Sustainability

Student Perspectives on the Co-op in our Community: Introducing Perenniality

Sustainable. Organic. Natural. Free range. Local. The criteria for our food and the terminology to describe it seem to be constantly evolving: why add another word to the list?

Over the past few months, we have been meeting with General Manager Glenn Lower to learn about the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op and cooperatives in general, and to discuss yet another term, the word perennial. This partnership was brought about as a part of a course offered by Middlebury College called “The Perennial Turn in Ag/Culture,” co-taught by visiting professor Bill Vitek, local professor Marc Lapin, and MNFC Board member Nadine Barnicle.

So what does it mean to be perennial? Perenniality is more than a label, and it even goes beyond applying to our food systems. Perenniality is about a shift in consciousness towards a set of values that promote sustainability and equitable relations with other people as well as the ecosystems around us. A select list of some of the traits that characterize perennial thought includes “regenerative,” “interconnected,” “dynamic,” and “thrivable.” The Co-op embodies all of these characteristics in various ways.

The first characteristic of perennial organizations is that they are regenerative. The Co-op practices this value by taking the benefits of the Co-op and using it within the local community so that the community can be financially self-sustaining. Not only does the Co-op buy products from local farms and producers, but the Co-op also provides employment opportunities in the community, and at the end of the year, member-owners receive a share of the profit through their patronage dividend. The Co-op also borrowed money from a local co-op bank in Middlebury when expanding the building a few years ago.

The second characteristic we would like to introduce is the interconnectedness of the Co-op. The Co-op provides the member-owners and the people who shop at the Co-op with more than just a store-customer relationship. As a member of the local community in its own right, the Co-op provides spaces and opportunities for the local people to come together. That includes the workshops, events, and classes held by the Co-op.

Another fundamental characteristic of perennial organizations is a willingness to change: perenniality is dynamic. One major theme that was discussed in class was a transition from object to living thinking, as conceived of by Craig Holdrege. The Co-op displays this value through its responsiveness to the community it serves: moving to a new storefront out on Route 7 would have saved the Co-op roughly one million dollars. Glenn remarked that “it would’ve been easy.” Thankfully, MNFC’s commitment to the community meant that it was willing to do things differently and make the money work, as Glenn put it. This responsiveness means that MNFC engages with members, truly listens, and then changes their practices to best meet members’ needs.

The final characteristic we wanted to share with you was introduced to us by another community partner in class, Chinese medicine practitioner and acupuncturist Rachel Edwards: thrivability. In essence, thrivability is what lies beyond sustainability, as we want the world around us not only to sustain but to thrive, just as we would want for ourselves happiness beyond meeting basic needs. The Co-op promotes thrivability as it explicitly encourages a “vibrant local economy” as one of its ends, and otherwise actively pursues positive change rather than accepting stasis.

Ultimately, MNFC models what we have discussed in our class as the underlying principle of perennialism: namely, cooperation as the fundamental basis of all relations. The Co-op models all sorts of perennial characteristics, but most importantly, as a cooperative, it is cooperative. It is inherently regenerative, interconnected, responsive to its members, and pursuing thrivability. Hopefully, the Co-op will continue to have as much success as it does now, and in doing so, promote other ways of being for retailers and consumers alike. In this way, perhaps perennialism as a philosophy can spread. Still, Glenn’s advice to us was to let it grow on its own. If it can flourish organically, then it will catch on.

Josie Bourne and Shio Shio Tsurudome are Middlebury College Students

 

 

Talking Trash with Kathy and Gwen, Part 2

The topic of waste reduction is common fodder at the Co-op – after all, one of our Ends (the reasons we exist as a cooperative) is to promote environmentally sustainable and energy efficient practices. It’s something we’re always working on and there’s always room for improvement. With this in mind, interested staff members at the Co-op began meeting monthly to discuss ways that our Co-op could improve our practices to move closer to a zero-waste operation. We realized during these gatherings that we have a lot of collective passion on the topic and many of us come from backgrounds that help inform the ideas we bring to these meetings.

Take Gwen Lyons, for example. You might know Gwen as a cashier at the Co-op, but you may not know that she holds a degree in Environmental Studies from UVM and her previous job was with the Central Vermont Waste District.  She’s a glorified, self-proclaimed Trash Nerd. And she’s got a lot to share with us about what happens (or doesn’t happen) to items when we dispose of them. We wanted to share some of this with our Co-op community so we asked Kathy Comstock, who you may also recognize as a cashier, to interview Gwen. We’ll be sharing the interview with you in two parts. If you missed part one, click here! Read on for part two:

 

Kathy:  So, what is Zero Waste?  A quick Wikipedia search tells me that Zero Waste is a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. The goal is for no trash to be sent to landfills or incinerators. The process recommended is one similar to the way that resources are reused in nature.” And, so, it means that Zero Waste is especially important to consider now because we are running out of space and ways to handle our waste, correct?  You told me in an earlier conversation that our landfills here in Vermont are almost at full capacity.  And most of us, by now, have heard about China and other countries that are beginning to say “NO” to the US and not take any more of our recyclables.

 

Gwen:  Right.  Vermont only has one working landfill left in Coventry, Vermont – up near the Canadian border. Back when I was still working at CVSWMD, it was forecasted that the landfill only had the capacity for 20 years of waste remaining. So, what happens when the landfill is full? Not only is the permitting process for siting a landfill arduous and building one is very expensive, but any town in Vermont has the right to say “No” if they don’t want one. The big issue is that we (Vermont consumers) are happy to produce the waste, but don’t want to take responsibility for it when we are finished with something. Adding to the frustration is the fact that about 1/3 of what is being thrown away is organic material – food waste and yard debris, which will never break down in the anaerobic (or non-oxygenated) environment of a landfill.  And although it will eventually break down, in doing so it will release methane, a very toxic greenhouse gas. Companies who own and operate landfills will boast that they can harness the methane to use for electricity, but in most cases, the methane is burned off on site. If you have ever driven south on I-89 past the Middlesex exit at night, you will most likely see the flame on the southern side. What you are looking at is the, now closed, Moretown Landfill burning off its methane. (Note: They do also harness methane to convert into electricity, and I believe they sell that electricity to the grid).

To further build upon your thoughts on zero waste, it’s not just the idea of sending nothing to the landfill or reusing things again. To me, zero waste is about not creating waste in the first place. A huge component of that is not buying products which come in packaging that has to be disposed of, in any sense. This means being a more thoughtful consumer – buying in bulk, not putting veggies in plastic bags, bringing your own reusable containers to the store, only buying to-go coffee if you have your own mug, etc. Truly living a zero-waste lifestyle, or as close to zero waste as possible, is do-able, it just takes planning and commitment.

But, I digress. Back to food scraps in the landfill. With the state’s Universal Recycling Law, by 2020 it will be illegal to put food scraps in the trash in Vermont. Although I think it is awesome and I am in complete support of it, we are again in the situation of having a forward-thinking idea, and creating the legislation to put it into effect, but are not necessarily prepared with the infrastructure to do it properly. Composting food scraps is easy on a small at-home scale. But being able to accept, process and compost an entire state’s worth of food scraps is not.

 

Kathy:  But why is that so difficult?

 

Gwen:  The long-short of it is two-fold: 

The first challenge stems from the fact that start-up costs for creating a commercial composting facility aren’t cheap and there are complicated zoning regulations one needs to deal with, as well. Commercial composting facilities aren’t necessarily a money maker, especially compared to landfills. It’s a tough, dirty job and not everyone is interested in pursuing a career in compost. So, as a result, there are very few commercial composting operations in the state. While at the district I worked closely with Highfields Center for Compost in Hardwick, Vermont Compost Company in Montpelier and Grow Compost of Vermont in Moretown. The Chittenden Solid Waste District also runs a facility in Williston, which, from my understanding, is already taking twice the volume (of food scraps) the facility was designed to take in. And this is with only a small number of residents and restaurants participating in composting in that area. Obviously, we are going to need the infrastructure in place to accommodate those who can’t compost at home. One upside is that, while large-scale composting facilities can be expensive to build and operate, unlike in your household compost, they can compost oils, bones, meat, or dairy.  This makes diverting food scraps from the landfill that much easier for VT residents.

The second challenge of composting on a large commercial scale is that, just like recycling, the stream needs to be clean. This means no contamination, including plasticware, PLU stickers, straws, stray napkins, plastic wrappers, etc.  In regards to the position that I mentioned earlier as “Compost Monitor”, it was my job in a school with a new composting program to stand at the compost, recycling and trash bins at the end of lunch and help students sort what was left on their trays. When on field trips to Grow Compost of Vermont, one of the owners, Lisa, would always bring out her bucket of plasticware to show us what had been sifted out. And PLU stickers on apples, oranges, and bananas’? They are made out of plastic and will not break down. No one wants to find a PLU sticker in their garden, but it happens. Food scraps can be rejected if there is too much contamination, just like with contaminated recyclables.

As I mentioned before, maintaining a clean stream is critical for recycling.  Loads of recycling can be rejected if the buyer determines there is too much contamination. So, as frustrating, and sometimes time-consuming as it is, plastics need to be rinsed clean of all food debris, and yes, this includes peanut butter. Honestly, I fill a container with water and leave it in the sink for the day. A good swipe and rinse with a scrub brush and it is good to go in the blue bin. Another tricky one is pizza boxes. Yes, your hot tasty pizza comes in what looks like an easily recyclable box, but if there is oil soaked into the cardboard it has to go in the trash. Why? The paper recycling process takes water – and water and oil don’t mix.  A repeat offender is napkins, I see them in recycling bins all the time. They are not recyclable either because, as a napkin or tissue, the fibers in that material have already been broken down to their smallest size.  There is no next step for them – into the trash they go. Of course, if you have a brown unbleached napkin it can most likely be composted – even at home. But, if you are sending your food scraps somewhere, check with them first. Those are just some common examples. (I can keep going if you want!)  But one last thing, … just because it says “recyclable” on it, or has the iconic recycling symbol on it,  only means it CAN be recycled. It doesn’t mean that it IS recyclable where you live.

 

Kathy:   OK.  So, this all sounds really overwhelming, but I don’t want to believe this is an impossible thing to overcome.  I know we can all make some changes.  I know that the Co-op has started to discuss and has already incorporated a few changes already.  What kinds of things would you like to see happen at the Co-op?

 

Gwen: Our staff is working on creating new signage, which will be posted at the trash, recycling, and compost stations to help give clear guidance about what goes where. I know I mentioned it earlier, but it isn’t always easy, and although most of us have the best intentions, we could be accidentally putting something in the wrong place. And yes, after 5 years in the solid waste industry I have become a full-blown “trash nerd”. I’m sure people have seen me pulling items out of both the trash and recycling at the co-op, muttering to myself under my breath. Plain and simple, I have been rewired to care about trash.

And, there are definitely changes that we can all make to reduce waste when shopping at the Co-op. Some are easy, and others will take a little more planning and organizing.  For instance, bringing in your own shopping bags is something that many of us already do, but there are still plenty of us who can adopt that practice. Also, thinking twice before using a plastic produce bag.  Do your avocados or bananas really need to go into a plastic bag? Nope, they don’t. They naturally have their own packaging. Instead, bring your own produce bags … either reuse plastic bags from a previous purchase, buy reusable mesh produce bags or just put your produce items in the basket.  Bring your own containers to fill in the bulk section. Only buy tea or coffee if you have your own mug.  And, if you are choosing to eat at the co-op, choose a reusable bowl or plate instead of a to-go container. If you’re taking your food to-go, we have a new reusable take-out container, as well.

There are so many simple ways that we can change for the better, we just have to start retraining our minds to stop being okay with our current single-serve, convenience-based consumer practices, and take a moment to consider what re-using and recycling methods we can employ instead. The question I liked to pose to all the students I taught was, “When you throw something away in the trash, where is away?”

But what I really want to emphasize is the concept of zero waste.  Before routinely buying, tossing, or consuming, consider if there is a way to avoid creating the waste in the first place.  So much can be altered just by taking a moment to consider the options. No one is perfect, (not even me!).  I, too, am guilty of going for convenience in a pinch. But, by taking the time to put reusable bags back in the car, grabbing a coffee mug “just in case” or choosing a plastic plate at the Co-op salad bar, and reframing our mindset, great strides can and will be made in improving our growing waste problems. Countries all over the world have demonstrated that collectively they can reduce waste, so we know it can be done. We just have to make the conscious commitment to lessen our footprint.  And, with knowledge, I think we can.

 

Kathy:  I think so, too. Thanks, Gwen!

 

Talking Trash with Kathy and Gwen, Part 1

The topic of waste reduction is common fodder at the Co-op – after all, one of our Ends (the reasons we exist as a cooperative) is to promote environmentally sustainable and energy efficient practices. It’s something we’re always working on and there’s always room for improvement. With this in mind, interested staff members at the Co-op began meeting monthly to discuss ways that our Co-op could improve our practices to move closer to a zero-waste operation. We realized during these gatherings that we have a lot of collective passion on the topic and many of us come from backgrounds that help inform the ideas we bring to these meetings.

Take Gwen Lyons, for example. You might know Gwen as a cashier at the Co-op, but you may not know that she holds a degree in Environmental Studies from UVM and her previous job was with the Central Vermont Waste District.  She’s a glorified, self-proclaimed Trash Nerd. And she’s got a lot to share with us about what happens (or doesn’t happen) to items when we dispose of them. We wanted to share some of this with our Co-op community so we asked Kathy Comstock, who you may also recognize as a cashier, to interview Gwen. We’ll be sharing the interview with you in two parts. 

 

 

Kathy:  Hi Gwen.  So, let’s start with why you and I are talking…  We have both been noticing the use of plastics and the confusion of how to properly deal with waste at the Coop.  As I have been getting to know you better, I have discovered that you served as the School Program Manager in Washington County.  Montpelier specifically right?  What exactly did you do?

 

Gwen:  Yes, I worked for Central Vermont Solid Waste District from 2009-2014, which is not to be confused with Chittenden Solid Waste or Casella. Despite our offices being located in Montpelier, the district covered 19 member towns in Washington, Orange and Caledonia counties. My involvement with the organization started when I applied for a “Compost Monitor” position. Although it was only part-time (and not having any idea what a compost monitor was), I was excited to get back into the environmental field after graduating from UVM with a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies. I was fortunate to move up in the organization and eventually gained the title of School Program Manager. Considering that I enjoyed working with kids, being outside, getting my hands dirty (no pun intended), this position was perfect for me.

 

Kathy:  Great!  Let’s talk about trash or “solid waste”.  It seems that it should be such a simple concept to understand, and yet I find myself confused at least once a day about how I should best “throw away” a particular package or food container.  For example, it seems that I should be able to recycle the Co-op’s to-go boxes when I am finished with my food.  But I have recently been told that first I need to wash it out so that it is clean of food debris, and NOW I have found out that it is actually coated in plastic (in order to be leak-proof), and that makes it a non-contender as a recyclable item!  What gives?

 

Gwen:  You’re right, it should be simple and yet, it’s more confusing than ever. But, there are many things that factor in when it comes to “what goes where’. It is a process which can be easy, but we (consumers) need to be more diligent about what we are choosing to do in terms of purchasing and disposing. 

 

Kathy:  So let’s go straight to the compostable vs. recyclable debate.  Tell me what the pros and cons are for each issue.

 

Gwen:  First, I love the concept of compostable food containers, but manufacturers put the cart before the horse. They created these products, which in theory are awesome, but in reality, are causing more waste because there isn’t necessarily a system in place to deal with them. More specifically, compostable containers (utensils, to-go boxes, even food scraps) can’t be “composted” in a household system because there is (usually) not an adequate enough aerobic decomposition opportunity once they are put in the compost pile. Meaning, home composting systems are too small, and don’t have enough microbes to generate the oxygen and heat necessary for those containers to break down. What you end up with is household compost with forks and Co-op salad boxes mixed within it. Secondly, there are not enough commercial composting operations which will accept compostable utensils and containers. Some of this has to do with the end product the facility is trying to supply to the public. If a compost-producing facility is invested in creating certified organic composting matter, then it cannot accept these forks and to-go boxes, for example, because they are not made out of organic materials.  So, although compostable plates, cups, utensils and to-go containers are a great idea, this idea falls flat, and just becomes more landfill waste, since we don’t have the right infrastructure to support the disposal of them.

 

Kathy:  …. And what about recyclables?

 

Gwen: Without being able to properly compost the compostables, recyclable materials seem to be the next best thing. Who doesn’t want to think that by putting their yogurt container in a recycling bin, they have helped to not only stop production of one more new container but that they have also taken one more container away from the landfill?  The problem with our current recycling system is that recyclables are not necessarily being disposed of properly. Back to the yogurt container, and any food container for that matter, … it needs to be rinsed out before being tossed in the blue bin. Not rising out containers or putting items in the bin that the recycling facility (MRF) cannot accept can, what we call in the business, “contaminate” a load of recycling. Every load of recycling inevitably has some contamination – but the buyer of the materials can easily “reject” a load of recyclables. And guess what happens to that load? It goes straight to the landfill. This issue has become more prevalent since the on-set of “single stream” recycling (which is the term used when all paper fibers, plastics, metals, and other containers are mixed together in just one bin.)  When Vermonters were sorting their recycling, the stream was much cleaner and more recyclables were actually going where they should. The idea behind “single-stream” recycling was that it would make participation easier for the everyday person. The give and take, though, is that waste haulers and workers at the MRF are seeing an increasingly “dirty” stream of recycling.

For Vermonters, it is important to understand what can and cannot go into the blue bin. If I am not mistaken, waste haulers, like Casella or Myers, provide customers with a list of what can and can’t be recycled. These days, the recycling facility in South Burlington does accept plastic numbers 1-7. But, they do not accept Styrofoam – even though it usually has a recycling symbol on it – which is confusing to people. In terms of its weight, it is not cost effective to pack up and ship Styrofoam, even compacted, to a facility that can recycle it. And, even if a transfer station did chose to collect and send any category of the recyclables out, would they have a large enough holding container to store the load as they collected an adequate amount in order to ship it?  Another factor has to do with the market.  If there is not a market (no one to buy) for a specific material, it won’t be collected for recycling, plain and simple.

Another issue is the fact that certain materials are being “down-cycled” rather than recycled. Glass, for example, is not being remade into new glass bottles. Any glass recycled, in a blue bin, in the state of Vermont is being crushed and used as aggregate for road construction. If you ever notice the road “sparking”, well, that’s glass. Unfortunately, some of the newly built roads that glass is being used for are in/on the landfill. So – although it is getting a new life, it’s not actually being recycled. I don’t know the exact reasoning behind this, my guess is that there isn’t a smelting plant close enough to our area.

 

Kathy:  Seriously?!  So I am driving on crushed glass?  Now if that isn’t ironic, I don’t know what is. 

But back to the question of separating solid waste.  First, tell me more about your work.  What was the scope of your job?  How did it come into being?

 

Gwen: Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District is a government non-profit, meaning it is tax-payer funded and governed by representatives from our 19 member towns (although I believe that the district has gained more towns recently). Solid waste falls under the Department of Environmental Conservation in Agency of Natural Resources in the state of Vermont. So we were beholden not only to our member towns but also by rules and regulations set forth by the state. I worked for the district at an exciting time for solid waste, as it was prior to the passing of the Universal Recycling Law. Although I wasn’t closely involved, I did learn a lot about the legislative process of how laws are developed and how important it was for the state to collaborate and get input from the solid waste districts.

My job consisted of helping maintain and manage the composting program in all 26 of our member town schools (K-12), developing and teaching students about composting, recycling, landfills and the concept of zero waste. Through hands-on activities in the classroom, full school-wide waste stream audits, and field trips to local commercial composting facilities, landfill and MRF (Materials Recycling Facility), students were able to gain an understanding of why it’s important to think before throwing something “away”. Although I gained the nick-name “Compost Lady” and periodically was asked if I “sorted trash every day”, I was able to see the impact of my work when I would visit schools and see the creation of their student-based “Green Teams”, or teachers incorporating recycling initiatives into their curriculum, and especially in the general reduction in what was being thrown away. It wasn’t glamorous, to say the least, but I loved it.

One of the highlights of my tenure at CVSWMD was helping create, what we called, the School Zero Waste Grant Program. This program allowed schools to apply for funding to help their school reduce waste. Many schools took advantage and purchased reusable dishware and utensils for their cafeterias. Obviously, this greatly reduced the amount of trash that was created daily and was an easy way for students to impact the waste stream at their schools. Other schools used grant funds to purchase water bottle filling stations (like the one at the Coop). This encouraged students to bring their own water bottles and re-fill them. Main Street Middle School in Montpelier was a leading participant in the school zero waste programming. One of the middle school “teams” went as far as incorporating composting, recycling and zero waste into the curriculum. With them, I led waste stream audits twice a year, helping them to start collecting odd items that could be recycled (outside the bin), as well as getting other zero waste initiatives off the ground. The MSMS Green Team also applied for grant money to purchase enough reusable water bottles, with their self-designed logo, to give to every student in the school. This way, everyone could take part in reducing waste. This is one of the many examples of work I was able to do with students in the grand effort to move towards total Zero Waste.

 

Kathy:  That sounds incredibly rewarding!

 

 

Stay tuned for Part Two to learn more about what it means to be “Zero Waste” and the challenges of living a Zero Waste Lifestyle…

Celebrating International Co-ops Day

On Saturday, July 7th, we will join co-ops around the world in celebrating International Co-ops Day, joining the United Nations (UN) and the International Co-operative Alliance in a commemoration held annually since 1923.  This year, at a time of dramatic change in our climate and local economies, co-ops and credit unions are highlighting how their businesses offer a solution by contributing to more sustainable local communities.

“Co-ops Day is an opportunity for co-ops and their members to celebrate how we contribute locally and globally to address climate change and economic instability,” said Bonnie Hudspeth, Member Programs Manager of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA), a federation of more than 35 food co-ops across the Northeast, locally owned by more than 130,000 people from all walks of life. “When community needs are not being met — whether it’s for things like healthy food, credit, jobs, or insurance — co-ops offer a way for people to work together to make the world a better place.”

The theme of sustainability builds on the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which seeks to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change over the next fifteen years. As democratic, community-based businesses, co-ops have a unique role to play in these efforts.

Here in our region, food co-ops have been at the forefront of efforts to build more resilient and inclusive local economies. And over the past few years, NFCA member co-ops have been working together to share strategies for sustainability. One way that our Co-op is working to contribute to a more sustainable local community was through our recent expansion project. This project allowed us to make many physical improvements to our building envelope and upgrades to our equipment resulting in significant increases in our energy efficiency. Additionally, our larger store has allowed us to serve more community members (membership recently crossed the 5,000 household mark!), support more local farmers and producers, and provide more quality jobs for community members.

Observed internationally on the first Saturday in July, Co-ops Day often coincides with Independence Day celebrations here in the United States. Based on the principle of one member one vote, co-ops reflect American ideals of democracy, mutual self-help, and equality. We appreciated the large number of community members that turned out for our recent Annual Meeting and the excellent voter turnout in our recent Board election. This is democracy in action!

“The co-operative model is unique in that it empowers people to work together to meet their needs though jointly owned, democratically governed businesses,” said Erbin Crowell, NFCA Executive Director. “It should come as no surprise that co-ops have been part of American history from our beginnings and continue to play a key role in building vibrant and sustainable local communities, and a stronger, more resilient economy that works for everyone.”

For more information and a map of food co-ops across the Northeast, please visit www.nfca.coop/coopsday.

Reducing and Reusing Before Recycling

Significant progress has been made since the development of modern recycling programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most in our community have access to curbside recycling services and we’re rarely more than a few steps away from a recycling bin, even in public places. Thanks to streamlined all-in-one recycling services offered by the Addison County Solid Waste Management District which save us from having to sort our recyclables, it’s safe to say that recycling is pretty darned convenient these days. So convenient, in fact, that we might have forgotten about those other two “R’s.” We all know that recycling is the right thing to do, but perhaps we could use a reminder that the most effective way to reduce waste is to not create it in the first place.

Recycling an item definitely beats sending it to the landfill, but it still takes a significant amount of energy to recycle an item and transform it into something “new.” As a result, reduction and reuse are the most effective ways you can save natural resources, protect the environment and save money.

The Benefits of Reducing & Reusing:

  • Prevent pollution caused by reducing the need to harvest new raw materials.
  • Save energy.
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change.
  • Save money.
  • Reduce the amount of waste that will need to be recycled or sent to landfills and incinerators.
  • Allow products to be used to their fullest extent.

Ideas to Help You Reduce & Reuse

  • Buy used and refurbished when possible. You can find everything from clothes to electronics to building materials at specialized reuse centers, architectural salvage yards, and consignment shops. Often, used items are less expensive and just as good as new. Middlebury has several wonderful thrift stores and if you’re in Burlington, be sure to check out ReSOURCE.
  • Look for products that use less packaging. When manufacturers make their products with less packaging, they use less energy and fewer raw materials. This reduces waste and costs. These extra savings are often passed along to the consumer.
  • Buy in bulk. When you bring your own containers to buy bulk items, you save packaging waste and you can also save money. At the Co-op, you can bring your own container to buy foods such as flour, grains, maple syrup, and honey in the Bulk department; soaps, lotion, and bath salts in the Wellness department; on-tap beverages such as kombucha, coffee, and tea; and Deli items from the salad bar or hot bar.
  • Buy items that are reusable rather than disposable and incorporate reusable items into your daily routines. For example, you can bring your own silverware and coffee mug to work and bring your own shopping bags to the store.
  • Maintain and repair products clothing, tiresand appliances, so that they won’t have to be disposed of and replaced as frequently. Think quality over quantity when purchasing these kinds of items.
  • Borrow, rent, or share items that are used infrequently, such as party decorations, tools or furniture. Front Porch Forum is a handy resource.
  • Think twice before discarding an item. Consider alternative uses. The mesh bag your citrus came in can be reused for future produce purchases and that empty two-liter bottle can make a fun hanging planter.
  • Plan ahead.Planning your weekly meals in advance, utilizing leftovers, and shopping the refrigerator first are great ways to reduce food waste. For more tips on reducing food waste, click here.
  • Donate gently used items whenever possible. You can drop them off at a thrift store, or consignment shop, or you can post them to Front Porch Forum. Let your trash be someone else’s treasure!

 

 

 

The True Cost of Food

Should farmers and farm workers be paid a fair and livable wage for their work? It is important for food to be grown and produced in ways that minimize the impact on our personal health and the health of our environment? What is that worth? The average person in our community would likely answer an emphatic yes to those first two questions, though it can be difficult to draw connections between those issues and the price tags on our food. As a mission-driven natural foods Co-op, these are questions we grapple with daily and it can be difficult to strike a balance between offering foods at an attractive price, while still ensuring good environmental, health, and labor practices.

Understanding the true cost of food is key, though the many hidden costs associated with “cheap food” make it challenging to do so. When one considers the externalized costs of cheap food – those that aren’t immediately reflected on a price tag – it becomes evident that, in many ways, cheap foods are much more expensive in the long run. Their impacts are not always obvious or visible, though we pay for the damage through taxpayer dollars spent on subsidies, environmental cleanup, and rising healthcare costs associated with poor diet, adverse farm labor conditions, and exposure to farm pollution. Unfortunately, the market is heavily tipped in favor of those who produce food unsustainably. Consider the impacts:

Environmental Impacts:

  • agricultural runoff is the #1 pollutant of US rivers and waterways, killing wildlife, reducing biodiversity, and contaminating groundwater.
  • The EPA estimates that we could save $15 billion in water treatment spending if we eliminated agricultural pollutants
  • chemical agriculture destroys pollinators and other beneficial insects that are critical to the security of our food supply
  • chemical agriculture results in superweeds and superbugs, which require ever-larger doses of chemicals to deter
  • chemical agriculture degrades and strips precious topsoil at an estimated loss of 24 billion tons of topsoil per year
  • The average food item travels 2,000 miles before arriving on your plate, resulting in significant carbon expenditure

Impacts for farmers and farmworkers:

  • Farmers and ranchers receive, on average, only 15.6 cents of every food dollar that consumers spend on food. According to USDA, off-farm costs including marketing, processing, wholesaling, distribution and retailing account for more than 80 cents of every food dollar spent in the United States.
  • Farmworkers receive an even smaller share of the retail dollar, usually about one-third of what the farmer receives.
  • About 75 percent of the workers on U.S. crop farms were born abroad, mostly in Mexico, and exploitative labor practices among the migrant farmworker community are all too common.
  • Exploitative labor practices (much of it involving child labor abuses) are well documented for many imported products, as well. Particularly with produce, chocolate, and coffee.
  • Low wages in the farming and food service industries cost US taxpayers $153 billion per year in government assistance programs
  • Federal farm subsidies & crop insurance (which prop up the largest 10% of mega-farms and leave smaller, diversified farms in the lurch) cost US taxpayers $20 billion per year

Impacts to Human Health:

  • One in three adults is considered clinically obese, along with one in five kids
  • 24 million Americans are afflicted by type 2 diabetes, with another 79 million people having pre-diabetes.
  • Obesity-related health conditions cost $2 trillion globally and $147 billion in the US each year
  • Antibiotic resistance, much of which is related to the abundance of antibiotics in our food and water supply, costs $55 billion per year in the US
  • Endocrine disrupting chemicals like those found in pesticides & food packaging costs the U.S. more than $340 billion annually due to health care costs and lost wages
  • Loss of productivity due to obesity-related absenteeism ranges between $3.38 billion ($79 per obese individual) and $6.38 billion ($132 per obese individual)

This video produced by the Sustainable Food Trust does a great job of breaking it down:

 

“But, organic, fairly-traded, sustainably produced food seems so expensive!”, you might be saying. Consider this: In the US, we spend less than 9% of total household income on food. This figure has dropped significantly over the last half-century, from 40–50% of household expenditure. In short, we spend less of our income on food than any other people at any time in history. We currently spend more per family on alcohol than we do on fruits and vegetables. Food has never been cheaper and more abundant than it is today, and we, as a society have never been more overfed and undernourished. We can no longer afford to eat this way.

So, what’s the alternative?

Small, diversified, organic farms use less fuel and produce fewer greenhouse gases than their conventional monoculture mega-farm counterparts. They raise animals in appropriate scale and rotationally graze animals to avoid over-grazing and to allow the land to naturally recycle animal wastes, which, in turn, helps build and fortify the soil. They rotate crops and employ beneficial insects to minimize issues with pests and avoid pesticides. They use green manures (cover crops) and compost to fortify and build fertile topsoil. Buying meat & produce from local farmers saves 17 times the fuel costs associated with the typical well-traveled meats, fruits, and veggies from afar.

You can also feel confident that the money spent on local food is having a direct positive impact on your local economy, supporting a local farm family, and helping to preserve the agrarian landscape that we treasure so dearly in Vermont. When your recipe calls for foods that are not grown or produced in Vermont, buying foods bearing fair-trade certification guarantees that exploitative labor practices have been avoided and a premium is being paid to the farmer. Of course, the point-of-purchase price of these foods is higher. It simply costs more (up front) to produce food this way, though it’s far more reflective of the real values associated with producing the food item.

When you’re spending your hard-earned food dollars at your neighborhood food co-op, you’re going one step further to ensure that your local farmers are getting a fair shake and that everyone who handles that food throughout the supply chain is paid fairly.  Co-ops work with significantly more local farmers and producers than their conventional grocery store counterparts and offer more organic and fair trade certified products as a percentage of total grocery sales. Our Co-op works with over 400 local farmers and producers, generating more than $3.5 million in sales to local farmers and producers every year. $1.3 million of that goes directly to Addison County farmers and producers. We also strive to keep costs as low as possible by taking a lower margin on local products. Here’s a breakdown of where your food dollar goes when you spend it at the Co-op:

 

Of course, we recognize that there are many people who would love to be able to purchase 100% local, organic, and/or fairly traded food but their budget simply won’t allow it. We acknowledge that affordable access to healthy foods is a challenge. To that end, we have two programs at our Co-op aimed at addressing this issue:  Food for All and Co-op Basics. Through our Food For All program shoppers who are currently enrolled in SNAP or WIC, Home Heating Assistance, or clients of our local Food Shelves are eligible to enroll in the program and shop with a 10% discount on all items (excluding alcohol, by law). The Co-op Basics program is for all shoppers and offers everyday staples throughout the store that fit your budget. Just look for the purple tags.

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