5% of Latinx, and 14.7% of Native Americans. People of color have more diabetes and other diet-related diseases not because they prefer to eat less healthy food, but because healthy food is less accessible and affordable where they live.
Poverty affects the ability to buy healthy food, and people of color are more likely to live in poverty than whites. The percentage of white people in poverty in 2018 was 10.1%, but 20.8% of Blacks, 17.6% of Latinx, and 25.4% of Native Americans. Reasons include big differences in assets held by each race (part of the legacy of redlining), wage and employment discrimination, and the shockingly high rates of incarceration for Blacks and difficulties getting a job after being released. Claims for economic reparations are getting more visibility, as the US learns more about the economic disadvantages borne by people of color. Poverty affects access to education too: plenty of white people have poor diets, but their ability to get well-paying jobs and learn how to improve their health through education is greater than the opportunities open to people of color.
Finally and perhaps most perversely, people of color hold most of the lowest-paid jobs in the food system: farmworkers, food-processing workers, meatpackers, supermarket stockers, etc. These jobs have finally been recognized as “essential”, but fair compensation, protection from COVID-19, and access to healthcare and childcare haven’t followed.
Our food system doesn’t have to exploit people of color. But we’ll need to accept paying the true cost of food (and accept subsidizing more federal food assistance for people whose wages won’t cover that cost). Our expectation of cheap food makes us complicit in this exploitative system.
The Co-op is bringing our Board election process into the 21st century! In August, when you receive your Annual Report in the mail, you’ll find directions to help you cast your online votes for our Board of Directors candidates and for proposed bylaws changes. If you have shared your e-mail address with us and receive our monthly e-newsletter, you can follow the link that will be provided in the August E-News to cast your votes. Your identity will remain anonymous and be confirmed by entering the last five digits of your member number, the first initial of your first name, and your full last name. All of this information will be available on the mailing label of your Annual Report. If you have any difficulty, please reach out to Karin @ firstname.lastname@example.org or 388-7276 x307.
The votes are counted and the results are in! If you made it to this year’s Annual Meeting, you’re already in the know about the election. But if not, here’s a quick synopsis of how it went:
Please welcome newly elected Board Member Erin Buckwalter. Erin has spent her adult life working and volunteering in the Vermont food system and is passionate about connecting with people through food and agriculture. She is the current Market Development Director at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. To learn more about Erin, please see her candidacy statement in our Annual Report.
Also, please welcome returning Board Members R.J. Adler and Amanda Warren. We look forward to working with you again this term!
This year, Co-op Members voted to Update our By-Laws. The votes were overwhelmingly in support of the recommended updates (see Annual Report to reference these) – with 97% of the votes returned in favor of the recommended changes.
Thank you so much for giving us your input, submitting your vote, and doing your democratic duty as Co-op Member-Owners!
The candidates are ready and the ballots are in the mail…you should see one in your mailbox next week. The ballot packet includes information about the election, candidate bios and photos, a preview of our Annual Meeting Celebration and our Annual Report. You can link directly to everything but the ballot (the ballot will only be in your mailbox!), RIGHT HERE. After you’ve filled out your ballot, bring it to any cashier to redeem your Coupon for $3.00 of Any Vermont Product (this will be attached to your ballot). All ballots need to be in before 7 pm on May 31st. Happy voting!
Last year, your Board of Directors updated its Governance Policies. In the process, we noticed that our Co-op’s bylaws could use some updating too. Together with our General Manager, we worked to make our bylaws clearer, simpler, and even more consistent with our values and with the best practices of other food co-ops. (For example, our current bylaws do not allow for recent innovations like electronic voting.)
The process of updating our bylaws was aided by a recently developed set of bylaws provided by our long-time consultants at Cooperative Development Services (CDS). This resulted in a set of proposed bylaws with the same basic meaning but written in clearer and more concise language. At the same time, we made a handful of additions and deletions and wanted to share them with you in advance of presenting the new bylaws for your approval in May. Please read through the new proposed draft bylaws and send along your feedback to email@example.com. For your reference, the old bylaws are posted here. We would love to have your feedback by March 24th. We’ll include a final draft in the Annual Report and a ballot for voting on them. Here’s a list of significant proposed changes:
Allow for electronic voting as a convenient way to increase participation in the democratic process.
Add language to allow for runoff elections in the event of a tie (rather than the Board choosing between the tied candidates, as is currently written).
Provide language for reconciling the membership records for shareholders who have abandoned shares in the co-op. The three-year cut off for membership being inactive is a VT state law.
As our co-op has grown to over 5,000 member-owners, our goal is to reduce the required signatures for petitioning a special meeting, from 10% to “5% of the total number of member-owners or 200 member-owners, whichever is less.”
Add “employees and spouses or family members of employees may not serve as a Director.” Peer co-ops point out the inherent conflict of interest due to employee board members being the employer of the GM who is also their employer.
Remove “member-owners shall also be permitted to contribute services for additional discounts and other entitlements as determined by the Board.” Our goal is to continue the practice of member-working as long as possible, but remove it from the bylaws to allow flexibility in the future.
Remove “goods and services at the lowest possible cost”. It is our goal to provide the fairest prices possible to both members and customers, while also balancing other factors such as a fair price to farmers/producers, and fair compensation for employees, all while keeping the co-op financially sustainable.
Remove “non-profit”, because the Co-op is technically not a 501c3 non-profit. This language was from an earlier era and does not currently legally apply. The Co-op does make a profit (about 2%) most years, pays taxes on those profits and uses them to build a better community.
We’ve also planned a couple of open meetings to give you the opportunity to share your feedback with us in person. The dates and locations of these meetings are as follows:
The MNFC Leadership Team, General Manager Glenn Lower, Board of Directors: R.J. Adler, Molly Anderson, Nadine Barnicle, Ilaria Brancoli Busdraghi, Lynn Dunton, Sophie Esser Calvi, Kate Gridley, Ann LaFiandra, Tam Stewart, Louise Vojtisek, and Amanda Warren