The Middlebury Co-op has worked to create an inclusive, welcoming environment and foster diversity in many senses of the word. Battling economic inequality, which so plagues Vermont as a whole, has been a consistent priority for the co-op. Food For All, which covers investment costs and provides a 10% discount on all food products for those who struggle to access and afford healthy food, is one of many ways the Middlebury Co-op has made strides. The co-op also welcomes diversity in gender identity and sexuality, instituting changes such as offering preferred pronouns on each employee’s name tag.
But, despite the above, it has only been in the last year or so that the Middlebury Co-op has begun pushing for racial equity. This is through no fault of its own nor unique to the Middlebury Co-op. As an overwhelmingly white state, conversations surrounding racism and racial equity were delayed in getting deserved attention in Vermont — with co-ops being no exception. However, the current socio-political climate has made it clear that these are no longer issues to ignore.
Glenn Lower, the general manager of the Middlebury Co-op since ‘98, is committed to working toward racial equity in the food system, “access to all levels of the food system — production, processing, transportation, and retail consumers” as he defines it, no matter how uncomfortable or challenging these adjustments may be.
While the question of how to best increase racial diversity in employment and membership in a primarily white pool remains, the Middlebury Co-op has already begun planning and instituting some programs and supports it feels are strong steps in the right direction. Migrant workers, who account for a large portion of the non-white population in Vermont, is one focus. Last year, the co-op teamed up with Open Door Clinic and Addison Allies to begin exploring ways to reach migrant workers on farms who are food insecure. The Co-op traveled to several farms and enrolled a few dozen workers in their Food For All program. The Co-op, ODC, and Addison Allies are also exploring the possibility of a special order and pick-up/delivery system for traditional Latin foods, but this program has been shelved until the COVID crisis has eased.
The Middlebury Co-op is also shifting and expanding its network of food providers, looking to support more BIPOC run farms and businesses. Nonetheless, the Middlebury Co-op feels it is just getting started on this front. “We’re just starting to understand how big this issue is, and the Co-op has historically not gotten involved in political things,” says Lower. After George Floyd’s murder, the Middlebury Co-op helped raise around $25,000 for Rutland NAACP’s Juneteenth Fundraiser. The Co-op contributed matched donations up to $10,000. Moreover, annual elections provide the opportunity to elect new board members and vote on potential bylaw updates — both of which Lower sees as important routes for instituting change. The Middlebury Co-op is also encouraging its customers to get involved by providing feedback in person, via suggestion boxes, and/or over email.
Other Vermont co-ops are making a similar commitment to racial diversity and equity as well. Spearheaded by TJ Allen, who came on as general manager last September, the Rutland Co-op is working on getting involved in the Rutland and greater Vermont community. As a much smaller co-op without the same purchasing power and leverage as the Middlebury Co-op, the Rutland Co-op is focusing on providing as many affordable, local products as possible and finding diverse producers from which the co-op can sell their products. An extension of racial diversity, Rutland also works to foster economic diversity within its customer base through its bulk section offerings, the Community Covered program, which serves customers on food stamps, and its work with the Rutland Free Clinic on including people of diverse economic backgrounds.
The Rutland Co-op also utilizes partnerships, including those with the NAACP on broadcasting educational materials on racial justice and continual programming with Co-Fed, a BIPOC run organization that introduces the idea of co-ops to underserved populations. The Rutland Co-op hopes to sponsor a Zoom training on anti-racism soon, and going forward plans to support events centered on racial justice, as well as to uplift and look to BIPOC voices for guidance on this programming.
Similarly, the Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier runs a program, not unlike the Middlebury Co-op’s Food For All Program. The Hunger Mountain Co-op Cares Program encourages economic diversity in the customer population by offering a discount and assistance in paying equity for customers within a certain income bracket, a need gauged and addressed yearly through an income demographic customer survey. Additionally, the co-op has made available educational programming on racial equity, racial justice, food justice, and cultural competency for members, leadership, and staff to better understand and approach these issues.
Unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, much of the co-ops’ work has ceased as a result of the pandemic. Many Vermont farms are limiting human traffic on and off the farm, thus, making the Middlebury Co-op’s catering and shuttling plans difficult to implement. Co-ops are also unable to continue the traditional in-person community outreach and education programs in the same manner. This is particularly true for those still in the fetus stages and requiring micromanagement, as is the case for many of the programs aimed at addressing racial equity and access to healthy, affordable food for all. With the new demands of the pandemic, many encounter difficulties in finding the time within business hours and financial resources for modified programming.
Racial inequity is still ever-present in the post-pandemic world, making these efforts to combat it within the food system relevant and critical moving forward.
Jenny Langerman and Charlotte Gehring are Middlebury College students