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 Vojitisek, and Amanda Warren
In September, three members of MNFC’s Board of Directors, Lyn Dunton, Kate Gridley, and Ann LaFiandra, attended a Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) peer gathering in White River Junction, VT. Folks, mostly directors and a few staff, from the following coops across New England attended: Brattleboro Food Co-op (VT), Buffalo Mountain Co-op (VT), City Market/Onion River Co-op (VT), Co-op Food Stores (NH), Fiddleheads Food Co-op (CT),Franklin Community Co-op (MA), Greenstar Co-op Market (NY), High Falls Food Co-op (NY), Hunger Mountain Food Co-op (VT), Littleton Food Co-op (NH), Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op (VT), Monadnock Food Co-op (MA), Neighboring Food Co-ops (MA), Portland Food Co-op (ME), Putney Food Co-op (VT), River Valley Food Co-op (MA), Rutland Area Food Co-op (VT), Springfield Co-op (VT), Stone Valley Community Market (VT), Upper Valley Food Co-op (VT) and Willimantic Food Co-op (CT). Our topics of the day were: Member Engagement Strategies, Successful Board Recruitment and Retention Strategies, and The Challenges and Rewards of Diversity and Inclusion.
MNFC stands alone in not only having a fully filled Board of Directors, but every year for the past several election cycles, we have had 7 – 10 outstanding candidates run for the scheduled open slots (terms at MNFC are three years, and with an 11- member board, 3 or 4 terms are up in each election cycle). To our amazement, we learned that there are co-ops whose boards are not fully staffed, and there are election cycles in which there are no candidates! We also learned that many co-ops have embraced electronic voting – which has upped the percentage of members who participate in voting –and many co-ops have looked hard at their election processes.
We are looking at our election processes as part of our board work for 2018- 2019. We’ll consider the following questions:
What does it mean to be a board member?
What kinds of decisions does the board make, what is the time commitment?
Who is NOT running for our board? Why not?
What are the barriers to running for the board?
How can we best orient future candidates so that they understand the job they are running for?
Facing a large slate of candidates, what will help our member-owners make decisions when casting their votes?
How do our member-owners know if a candidate is qualified?
How can we best present the slate of candidates?
Should we sponsor a Meet the Candidates Mixer?
How can we enhance the voting process to ensure more member-owner participation?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of moving to an electronic voting system
What Else Should We Consider?
I want to remind our member-owners that our Board of Directors meetings, 6:30 – 8:30 on the fourth Wednesday of every month, are open to you. We want our processes to be transparent and we want to know what you are hearing and what you are thinking. Member-Owner: this is a beautiful word. MNFC is owned by you, it’s members. And the work of the Board, using Policy Governance (which is simply an operating system), is to act and make decisions on behalf of and in the best interest of the member-owners. Perhaps this work interests you? Please let us know! To reach out to the board, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kate Gridley is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member
People shop at the food co-op for all sorts of reasons – for bulk teas and spices, or the freshest possible ingredients for a special dinner, or maybe to support local farmers and food businesses, or to find a wide assortment of organic food to avoid feeding your family pesticide residues with their meals. Many of us shopping at the co-op are aware that our US food system has some deep problems, and we want to be part of a solution. We read about farmworkers dying from heat exhaustion in California, after making a long and dangerous trek to reach a job in the United States. We read about food deserts and gross disparities in health outcomes for populations in areas without good access to healthy food. We read about the growing dangers of antibiotic resistance to serious diseases — a problem that the World Health Organization tells us is comparable to climate change in its impacts on human health and caused in large part by feeding antibiotics to livestock to make them grow faster. These are all side-effects of ‘business as usual’ in our food system and a result of buying food at the cheapest possible price from all over the world regardless of how it was grown and by whom.
Participating in a member-owned food business that operates on cooperative principles is an important alternative to ‘business as usual’.
The co-op’s structure allows member-owners to have a say in what we buy and how the profits are distributed. Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op has been a great community partner by sponsoring or contributing to food access programs and events to raise awareness of healthier eating. But are we really addressing inequity? And why is that important?
Inequity, in contrast to inequality, is systematic exclusion from opportunities that would allow equitable outcomes. The US food system is founded upon and continues to be supported by exploitation – of the natural environment and people with little political power.
Our country was stolen from Native Americans, leaving a shameful legacy of broken treaties and people living on reservations with the highest prevalence of diabetes in the country. Much of US wealth was built on the labor of cruelly enslaved peoples, Native American and African, who even now have not been able to access a fair share of that wealth. Wealth is rapidly trickling up — or more accurately, flooding up — to the wealthiest people, with only three people in the US now controlling more wealth than the bottom 50%, according to Forbes Magazine. Through our foreign policies and trade agreements, we continue to exploit people and resources in other countries so that US citizens can enjoy exotic foods and items we consider staples year-round, although we can’t produce them on US land (coffee, tea, and spices, to say nothing about our insatiable demand for petroleum). Through our ‘cheap food’ policy, designed to prevent urban populations from revolting, we continue to exploit farmers and indirectly farmworkers who make wages far below the poverty threshold.
A common reaction among relatively well-educated people in the US is to buy food certified to be organic, eco-labeled in some other way (e.g., Marine Stewardship Council seafood) Fair Trade (international or domestic) or humanely raised. But we can’t buy our way to equity; and as long as racial and financial inequity persists in the food system, we are feeding ourselves on stolen labor and resources.
So how can we work toward greater food system equity? This merits a larger community conversation, and conversations about climate justice and farming issues in Addison County are a good start. Equity will require enabling real participation of everyone in making and implementing decisions about our food, and seizing control away from wealth-mongers, Big Food and Big Ag—agribusinesses that are far more concerned about a steady flow of profits than a steady increase in public health and ecological integrity. It will mean each of us developing more awareness of the ways that our own well-being comes at the expense of other people’s quality of life. It will mean not only buying good food, in a place like the coop where our purchases benefit our community, but participating in political forums to get money out of politics at every level and to fight for policies that provide the privileges of health and political voice enjoyed by the well-to-do to the least advantaged in our society.
And to ‘put the last first’ over and over, until our society is no longer marked by huge disparities in wealth, health, and political power – Molly Anderson
Molly Anderson is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member
It’s time for the United States to support the human right to food. Every person must have access to safe, nutritious, and adequate food obtained in dignified ways to be healthy and have an adequate standard of living. Our federal government should commit to respect, protect and fulfill the right to adequate food and nutrition, as almost every other country in the world has done. Recent assaults on federal food assistance by our government have stirred public outrage, as well as resistance from more moderate members of Congress. But the problem goes deeper than threats to food access in the current administration – the solutions need to be made comprehensive and accessible.
United States opposition to the right to adequate food and nutrition (RtFN) has endured through Democratic and Republican administrations. Nevertheless, post-World War II bipartisan programs in support of food and economic security were greatly improving hunger and poverty until they were reversed in the early 1980s. Combined federal and private food assistance cobbled together since that time has not been adequate to prevent steady or rising hunger and food insecurity in the U.S. on national and local levels. In Vermont, the latest available data (2013-2015 average) tell us that 6.3% of households had low food security (reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet) and 5.1% had very low food security (reduced food quantity or disrupted eating patterns because of not having enough money or resources). This problem is especially serious in households with children: nearly 1 in 5 children in Vermont doesn’t have regular access to enough food for a healthy, active lifestyle.
We shouldn’t be surprised: private charitable food assistance, such as food banks and pantries, and government food assistance such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and WIC cannot end hunger and food insecurity. These programs do not address the root causes of food insecurity such as racism, falling real wages, and rising inequality in income and assets. People at the front lines of hunger and food insecurity do not participate in the design and implementation of US programs. Nor do these programs respond to chronic food insecurity by building robust, diversified, sustainable, and decentralized food economies. There is no popularly conceived, comprehensive plan in the U.S. with measurable benchmarks to assess the success or failures of the present approach. Therefore, our capacity to hold government actors accountable to progressively improving food and nutrition status is ultimately constrained. All of these actions are part of putting the RtFN in action. Countries endorsing the RtFN and taking steps to make it real (e.g., Brazil, France, all Scandinavian countries, Eastern European countries, Japan) have a lower prevalence of moderate and severe food insecurity than the US, even when their GDP is much lower than the US. For a look at how U.S. food security is broken down geographically, please click on the graphic, below:
Although nobody expects action at the federal level anytime soon, support may be feasible at town, city and state levels. Democratic action is often most effective and possible when people know and encounter each other regularly, and can hold each other accountable. Middlebury and Vermont could support the RtFN, even without federal action, in many ways. We could look for guidance to many other places around the world that have created programs in line with the RtFN, then develop a plan for eliminating hunger and food insecurity that could be a model for other cities and states.
To find out more about the state of food security in the U.S., please see the following resources.