On Tuesday, September 28, my work for the Brattleboro Food Co-op put me on a flight to Washington, D.C. I would soon join Karin Mott of Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op and Allan Reetz of Hanover Food Co-op in the nation’s Capital. Together, we would spend an unforgettable day at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health.
For each of us, acting as a delegate to that rare gathering allowed us to bring a cooperative voice to the public health agenda. Karin, Allan, and I were nominated as conference delegates by leadership at the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) and the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA). With deep gratitude, we carry their trust forward to serve the more significant cooperative sector as it builds on the legacy of cooperative impact on nutrition.
Of course, food and nutrition advocacy are nothing new to cooperatives. Nor are the ideals of collaboration on a grand scale. My journey to the conference put me in the footsteps of Nan King, who represented the Hanover Co-op at the first White House Conference on Food and Nutrition in 1969. Being a steward of such work is a high honor and substantial responsibility.
From that first conference more than 50 years ago, our nation’s fight against malnutrition, hunger, and poor health evolved into life-changing programs that serve people in need today. But the growth of resulting initiatives like SNAP (Food Stamps), the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) was a slow evolution. Unfortunately, over the years, that progression has too often been divisive. And today, lingering challenges remain.
To participate in the WIC program as a retailer, a store MUST carry a certain number of products that fit into every category, including conventional products and sizes, which are only available through a handful of brands. In fact, as of the 2021-2023 WIC Product List, a handful of products are keeping some Co-ops, like Middlebury, from being able to serve as a WIC participating store. Through that system, Middlebury cannot accept WIC cards as payment, even for the WIC products that they do carry.
Cooperative food stores of every size solve food gaps and act as information sources within their urban and rural communities. Expectant parents and new mothers rightly obsess about health, nutrition, and their baby’s milestones.A food co-op is often a store of choice for finding foods that match dietitian guidelines, gather healthful recipes, and keep their dollars at work locally. The USDA’s current requirements effectively prevent many Co-ops and local suppliers from participating.
During our busy day at the White House Conference, we spoke with the conference chair, Congressperson Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. The cooperative impact is no secret to Congressperson McGovern, with 10 NFCA member co-ops in his state. The conference also allowed these issues to be raised with Stacey Dean, USDA’s Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. Gaining high-level attention from USDA and knowing Congressman McGovern’s deep concern for such matters puts us on a path to better federal policy. It is how food cooperatives strive to solve issues faced by many small, independent grocers who want to serve new parents who qualify for WIC benefits.
The Brattleboro Food Cooperative is a founding member of the NFCA, established by food co-ops in our region to create opportunities for this kind of collaboration, shared learning, and advocacy. It also builds on NFCA’s Healthy Food Access program, which brings our co-ops together to support food security by making healthy, nutritious food and co-op membership more accessible to people on limited incomes. It is heartening that our political leaders recognize the need to be a part of the solution to ending hunger, and even more importantly, they have a strategy to do so by 2030, but there is a lot of work to do. The Brattleboro Food Cooperative is grateful for the opportunity to advocate for greater access to healthy, local, sustainable food for our communities.
To find out more about the White House National Strategy to end hunger, please visit this document.
You can also read up on Nan King’s original write up here.
Here is a brief summary of the 1969 White House Conference and the headwinds we face(d) with the WIC program since its inception.
by Allan Reetz, Amy Crawford, Karin Mott