Musings on Democracy as Practiced at our Co-op.

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 apawarren@gmail.com

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

Get Ready for E-Voting!

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 @ karinmott@middlebury.coop or 388-7276 x307.

Considering our Board of Directors Elections Processes – Can We Improve?

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 board@middlebury.coop.

Kate Gridley is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member

Last Week to Vote for YOUR Co-op Board of Directors!

By now, you have probably received a copy of our 2018 Annual Report for MNFC in the mail (yes, the “snail” mail).  In this publication, you’ll find updates from our Board President and General Manager about how the Co-op has fared in our first year of Expansion.  In addition, you’ll get to “meet the candidates” for the four available seats on our Board of Directors.  Included in your mailed copy of the Annual Report are Voting Instructions, Your Official Ballot, and a $3.00 Coupon (redeemable with your completed ballot).   Please bring your completed ballot into the Co-op by May 31st, so we have time to tally the votes and inform the candidates before our June 6th Annual Meeting.  Then, please join us on June 6th, 5:30-7:30 at American Flatbread to find out who won, get a first-hand account of how your Co-op is doing, and enjoy dinner on the Co-op!