2022 BFC Annual Meeting

  | Annual Meeting, Board of Directors, News from the Board of Directors

The 46th Annual Shareholder’s Meeting of the Brattleboro Food Co-op took place via Zoom on November 9, 2022.

Following is the transcript of the meeting.

Click here to read the Q&As which occurred during the meeting.

The link to the meeting video will be available online in December.


Transcript

PETER GOULD: Welcome, everybody! Thank you to the Board of the Co-op and to the membership, too, for inviting me to facilitate. I’m Peter Gould. I was asked to begin with a land acknowledgment, and we received a beautiful one from Rich Holschuh, which I’m going to use some of. Here’s the way it goes.  

Long before, and ever since this place began to be called Brattleboro, it has been known by the original people here as Wantastegok. We’re reminded of this continuity when we look over to the east, where the moon is rising and we see Mount Wantastiquet just over the river. It was here in Brattleboro that the process of colonization began in what we call Vermont.

With that realization, Rich makes sure that we understand, comes our commitment to gratitude, to respect, and to trying to build vital place-based relationships among all who dwell here now. To me, this message from Rich is powerful and clear, and it also, it reminds me, as I walk through the Co-op, which I did just yesterday to prepare for this facilitation – as I walk through, I see foods like corn, popcorn, chocolate, peanuts, and tomatoes, and so many other staples. I see sustainable brands like Seventh Generation, and I hear the cooperative principles, which we depend upon: I hear them embraced and talked about. 

So tonight I’m suggesting that we do not just acknowledge the land and the existence of the people who lived here and loved the land before colonization. Our acknowledgment tonight for the purpose of this meeting can be so much greater. 

We understand, and we appreciate, and we thrive on the food, the social organizations which were already in place here centuries ago, and the loving mutuality and the respect for future generations which all belonged here with that land, and that was all in the people’s mind who lived here before the colonizers arrived. 

We are a Co-op, but there have been cooperatives here for centuries before us.

So with all this in mind, and being sensitive to all of that, let’s begin our annual meeting, shall we? 

As your facilitator, I just have a few structural words. So this right now, this is the welcome.

It’s the introductory part of the agenda, and it’s great to see so many faces here on [the]  Zoom screen. But I want you to know that we would love to return again to the times when we see everybody in person at this meeting, and we will, we promise. We’re on the Zoom screen right now, and we’re happy that we have the ability to see each other in this way.

But we will be together again in person. [There are] a few rules that exist on Zoom so let’s talk about them. Now please write your name clearly in the box. If you haven’t done that yet, you can add a pronoun choice, if you want. We will want to know these names later – it helps us to keep a census of how many people attended, and also it’s the best way for us to follow up on a question, to answer them personally.  Speaking of questions, we’re here to listen respectfully.  We have a full program tonight, a full agenda, but there will be a chance to ask questions, but we’d like for you to put those in the chat so as not to interrupt the flow that we have in mind for the meeting.

We’ll read them off. We’ll choose a few to answer right here and now, but I promise you that we will track you down, and we will answer every question that you post. That’s a promise. I think that that’s all now for me. I think I’ve said it all. I will tell you that I’m also the timekeeper. And I will be making sure that everybody sticks to the time signature that we have laid out potentially for this meeting. Now I’ll turn it over to the Vice President, Judy Fink.


JUDY FINK: Thank you, Peter. What a lovely welcome! And I welcome you as well. I’m the Board Vice President, this is my I believe my third year as Board Vice President, and my third year doing these introductions, so I feel like I’m a little more polished than I was the first year around. 

As Peter mentioned, you know it’s unfortunate that we are doing this by Zoom, but it’s fortunate that we’re doing it, and so that’s really exciting to have all of us here together today, and I promise you even though we’re on Zoom and looking at these little screens in front of us, we will come away from this experience very proud of what we can do as a community-owned grocery store. 

So I don’t know if you remember this, but when you registered for the annual meeting, we asked you a few questions about yourselves and those were the questions that we used to make the graphs that we’re going to show you once again. If you were part of the meeting for the first 15 informal minutes, you got to see those graphs twice, but we’ll look at them again now.

But first of all, I need to let you know that 219 shareholders have registered to participate this evening, and we think that might be a record in terms of annual meeting participation, so that’s great. The first slide shows you about traveling, and most of us have traveled less than 5 miles to shop at the Co-op, followed closely by those of us who travel between 10 and 20 miles. So that’s definitely a local neighborhood grocery store. In terms of our membership, our longevity, our shareholder membership has grown steadily over the decades with a significant jump in membership, from the year 2000 on and that’s really really exciting. And you can see there’s an even bigger jump in 2020.

This is the first annual meeting for 92 shareholders, so welcome! We are thrilled that you are joining us, and we are looking forward to seeing you in person next year. 

So my official role in tonight’s meeting is to introduce you to our current Board Directors and to the candidates who are on this year’s ballot. But before I do that I need to appreciate all of the people who are responsible for tonight. Many of us have become very accustomed to the seamlessness of Zoom meetings. But there’s actually a lot of complexity behind the scenes in organizing and so first of all, I want to thank Peter. Great job for facilitating, it’s really great to have you as part of our team.

Jen Zakrzewsky is our tech support wizard and she’s behind the scenes, and she’s up there on the screen as well, you can see her. Bravo to the BFC Annual meeting organizational team. They’re Sarah Brennan, Amy Crawford, and Lee Bradford. Many thanks to the VJC Sextet for providing music to open our meeting.

Most significantly, our Co-op would be just a building without the hard work and the dedication of all of its employees who show up for us every single day. A big shout out to Lee Bradford, who you’ll be meeting tonight and this is just a very exciting evening for all of us. 

So, as you know, the shareholders elect nine Board directors who represent you and work on your behalf to steer this organization. Two of our directors stepped down in the spring – Nick Dickison and Yoshi Manale – before their terms were completed. I have the pleasure of introducing you to our current Board of seven of the most dedicated and energetic individuals I have had the pleasure of knowing. Please wave hello to Calvin Dame, me, Denise Glover, John Hatton, Michele Meulendyk, Jerelyn Wilson, and Johanna Zalneraitis. There we are – yeah, go team!

So one of the most important responsibilities for directors is Board perpetuation, and we rely on a slate of capable and caring individuals to step up and make the commitment to support the Co-op’s health and growth. Each of us looks to you as potential future Directors. This year, Board Directors reached out to quite a few shareholders to ask them to consider Board service.

Many of you were reluctant and were concerned that you just did not have the skills to do a good job.

But really what we’ve discovered is what’s most important is the desire to give back to the BFC.

We’re all regular people who appreciate how important our Co-op is to our community, and we want to make sure it continues to thrive. We hope you might consider running for a Board seat in future years. That being said, we have 5 open seats and 7 amazing candidates who have thrown their hats into the ring.

A huge thank you to our candidates. Please be sure to read each of their statements of interest; we’ll provide a link to the candidate statements in the chat window and their statements will also appear on your ballot and on the BFC website. Voting begins tonight at 8 o’clock and will close November 23 at 5 pm. To vote, click on the link on the front page of the BFC website. I will introduce you to each candidate whose names you will see on your ballot, starting with the three Board incumbents. Please welcome Calvin Dame, Michele Meulendyk, Denise Glover. Those are our three incumbents. Ken Fay, Anneka Kindler, Daniel Schoener and Vanessa Vadim.

Thank you. Thank you for stepping up. Finally, please welcome my friend, colleague, and remarkable human being, Jerelyn Wilson, BFC Board President. Jerelyn continues to work tirelessly on behalf of the BFC.


JERELYN WILSON: Thank you, Judy, for those kind words. It’s really an honor to serve an organization that has contributed on so many levels to what makes this region a place in which I choose to live, a place that has an appreciation for local agriculture, a place with community-minded individuals, and a progressive culture that is open to learning and growing. 

So this annual meeting is the one time of year when we, as Co-op shareholders, Co-op owners, come to hear a description from leadership about the past fiscal year, so if you haven’t already done so, I hope you will read the 2022 Annual Report. It encompasses our Co-op’s activity from July 2021 through this past June 2022.

So for your Board of directors, the majority of this period involved an intense national search for a new General Manager. We were extremely thankful to our former General Manager Sabine Rhyne for giving us a half-year notice of her resignation. Her 6 years of leadership stood the Co-op on its feet financially and saw us successfully through the worst of the pandemic with a focus on the safety of workers and shoppers. There was no prior time where circumstances demanded more flexibility, wisdom, and constant attention than the recent pandemic, and Sabine met that challenge with dedication, unflagging effort, and foresight. 

As I mentioned in the Annual Report, the Search Committee of the Board met weekly. When our search did not yield a new General Manager by December, Store Manager Whitney Field stepped up to the plate as Interim GM. And we can all be very grateful for her embrace of a one-month sprint that turned into a 3-month marathon. So. Thank you very much, Whitney. 

The search committee considered and/or conducted interviews with 7 qualified candidates. In the end, the Board offered Lee Bradford the position. On February 22nd, he signed an employment agreement to begin on March 21st as the new General Manager of the Brattleboro Food Co-op.

It’s significant to remember that Alex Gyori, our first General Manager, served for 39 of the Co-op’s 45 years, then Sabine Rhyne, previously Marketing Director at the Co-op, was hired as General Manager. so Lee is only the Co-op’s third General Manager. He comes to us with extensive experience in retail grocery industry, honed management, and leadership skills, and a respect and appreciation for the cooperative business model. I can tell you that we are in very good hands with Lee.

However, never can we take for granted that this Co-op, our Co-op, will always be here. The thriving future of our Co-op is a collective effort on the part of all of us. So how do we each contribute? First and foremost, by shopping at the Co-op! Also, by being supportive and appreciative of Co-op workers.

By rounding up your pennies to help fulfill our commitment to community, by serving on the Board or joining a Board committee, and by understanding the differences between a cooperative and a traditional business. I ask each of you as shareholders to know the significance of your contribution to this endeavor. You belong. You matter.  You are a part of what will ensure our future. So thank you. 

And now I’d like to pass the baton to our Board Treasurer, someone whose consistent dedication at the Co-op has never wavered. John Hatton.


JOHN HATTON: Hey folks. Thank you, Jerelyn. So I’m going to give you everything you probably want to know about our finances in just this slide. Looking at our sales trend, the one that says sales, basically over the last year, we were at $21.4 million in 2020 the first year of the pandemic. Shopping was a much different experience. We limited how many people could be in the store at once! Everyone had to be masked. Life was no fun. You remember that. The reins were loosened in 2021; people were vaccinated; life edged towards a form of normalcy. You can shop in the store again, although flaws in the supply chain hampered our inventory, and what you could buy. 

Our sales went up to $23.4 million. We received an $867,000 PPP loan that hugely affected our profitability, as we got $1,723,000 to the bottom line, which was remarkable. But even without the PPP loan forgiveness, we would have gotten almost $856,000 to our bottom line, which is also remarkable. Getting over 3% net profit in the grocery industry is doing really well. 

As you’ll see in the operating expenses graph, our operating expenses were down in 2021. The challenge was that we rarely had a full staff, so we did more business with less people, which made us more profitable. But it was hard on the staff. 

Our 2022 fiscal year was good. Our sales volume was 2.38% more than we budgeted, at $23.99 million dollars, and our operating expenses were under budget by 7.21%, which is huge. Our sales growth, over last year, was 2.66.% Our gross margin was .3% less than budget, but we still made an outstanding $545,262 in profit. Because of our strong financial position, we were able to pay down our shareholder loan debt from $1,189,800 to $595,800. We’ve done well. Alright, that’s it in a nutshell.

I don’t know why I lucked out, but I get to introduce Lee Bradford, so I’m really excited to do that.

I can tell you that we love Lee and it’s great to have them here, so please welcome.


LEE BRADFORD: Thanks, John. I appreciate it and looks like I’m on the screen right on schedule.

So thanks, Jen. Well, first and foremost, I guess I just want to say thank you. I’m going to share a quick slide show here.

Just so everybody can follow along. Bear with me just a minute…Let’s get that into presentation mode…Okay. So there… hopefully, everybody can see the slides.

So again, first of all, thank you for first, the opportunity to be here, and then, secondly, your time, and spending time with us this evening.  Tonight, I’m just going to give a very high-level look at some of the work that we’ve been up to in my first 6 months as General Manager here at the Co-op, and then we will move into some Q and A as well. So I just want to reiterate what Peter had shared: feel free to drop questions in the chat as they occur to you, as we go through. Peter will help us facilitate some Q and A. When I wrap up here and we get into that section, it’s almost certain that we will not have an opportunity to answer everybody’s questions here in this forum tonight, but as Peter indicated, we are absolutely committed to doing that, and sharing those questions with everyone so and those answers as well, so, thank you.

Before we jump into business here, just a little. I just want to do a quick introduction. I’ve had an opportunity to meet many shareholders, but certainly nowhere near the 8,600+ that we have, so just to give you a little bit of background about me. 

My wife, Melanie, and I, we’ve been married 22 years. We have a son, Max, who’s 21 up at UVM. We have a daughter, Isabelle, who’s 18 at SUNY Oswego, and a daughter, 15, Chloe, who is at BUHS. We raised our family in Keene, New Hampshire, right across the river. We lived there for 14 years, my wife, Melanie is a teacher by trade, and still teaching, and before the Co-op, I had several leadership roles at both UNFI and C&S in the food distribution and retail grocery industry.  So just over I guess just about a year and a half or so ago, C&S moved us out to California, where I held the role of general manager for FreshKO, which is a produce company out there, as well as Vice President of Sales for C&S west coast, which was California, Washington, and Oregon. In the interest of time, let’s just say it was not our cup of tea. We’re very much New Englanders at heart, and after a few months began looking for ways to get back to what we considered home.

As we were looking for opportunities to return to the area, I was connected with a cooperative, and really for my first interaction with the selection committee, I knew this was a place that not just that I wanted to land, but that I wanted to finish my career. So again, I’m very excited to be here and appreciate the opportunity

So from an initial approach, just as I joined the team at the end of March, and that was after a fairly hectic cross country trip with 3 dogs – excuse me, 3 cats, a dog, a broken down U-Haul in New Mexico, a road-closing windstorm in Kansas, and 9 days on the road, we ended up here at our apartment on High Street, and ready to start work at the Co-op, and I focused on a few key areas.

I have them up on the slide. I’m not going to read the slides. They’re there for reference, but just as context for my notes here tonight. My top priority was absolutely learning about people. Building a great team, really is what I enjoy, what I thrive on and understanding how to help this team be successful was really my first, you know, job one, top priority. 

I, of course, also looked into the business side and really did as much as I could educate myself very quickly on our financial status and not just that, but the Co-op industry in general, and how it’s shifted and changed, especially in the face of Covid. And then I also was very interested in looking at industry trends in the grocery space and food supply chain space, and how they apply to the co-ops differently than a conventional retail store or how the conventional responses to those trends can impact co-ops because we’re in a huge time of flux and change right now. So it felt very important for me to understand that. My goal was really to have a one year plan in place, you know, within the first 90 days, that would lay a foundation and take us through this year, and allow us breathing room to operate but also start a much longer strategic planning for the next you know, 10, 15 years, and beyond.

So people. So you know, life is people, and that is just sort of an underpinning of my leadership and management philosophy. A  good team can overcome bad processes and outdated technology and broken tools. But you can have the fanciest technology in the world, and the most efficient processes in the world, and without the right people, you’re just not going to be successful.

Similarly, my entire career has been focused on the customer experience and creating a really good experience for people who interact with the enterprises that I’m part of.  So it’s equally important to understand, you know, the interests and perspective of our stakeholders. So our Board, our shareholders, our shoppers, suppliers, and our community at large, are, you know, are all important stakeholders in the success of the Co-op. It’s also an important way to make sure we’re focused on the right thing in-store, is to make sure that we are understanding all the interests of our stakeholders.

I had the opportunity, when I first came on board to meet some shareholders, I did several tablings throughout the first few weeks. I continue to be, I would say intentional on establishing relationships with our suppliers and some of our business partners. I think we have a great opportunity to strengthen some of those and Jerelyn and I began, well we began speaking, as I was driving across the country.

But we started having our weekly check-ins right away, so I’ve had a great experience getting to know the Board and the staff of the Co-op, specifically you know, there’s just an amazing team here. They’re incredibly committed. They have invested an unbelievable amount of time and energy, especially over the past several years, to bring this Co-op to where we are, and the team just has an amazing, yeah outside of work, assortment of backgrounds and talents and interests that just make this an incredibly rich place to be.

I also found a team, though that was overworked and underpaid, and some conflict with our Union.

And so those are, you know, 3 key areas that we tackled very quickly to try to make sure that we are creating the best workspace possible for this talented team and I’m excited [about] what we’re capable of with a little TLC and a positive workplace culture, so I’m excited to be part of this team.

From a business perspective, I reviewed and obviously continue to evaluate our financial data, but not just our financial information and our books. 

I also wanted to look at our survey data (the voice of our shoppers), our staff survey (the voice of our team), and then dig into our business processes, and really spend time kind of understanding as best I could, all the non-people aspects of our operations. So you know, I expect to be in the learning phase for this for quite some time.

It’s not something you just digest overnight, and I think one of the reasons I love it here is, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t learn something new, but I’ve honed in relatively quickly on a few key things that I that we are certainly exploring, looking at ways to understanding how they impact our business.

The first is reducing our debt, so I’ve written about this a few times in our Food for Thought. You know that has to be a top priority for us to reduce our monthly outgoing interest payments and get us back to standing on our own feet.

Our discount structure, which the Co-op spends about half a million dollars a year on, is also something that we want to understand how that impacts our ongoing financial health.

And then really putting a plan in place to catch up on a lot of deferred maintenance. If you look at the graph that John shared, you’ll see a big spike of capital last year from the PPP Loan and Covid but before that very very flat, more of a break-even for perspective, and as a result, we’re 10 years into our new building. We have equipment here that is 22 years old, and you know we have to be intentional about how we manage our infrastructure and our facility.

So I spent a lot of time connecting with other GMs, and the National Cooperative Grocers was invaluable in helping us build those connections, and what was really interesting to me is that you know, during Covid, there was a significant turnover in not just co-ops, but retail grocery leadership general managers – people who just sort of had enough, hung up their hats, and so it’s really valuable to me about these relationships with a number of the GMs is, not only are they tackling the same challenges and problems that we are, but they’re also learning about them at the same time, so we have a nice new blend of new GMs learning, bringing in fresh ideas and fresh sets of eyes, but also really anchored with a very senior team in the general management space. So it’s just really a fantastic dynamic and work environment

So then I kind of just took again, a look at the trends, you know I’ve been working in grocery for many years, and it’s really important to understand what’s happening in our business. You won’t see anything that you know, surprises you on this slide here  – a lot of the devil is in the detail.

But the bottom line is that the supply chain and labor shortage will continue, inflation challenges continue, and all the forecasts indicate those are going to continue well into 2023. Prices are going up, and people are worried more about price now than Covid, so that is a huge shift and certainly, not everybody in every store, but in general that is a big shift in terms of shopper concern.

Our Co-op emerged, obviously very healthy from the first 2 years of Covid, and the trick will be to keep us that way, and so that’s a big focus. You’ll also notice that John shared cost of goods information. We included that in our annual report for the first time, in at least many years, that I’ve been able to go back and look at those reports. 

Because I think it’s important as shareholders, everybody understands the challenges we’re facing in terms of getting food on the shelf and the cost to do that. And that’s certainly something where you know we are working hard to mitigate that wherever we can.  Conventional competitors are answering these challenges by cutting people and automating and making consumers do their work, right?  So you order online, you go in, you pick up. They don’t want to pay people to deliver a great in-store experience because it’s expensive, and that’s certainly, you know, not something we’re ever going to look at doing; we want to provide great options for our shareholders and our shoppers, like curbside and online experiences, but we are definitely committed 100% to building a great in-store retail experience and having a staff and team that absolutely just creates a great shopping journey.

There’s kind of a wall of text here, I apologize, and can read that as I kind of go through here.

I’m not going to go through every bullet, but I did want to just share that I worked with the team to put together learnings into some things that we wanted to tackle during the first year, and really articulated these in 3 dimensions:  people, process and technology.

On the people side:  we’re on a journey to restructure our leadership team a little bit, so we can provide our department managers and assistant managers with better support, more time to focus on their team and more time for customers. I think that’s really the key. We’re establishing a positive work environment with the union. I’ve had a great experience with Jeff Jones, their president, and really look forward to a strong partnership in years to come. And we have really reinvigorated our justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts with Tabitha Moore and some other resources that we have engaged previously, but are re-engaging to make sure that we’re on the right path there.

I guess finally, for the shareholders and Jerelyn alluded to this a little bit, but we really would like your input on how we can create more engaging ways to involve you in the Co-op. We have a great new Events Coordinator named Lisa  Nichols – we featured her in our annual report. That’s not an accident, because she is doing an absolute fantastic job creating monthly volunteer events. She’s reinvigorated our community room usage, our classrooms, our instruction, our demo, our demos in-store, and really, just, I think, brought some things to life.

But your thoughts and suggestions are always welcome about ways that the opportunities we can provide you as shareholders to stay engaged in a way that’s compelling to you.

From a process side, we are really looking just at SOP [standard operating procedures] review, specifically around our financial planning and reporting. I think we have some opportunity to improve that process, and again not to belabor the point, but we need to find a way to support our equipment – things like refrigeration, mixers – instead of running them till they break, and then spending $40,000. We need to have them on a maintenance schedule and accrue the right dollars so that we can replace them without a major financial impact to our to our annual finances.

So moving on to technology, quickly. We’re really working on new point of sale inventory management and ordering system will also help us rethink our online shopping experience, which is admittedly a little clunky – perfectly good during Covid, but we want to improve that experience and making sure, generally speaking, that our IT network and our physical plant facilities are as clean, safe, and secure as possible.

So as we think forward to developing a vision, mission, and strategy, that’s really what’s driving our theme for the year: ensuring a thriving future, and it’s why we wanted to have a panel of community leaders available for you tonight and in many ways, you know Covid gave us so much needed financial breathing room and now we have to figure out how to maintain that, together. 

So to that end, you know, in addition to the panel this evening, Jerelyn and I will be hosting with shareholders some additional follow-up conversations about some of the topics and questions that we’re going to talk about tonight. Certainly, no discussion of these issues is complete without robust input from shareholders. So please look forward to those additional meetings and sessions being scheduled.

But you know the questions that we’re wrestling with are critical to our future, and we need your input so up on the screen there are a few and I’m sure many of you have questions for us as well, and we’ll have for our panelists. But I think it’s important to understand. We have questions, too, questions about, you know, remaining financially healthy. How do we support, not just our grocery store, but our local food infrastructure, local providers and suppliers? How do we help tackle hunger in our communities? Do our Ends remain relevant today, and do we need to update them or do they need to evolve in order for us to change what we’re doing or not. Everything might be working great but we want to make sure we’re asking these questions as we move forward and then of course how do we have the right and the largest positive impact on our community in years to come?

So these are all questions that we’re going to engage you with more completely. And those are the types of questions we’re going to be unpacking with our panel tonight.

But I’ll wrap up there. I think I’ve probably gone a little bit over, despite my best efforts, but I’m going to take it back to Peter for and we’ll start our Q. and A. session.

So I’ll stop sharing here, and Peter, I’ll turn it over to you


PETER GOULD: Okay. Yeah, Lee, we are over a little bit, and it’s interesting because of the fact that we wanted to have a question period now. But the questions that you posted there were great, and I’m sure that they were on the minds and almost on the lips and on the chat fingers of the people who were listening.

One interesting question that came in is, that is, you know now that we’re almost at the end of 2022, do you want to give us like a one-minute report about how staffing is going this year? Because John [Hatton], only, as the questioner says, only reported on staffing in the previous year, so how do we stand for staff in this calendar year?


LEE: We’re in a great place from a staffing perspective. John shared that we were under dollars pretty significantly in the previous year, and that is a sign that we don’t have enough people so yes, it’s great to be under budget a little bit, because it means you’re effectively managing your team and your expenses. But when you’re under to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, that means you’re burning out your staff, so when I joined the team we had about 141 folks on staff when I joined.  We have about 161 now give or take on the day. 

As many of you know, we did implement a wage adjustment, a compensation adjustment, so not only do we have more people, but they’re more expensive, and I’m very happy to say that those investments are really paying off.

So again, I shared this a little bit in a Food for Thought. Our turnover, which is one of the things we looked at when I first joined – you know our hiring, recruiting, and training practice was, you know, about industry standard: over 65% of the team was turning over and it turned over in’ 22. This year, we’ve knocked 20% off that. So we’re well under industry average, and we’ve saved probably about 40 to $50,000 in onboarding training and productivity expense by making sure that we have, you know, the right staff on board so hopefully, that answers.


PETER: One person has an idea which you might want to have a look at, Lee,  that they really appreciate when our Co-op names our Producer of the Month, and they figure that maybe we could even incentivize that a little bit more by giving extra shopping benefits to each organization, you know, who wins that. Each month the producers of the month could be, you know, celebrated even more by getting some more visibility, getting some discounts, things like that. That’s an idea that came in.


LEE: Yeah, no I think the way we feature and engage and bring forward the Producers of the Month to our shareholders, we can certainly do better. I mean we have some great producers – Slipstream Farms this month, and you know, just making sure that when you walk in the store, it’s front and center. We do have some signage with, you know, Producers of the Month in the past, but really making sure people understand during their shopping journey that, hey, we have, a really exciting producer featured, and I love the idea of some additional benefits to shareholders or shoppers, or the suppliers for getting that selection. So I certainly appreciate that suggestion.


PETER: And we have a question here about prices. My wife and I, for instance, [have] really low [shareholder] numbers. We’ve been shopping at the Co-op for 40 years or so, and sometimes our friends look at us askance, because, as they hop in their cars and drive to Keene to go to Market Basket and they say, well, “why do you shop at the Co-op? It’s so expensive” and I don’t even want to get into a grapple with them by comparing the price of this or that item that they’ve been able to drive a forty-mile round trip to get a slightly lower price on, but many people out there want one to know whether the Co-op prices are lower or higher.  It says here than Brattleboro grocery store is based on price comparisons, but it’s a messaging thing. I mean when my wife and I discussed why we shop at the Co-op, you know you just said, there are 160 employees at the Co-op and we’re giving them good jobs. So what do you have to say about that? In regards to prices.


LEE:  Sure. Yeah. So so first of all, I think you’re absolutely right. We, you know we’ll talk about pricing specifically, but we absolutely have to tell our story better about the value that we bring for the prices that we have. I feel very comfortable with most of the prices in our store. I’m going to share a quick story regarding olive oil that was really an important eye-opener for me. And really how helped us start to think differently about the assortment and pricing that we have in our store.

You know, we had an online review say that we were twice as expensive with our Colovita olive oil as our competitor and I thought well, that can’t be right. Rob, our grocery manager, curates just an amazing assortment of olive oils, and when you look at the price per ounce on the organics, the local, and some of the other options that he brings, the other suppliers, we are either under or at the price per ounce. When I looked at Colavita, though interesting, we were twice as expensive. The reason we’re twice as expensive is because nobody comes to the Co-op to buy Colavita, so we can’t, we couldn’t, we don’t move enough Colavita to buy in bulk, whereas it’s a featured brand in a conventional grocery store like Hannaford. Hannaford gets a ton of olive oil, and they also have custom sizes. Custom, you know, containers and different things. So what that really helped us understand was when people are price comparing they’re taking name brands they recognize from a conventional space, and they’re comparing it to the price they see on that same brand in the cooperative, and it’s not our mission to offer those same brands at that same price so the question becomes why do we have Colavita olive oil if we don’t move enough, and we have all these other things when all it does is hurt our price image?

So we did do some price analysis early when I first got here. I can say I’m very comfortable with it – we’re competitive, which is we’re between the lowest and highest with our competition here across most categories, and that some of the areas where we are a little bit more expensive like cheese, I would challenge you to go into Hannaford and find the cheese that Beth has captured, especially the local assortment and the Vermont assortment.

So again, Peter, I agree. It’s about educating what we get when we shop here at a Co-op.

Good jobs, investment in local suppliers, but it’s also up to us to make sure that we’re having an assortment that doesn’t allow false comparisons and create that perception of price issues where they’re there may not be them.


PETER:  One final question, then, which is very related to this theme, and then, as I said before, we promise that all the other questions that have been put into the chat, we’ll track you down, and we’ll give you an answer. Some people out there are worried, “is the working discount going away. I hear we won’t be able to put hours into the store anymore”.


LEE: Yeah. So I’ve heard that one, too. The answer is no. What we are trying to do is find new, different volunteer opportunities and really build our Commitment to Community program.

So you know, we currently have shareholders who come into the store and do hours of work here in exchange for their worker discount, which is great, and you know we’re not going to take that away, but we want to refocus our shareholder engagement into connectivity with each other and our community, versus just say, standing in the bulk and filling up, you know, mangoes for 2 hours right? So you know, we had a great event: the Connecticut River Conservancy hosted a river cleanup. We did the Whetstone. We had a number of shareholders come, and they just had such,  a much more positive, engaging experience, working together with Co-op staff on a project or common goal.

And so that’s really where we want to focus in the future as we move forward, is how do we reach out into the community, connect our shareholder base and really bring us together, not just come in and check a box for 2 hours, doing something mundane, but how do we really build connectivity and investment, so I’m really glad that question came up.

Because I’ve heard that one too, and no, we’re not, we’re not looking at changing the work discount. In fact, it’s part of our [bylaws]. It’s a requirement. So you know from the Board, so hopefully that answers that question, and people can rest assured that we’re not doing anything with that program


PETER: Well, there’s lots more questions that that was a great answer, and I have a few, too, but I will follow my own rule, and I’ll just put it into the chat because my clock says it’s time to go on to the panel discussion so we’re going to introduce the panel discussion right now.


LEE: Okay. Thanks. Peter. So I’m going to be facilitating the panelist discussion here. Just for everybody’s benefit, we have about 45 minutes devoted to this portion of our meeting tonight. For our panelists, I just want to make sure that each of you have some time to address some of the questions that we have, so I’m going to apologize in advance or ask for your understanding if I need to cut you off so that we can get some other answers. And we do have one panelist, Curtiss Reed, who is traveling and should be on momentarily, so we really appreciate him making the extra effort to be here tonight. And thank you to the panelists in front of us today. 

So in the interest of time, I’m just going to ask that we jump right in and each of the panelists briefly introduce yourself and share what having the BFC in the community means to you, and I’m just going to go in order of my screen. So I’ll just kind of call folks out here, and we’ll just we’ll just go around that way, so, Emilie, if you don’t mind kicking off with a brief introduction and what the BFC means to the community, and then we’ll head down to Amanda and move across.

So Emilie.


EMILIE KORNHEISER: Hi, thank you. So I am Emilie Kornheiser. I’m one of 3 state representatives from Brattleboro, just re-elected last night, quite happy about that. I am a former Board member and was very happy to be a Board member with many of the folks who are still on the Board tonight. I also feel compelled to say that this is not my house, I’m in a hotel room because I had meetings yesterday and today – anyway, my house doesn’t look quite this country quaint. 

So what the Co-op means to me. What the Co-op means to me is both democracy and community, which are two really core values for me and how I live my life. I love food, and I come from a family and friend community, where food is like the great connector, it’s where conversations happen.

It’s where caretaking happens. It’s where creativity happens.

And the fact that both the place that I spend my sort of food energy and the dollars that I spend for food can be source of really profound democratic control, ties everything together for me, so knowing that where I spend my dollars, where my food comes from, is something that I have a voice in, and that my neighbors have a voice in, and that the employees have a voice in, and that that those dollars that, you know, nourish me and nourish my community are driven by core values rather than a profit motive, by contributing back to community, rather than a profit motive, really helps me feel, and that my life sort of has a nice circle to it, and I think very much helps tie the entire community together in a meaningful way. So that’s what the Co-op means to me.

It’s also like the place where my kid, like I think probably learned math, and how to be an appropriate person in public, and we had lots of sensory exploration, and so you know it’s also the place I make small talk with everyone and there was certainly a phase during the pandemic where it was the only time I saw anyone in real life. And so it’s also like just a community having a place to talk about jam. 

So, thank you so much for having me here tonight, I’m looking forward to getting into the questions.


LEE: Excellent! Thank you, Emilie. Amanda, we’ll go to you and then Andrew, we’ll jump to you after Amanda has an opportunity here.


AMANDA WITMAN: Thanks. Lee. My name is Amanda Whitman, and I’m here representing the downtown Brattleboro Alliance, also known as the DBA.

In the summer of 2020 I helped Stephanie Bonin create the DBA’s Everyone Eats program and I’m still the Administrative Coordinator and Restaurant Liaison for that program. We produce 2,000 meals a week currently made by local restaurants with a required minimum of locally grown or produced ingredients and provide them to Brattleboro eaters in need, and I also work at the State level as the Communications and Stakeholder Engagement Coordinator for the statewide Vermont Everyone Eats program which has distributed over 300 million –  I’m sorry – 3 million – meals since it began in August 2020, and currently distributes 30,000 meals a week across the State. 

I also have been a Co-op member since I moved here in 2003 and that means that my Co-op number is in the 5000’s for anyone who notices such things. It’s not impressively low, but I’m proud of those 20 years of Co-op membership.

As far as what having the Co-op in the community means to me, I mean, I feel our Co-op is a cornerstone of our downtown, and as such it’s an unmistakable sign to visitors that Brattleboro’s residents are actively engaged and invested in our community. It’s a symbol of local values, local ownership and local investment. And it reminds us all that this is part of what Brattleboro is all about.

It’s also the center of community for many Brattleboro residents as a meeting place and a source of education.

It’s a significant economic driver giving local farmers and food producers and makers an easy to access outlet for expanding their sales base and it’s also a convenient way for local eaters to access locally produced foods and ingredients.

So basically it’s just like the shortcut. If you want to be a person who supports local producers. It’s one of the key places where the web of our downtown community is anchored, and our greater community comes together, and who you see there and how you interact with them is as important as the purchases that you might make. The way that customers and staff are treated, provide a model for how we, interact as a community.

I also just want to say I love seeing when the Co-op shows up at outside events as an active member of the community. At DBA we love seeing the Co-op at Gallery Walk alongside all the other vendors. Having the Co-op present for experiences like that really helps to remind the community that we are all in this together. Thank you.


LEE: Right. Thank you, Amanda. Andrew, we’ll go you. And then Patrick, and then I see Curtiss has been able to join so that’s great. Thank you, Curtiss. So, Andrew, go ahead with your introduction, please


ANDREW COURTNEY: Thank you. Lee. My name’s Andrew Courtney, and I’m here tonight representing Groundworks Collaborative. I am the Director of Foodworks. Foodworks is designed as a neighborhood grocery store, located just up the street from the Co-op on Canal Street. Foodworks is the region’s most heavily utilized food shelf. It’s a program where any household can come and shop every two weeks and pick out their own food and other household supplies.

We have offered delivery throughout the pandemic and at this point continue to do so. We do curbside pickups for those who are uncomfortable coming inside or unable, you know, for mobility reasons or otherwise, to come in and shop with us.

The Co-op. You know what it means to me, a thriving Co-op like ours and Brattleboro, it just tells a lot about the community at large, and you know the members’ understanding that food systems go beyond just basic sustenance.

It’s not just about filling the cart and filling the pantry, but the way that dollars are spent can really have a much more meaningful impact on those people involved in getting the food into the market, the people working in the market, the community at large, and it just kind of represents the values of Brattleboro. I’m very thankful that we have our Co-op here you know, kind of anchoring our downtown Brattleboro


LEE: Awesome. Thank you, Andrew, appreciate it, Patrick we’ll go to you. And then Curtiss.


PATRICK MORELAND: Oh, yeah. Thank you. Lee. Good evening, everybody. My name is Patrick Moreland. I’m the Assistant Town Manager for the Town of Brattleboro and have been a Co-op member for a number of years. Not nearly as long as most of you, I’m sure, but longer than I can, in fact, remember.

Like many of you, I would say that Co-op is very near and dear to my heart. It is a place that is obviously all about food and kind of like what Emilie was saying before, food is so central to our life both individually, it’s what sustains us keeps our bodies moving, etc. But you know it’s where we come together as people and as families to sit down to a meal together. You know it plays such an important role in our lives.

I’ve been a consumer of food most of my life, and a preparer of food for much of the last 20 years or so, I’ve developed a passion for cooking and baking, and to me going to the Co-op is kind of like what I would imagine if I was an artist, what going to Zephyr is like, right? You’ve got all those incredible ingredients there that to me, you know, they’re like paints or chalks, or just raw materials and themes that can sort of build together, and begin to express yourself. To me, going to the Co-op is all about creativity and self-expression and quality.

Right. The quality of the items that you find at the Co-op is pretty much unparalleled elsewhere in Brattleboro, and so to me just a very exciting and vibrant location. The other thing I would say about the Co-op is, you know, as I get a little older I get increasingly uninterested in corporate culture, and when you walk into the Co-op, it feels like Brattleboro.

It doesn’t feel like cookie cutter. You know,” this is something that’s somewhere else”, and, you know, “I could walk into any of a number of other communities and sort of have this experience”. No. When you walk into the Co-op, you’re here, and so it just to me kind of feels like home, and that’s a good feeling, and I like going there because of that.


LEE: Right. Thank you, Patrick. I love the analogy to the creativity. That’s great. Curtiss. I know you have been traveling, and thank you so much for jumping in here tonight. If you were just doing a quick introduction, and then a little bit about what having a food cooperative in the community means from your perspective.


CURTISS REED JR.: Okay. Thank you. Like Emilie, I am also in a hotel room, but my hotel room is in San Francisco. Right, literally three minutes ago I made it online. I am President and CEO of the CRJ Consulting group.

You know us largely by one of our subsidiaries, which is the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, and we have two other subsidiaries: the Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future and I Am a Vermonter. I’m also founder of the Vermont African American Heritage Trail.

My life with the Co-op began in 1979 when I became a member. And my membership lapsed, beginning in 1983, when I embarked on an 18 consecutive year journey, teaching cooperative managers how to manage cooperatives overseas. When I came back in 2003, or 2001, I rejoined the cooperative at that point, the Co-op, and I was also totally blown away by the fact that the cooperative flag overseas – the multicolored stripes – was originally the co-op movement flag and when I came back to the States I said “Wow, look at all these Co-op members”,  you know, multi-rainbow flags on their cars or their bicycles. And then I realized that, well, someone told me, that that was the symbol now of the LGBTQ community. 

So what the Co-op means for me is, the possibility of an idea coming to fruition that, you know, we sustain ourselves. You know, we live by the cooperative tenets of, you know, one number, one vote, transparency, accountability, service to membership, etc., and when I say it’s striving for those things, because from my point of view there are not enough members of the global majority who are members of the Co-op. And global majority – some people use the word BIPOC, but that makes no sense.  But the global majority are indigenous, Black, Asian, you know, brown, and anyone who’s been characterized as an ethnic minority – don’t see enough. Yeah, even when I came back and the population had changed. It was changing. I didn’t see that change represented when I walked through the Co-op, so…


LEE: Thank you Curtiss, and I think that leads us into a great question and discussion. So you’ve talked to that. You’re referencing specifically our changing community. But I think my first question for the panelists and Emilie, we’ll go back and start with you, and then again, if we keep our answers to one or 2 min, I want to make sure we get to hear from each panelist.

What are the external factors that our community is dealing with that you think are important for the Brattleboro Food Co-op to consider as we plan our future? So you know, things like housing etc. what are some of those factors and how do you see that impact playing out?


EMILIE: Okay. Am I good? Okay. I think maybe there was someone doing tech was working at odds with my own button pushing there. Hi! So the question was: community issues and the Co-op’s role in community issues. In this moment I sort of lost my thread when I was pressing the same button over and over again for a second.


LEE: That’s quite yeah, no, that’s quite all right. So what are some of the external factors that are facing our community, that you think we need to be ready to help address or tackle as the food cooperative?


EMILIE: I think one important role that the Co-op has, that I think we might not think about as often in the context of our community, is a cornerstone of cooperative principles and cooperative governance and cooperative ownership.

And I think one of the largest issues facing our community is our massive demographic changes, and so that is demographic changes related to age, relating to the generation that moved here in the sixties and seventies making many transitions in their life sometimes sort of not … going to finish that sentence, and then folks of color, more folks of color moving to this community, more folks who did not grow up in Vermont moving here, and then the changing face of both poverty and wealth in our community, and I think being a, sitting as a cornerstone, of cooperative principles, both serves as an example for folks to think about different ways of organizing businesses. So as many of our businesses are owned or managed by sort of that generation, that moved here in the sixties and seventies that I’ve talked about, I think reminding folks like, having this sitting here as a successful cooperative, reminds folks as a viable business solution for business transitions, I think, is really powerful and important, as well as reminding us in a time where we have less and less public community spaces, where people feel more and more disenfranchised, that as new members come to our community, that this, the Co-op, can be a cornerstone for a truly welcoming community, because people have a stake in what happens, and that we have an opportunity to truly have true inclusion because of that. I don’t…. I think that it’s going to take a lot of effort for the Co-op to live up to those ideals.

But I think the opportunity for participation in another facet of democracy, both from the business ownership perspective, and the inclusive community perspective, is what the Co-op can really offer in these wild times we’re all living in.  I also like the downtown grocery store.


LEE: Yeah. Oh, great. Thank you.


EMILIE:  I imagine someone else must say it, but just in case they don’t – it’s weird to go first – I just want to make sure I said that too. 


LEE: Right on. Alright, Amanda again, just thinking about, you know, factors external to the BFC and facing, you know, Brattleboro or the surrounding area here. What are the things we need to have in mind for the Co-op?


AMANDA: Well, Emilie, I’m glad that you said so many words I want to say, oh, to echo what you said about the changing face of poverty and wealth in our community, I mean ever-changing, right, but it feels so important to continue working to change the perception of the Co-op and as being accessible only to those with specific kinds of privilege. And I have watched as the Co-op has made attempts, really made a strong effort, to reach out to those who are under-represented among shareholders and shoppers, to make them feel welcome, and help to evolve the Co-op to be a valuable resource for everyone in the community. And I just want to say, please keep up those efforts. Keep trying. It’s so important. 

One thing that I’ve noticed recently is that with the integration of Dottie’s back into the Co-op, there’s…. see, it feels to me that there’s been a benefit of helping to remove stigma by providing so much value-priced food alongside specialty food, because pretty much everyone shops and, there’s a need for such a wide range of access points and affordability that, as we see this separation, of have and have not, how can we bring that back together, and integrate all people and have everyone feel as welcome as possible, no matter what their budget might be. So I guess I, again I just I really want to say I’m so grateful to see this work being done, and there’s so much work to do, so keep it up


LEE: Great. Thank you, and Andrew, let’s jump over to you. Same question: external factors.


ANDREW: Yeah, I think Lee earlier, you touched on one that really resonates for us at Foodworks in terms of, you know, inflation and the cost of the cost of food. Every day we have new shoppers showing up here at Foodworks telling the same story, about how the cost of everything  is up and up and up, and wages aren’t keeping up with those increases, and they’re really needing some help with food, just to get, you know, just to eat, just to provide for their families, and I think the Co-op has an opportunity to address it, as you have been through partnerships with organizations like ours, in terms of, we have a lot of overlap in mission, we understand how increased costs are hurting people in the community, and [there] doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.

I mean we are – October was the sixth month in a row that we’ve had record utilization of the food shelf, and it’s just something to keep in mind. I mean there’s a lot of elements to accessibility of food, and I’m grateful to be [in] a place that – Foodworks is a place that the community can point to when they hear about food needs. Anyone is welcome here, and we’re really grateful for the partnerships we have. I work with Amanda, who’s next to me on the screen, weekly, so grateful for the efforts of community members and the attention and care that our community has for the food needs of everyone and it’s just a need that’s growing, you know, at a pace that is a little bit frightening. And you know, deserves the attention of the community as a whole.


LEE: Alright. Thank you, Andrew. Patrick, from the Town perspective? 


PATRICK: Well,  a couple of things I’d like to say. The first is in listening to the answers the first three panelists have provided, I am so impressed with the panel you put together – these people are amazing. I wonder why I’m here, but they are amazing.

And so in terms of external factors that are something I would suggest to the Co-op to keep an eye on, I’ve got two. One has been touched on. I’d like to maybe add a little detail to it, and that is the rising impact of inflation on prices, and as challenging as this is, I want to raise it from two different perspectives. The first is one that I already heard you speak to a little bit, Lee, which is apparently there’s been some effort to raise the salaries of your employees, and I think that’s important. I don’t know what they are, I don’t know where they were, and where they are now, and I certainly don’t need to, but one of the things that I would say is important is when you are in a position, to have the opportunity to correct for things like inflation, for a body of people and their families it’s important to do so, so I would applaud you for your efforts to improve the wages amongst the families that are supported by the Co-op. Secondly, you know it’s also equally true that the cost of goods and services is up dramatically and at the largest rate that that I’ve seen, and much of my professional career, I was looking at the cost of living as measured by CPI has been up on average over 7% each month this year, which is tremendous. We haven’t seen anything like that in a long time, and while the average of goods and services is up over 7%, food consumed at home is up 11.5%, and that’s for the Northeast.

So, you know, I think families are struggling to extend their dollar a little bit, and to keep good quality food on the table. So I would suggest that [the Co-op] continue some of the programs that are already in place as best you can to support households, perhaps with a less income.

The second thing I would suggest, another external factor, and I think some of the other panelists may speak to this more is, you know we’ve got new people arriving to town, and that’s a great thing.

We need that.  We need a new energy. We need a  broader, more complex vision for what is community. People are moving to town. I know there’s been a lot of Afghan refugees for example, that  have arrived here recently.

And it’s kind of cool to see. With new residents, there may be a need for new food choices, you know, for example, halal lamb might be something that, you know folks who are relocating to this area from far away might find, you know, important, and as a welcoming community, as a welcoming institution, maybe that’s something that’s a potential for at the Co-op.


LEE: Great. I think you’re absolutely right in terms of, you know,  exploring the different food choices that we have here, and expanding that for, you know, a changing demographic, for sure. Curtiss, and if I  – I didn’t mean to cut off your introduction before, if I did I apologize, but you know obviously jump in here with your thoughts on some of the factors that the community’s facing.

 


CURTISS: Sure. So you know I’m looking at this from a 30,000-foot level, and I ask myself, will the Co-op be around in 50 years given the rapid shift in the demographics in our area, and whether or not, you know, a marketing strategy from my perspective that really focuses on white residents and residents of a certain income level, and so you know as our, I mean right now, 11% of our population in downtown Brattleboro are members of the global majority. You telescope that out another 20 or 30 years or 40 years, and it may be, you know, up to 30 or 40%. But if the Co-op’s marketing strategy is predicated on a certain gender or a certain race, then it’s doomed for failure. And so I want the Co-op to take a critical look at how is it dismantling white supremacy culture, and how can that be a selling factor in attracting a more diverse population.

That if that was known, these new folks that are coming to town, and not only those that are coming to that are moving here, but we have a fairly substantial number of young global majority residents that were born in Brattleboro and are growing up in Brattleboro that are not utilizing the services of the Co-op.


LEE: I could just follow up because I think you know that’s a great topic. And I think we’ll start with you again, and then we’ll go back around. From your perspective, what is the best way for the Co-op to engage and evolve? I mean, what specifically can we do? I heard very clearly if who we’re talking to is changing, then we need to change what we’re talking about, right? And making sure, are there other things specific, you know, that you’ve seen successful in other places, that would help us really be a leader in that space.


CURTISS: Well, what is looking at the Board of Directors? I mean how diverse is the Co-op Board throwing in for gender, but also in terms of race and ethnic identities – where are the interlocutors from the Board to the community? I think that would be a starting point, that you lead by example.


LEE: Great. Thank you, Patrick, when you know you talked a little bit about pricing from – I’m just going to go back around in reverse here, so I apologize – you know, in terms of accessing our evolving community, and you know there are changing demographics. Outside of price, are there other things that resonate with you that we should be focused on?


PATRICK: Well, you know there’s one thing that the pandemic has sort of taught us in the public sector, and that is that the old-school ways of being open and accessible to the public, are not necessarily good enough. You know, it used to be the case that, you know,  you would, you would post your agenda to a meeting, and if you put it in three locations, you know that the public was accustomed to seeing them, you know, you had adequately warned a meeting, and anything discussed at that meeting was, therefore, you know, conducted in public, and that was sort of the standard of effective community engagement. Obviously, that didn’t work in the pandemic, and you know we needed to develop – everybody else did in a lot of ways as well. For example, the meeting we’re having today probably wouldn’t be like this, had it not been for the pandemic.

So I guess the point I’m trying to make is communication, and how it occurs. Sometimes you need to change, and sometimes you need to go and get the information that you need. And so what is your, if the Co-op seeks to maintain vitality, find out what people need. And, you know, don’t wait for it to come to you, go out and find them, talk to them, talk to the youth, talk to the kids at the high school, you know. Talk to the changing demographics and find out what’s interesting, what they’re interested in, and how you can help.


LEE: Great. Thank you, Andrew, any thoughts to add?


ANDREW: Yeah. Thank you. I think what comes to mind for me is, you know there’s some big, complicated, sticky issues that we’re all aware of in Brattleboro. You know, housing, homelessness, food insecurity, are the things that we at Groundworks are working on addressing every day, and you know there are issues that are, really you know, big systemic problems that are not like one organization or one group of, you know, one group’s responsibility, to solve. It takes a lot of people, you know, a lot of voices approaching the issues from a lot of different angles, and I mean being the Co-op, being at the center of Brattleboro, and really being kind of, you know, as much as any other resident of Brattleboro, like the Co-op, is really aware, and in the middle, in the thick of all these issues that we’re talking about. And I think just being a voice at the table like I said, like we at Groundworks, we don’t view it as a problem that just falls with any one group. It’s like kind of community-wide effort to approach. 

I would also like to just quickly add in like, on a more, you know positive , you know, encourage self-care for the Co-op, and just, we feel like at Groundworks that the contributions of the Co-op are not always, you know, the contributions to Groundworks – not only monetarily, but also that this support we know we always have from employees, and the whole team of the Co-op – goes somewhat unnoticed by the community at large.

And you know the way that you all are able to support us is really meaningful, and in the work that we’re doing. So while there’s always room for improvement I also want to just make sure that everyone here understands that there already is a very meaningful impact being had on organizations like ours through, you know,  the success that the Co-op is achieving through the work that you know you all are doing day to day.


LEE: Great appreciate that, Andrew. Thank you. Amanda?


AMANDA: So I want to just turn the direction in a different way. In my experience the Co-op is a place of belonging, and I want that feeling for everyone who walks through the doors of the Co-op. And I just want to share a little from my experience about what that felt like for me. I have 4 kids. They all feel like they grew up at the Co-op because we were there so often. My youngest actually shopped with me when she was less than a day old. I do not recommend this, but it did happen, and I remember that we were greeted with warmth and care and very appropriate concern that day. Thank you. That newborn is now a young adult who is a Co-op cashier.

If you were around the Co-op 20 years ago, you might remember our family because I’m sure it was a sight. I was the determined one with a baby in a sling on my front, a toddler on my back, a preschooler in the front seat of the cart, and a kindergartener who was either helping me push the cart or hanging onto the back of it, and their favorite activity was watching the peanut butter grinder do its work.

So on days when I could not figure out what to do with myself or my kids, we would go to the Co-op and we would buy peanut butter because that always made them happy.

People were so kind. They knew us by name, and they greeted us, and I felt seen and cared for at a time of my life when I was brand new in town. I had four children under the age of six. I didn’t know anyone, and some weeks the Co-op was the only public place that I could manage to be in, and then when our family was struggling financially the Food for All program helped keep the Co-op accessible for us as a place to shop and continue to feel that sense of belonging, and that was when we needed to feel the arms of the community around us most, and we did.  

The Co-op influences the next generation. As I mentioned, my daughter but also, one of the first things my eldest son did, when he moved out of Brattleboro, was join his local food Co-op in his new city, so he could feel part of that community and it just meant so much to me and to my children that people knew our family, and recognized us, and welcomed us, and that sense of belonging that we felt was priceless.

And so I wish this experience for every Co-op, family, and every Co-op shopper.

My question is, How can we ensure this sense of belonging for everyone who comes to the Co-op?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but I challenge the Board and anyone else who’s listening to this call to think about that, because, as I hear about the struggles and the challenges of the people in our community, we need a place, and the Co-op is that place for some people but not for all, yet. But I think we can get there: a place where people can walk in, and immediately feel that they belong, and that they feel welcome. So I realize that sounds a bit idealistic, but I think that that is a very important north star for us to have as we think about the needs of the community, and how the Co-op can meet them


LEE: There might be a few idealists here, Amanda, who agree with you. So I think you’re in safe company. 


AMANDA: It might be why I moved to Brattleboro, actually.


LEE: We are getting a couple of follow-up questions. I know we’re looking at time here, but I’m going to go a little bit longer. Some of the questions aren’t specific to the panel, but one is. Emilie, I’d like to give you an opportunity to add anything here, but then I have at least one question I’d like to get relevant to what we’re talking about, out to the panel. So, again, Emilie, if you have anything to add in the of this current question, and then I’ll direct a question to the panel.


EMILIE: Yeah. Amanda, you made me really cry a lot over here inside my hotel room.

Yeah. No, I you know, my baby and I fed ourselves completely on food stamps from the Co-op and did it well, and felt loved and cared for. And I, you know, think a really first step is to look very carefully at what the food selection is, and make sure that everyone sees their cultural and food identity is reflected in the shelves. I don’t think that’s very hard. I think it would just be asking advice from a couple of people. 

The origins of the Co-op isn’t in the hippies of the sixties and seventies. That might be the origins of the Brattleboro Co-op. That’s not the origins of the Co-op movement.

It was poor Black folks in the south, living in rural communities, and I think there’s a lot to learn from that, that it wasn’t about like making sure everyone, you know, had brown rice or nutritional yeast, or like their perfect olive oil, that it was about people empowering themselves to feed themselves, and I buy a lot of nutritional yeast and olive oil and brown rice and so I don’t mean to dig on that in any way, I just mean to say that I think we can really both look to our roots as a movement, and remember what that this really was about, each person being able to find themselves in their consumer experiences, and feel seen in that, and feel like they were caring for their neighbors while they shopped, and I think that Amanda and I both, experienced that and I’d like to see more of that


LEE: Yeah, well, no, I appreciate it, and I think it’s very, I mean the topic that we or the conversation we’ve had around the growing disparity in income and power. I mean it just makes it all more relevant.

So the question from the shareholder here is, “I would love to hear more from Curtiss about systemic change. What can leadership be doing aside from recruiting a more diverse Board to engage with racially diverse communities?” So Curtiss, that’s obviously for you, and we certainly will give everybody a chance if they have additional thoughts to add.


CURTISS: Alright, if I was to go down to the weeds, it would be things like, welcome basket for new families of color that move to the area. Say, Hey! You know we are your local Co-op. We are here for you. You know it might be a series of cooking classes from the global majority. Yeah, it might be, you know, celebrating holidays. But more importantly, it is about how do Co-op members engage our changing demographics? It’s not just the Board. I mean the Board is one way of getting there. But you know, to what extent does the Co-op promote, you know, the tenets of an anti-racist organization?

What do you do? What can you point to, that says to a Black or brown family moving to town, that this is the place that you need to do your shopping. This is the, this is it. This is… there’s a sense of community here that is inclusive, as opposed to exclusive.

And then I want, I just want to remark on Emilie’s characterization of the Co-op movement.

And you know the Brattleboro Co-op came out of that sort of hippie and trust fund baby era of Vermont’s history. We need to shed that, you know. We need to think about how we welcome a more diverse community and how do we sustain that over the next 50 years?


LEE: Right.


CURTISS: Because if we don’t, then it might as well put nails in the Co-op’s coffin, if we’re not actively doing that work, and then you know it’s going to require more than just, you know, some snap responses but it’s having thoughtful conversations that elevate the idea of belonging, and belonging for all. And that of a certain character or certain social identity…


LEE: Great, alright, were you all set there? 


CURTISS: Yes, I’m trying to keep it under a minute …


LEE: Okay. Okay. Thank you. I appreciate it. I wasn’t sure if you were thinking, or if you are or wrapping up any.. I’ll just kind of open it up..


CURTISS: I yeah, I’m just trying to follow the rules. You know, keep. within the within that


LEE: Yeah, absolutely any other thoughts on that topic from other panelists. Go ahead, Emilie. Yeah.


EMILIE: Oh, sorry I’m on such a journey with the lovely person who’s controlling my mute, button. I want to just like be really straightforward on this, the Co-op does a terrible job around holidays that are not majority Christian holidays. Like just like an extraordinarily bad job, like shockingly bad like just even Jewish holidays, let alone like Muslim holidays or Hindu holidays. Like it’s really like it’s kind of mind-boggling to me every few months when I try to do my Jewish holiday shopping, and I think that’s like a very solvable issue and I think that by solving that issue, like Curtiss, said, you like you bring people in because they feel welcome and seen on this one thing that they’re looking for as a new person in town, or as a repeat person in town. And then they spread the word like,” Oh, these folks have this thing that we were looking for”, and then you buy other things there, and so I know that there’s a very reasonable decision to not carry things on the shelves that are not, you know, that are, that sell less, that don’t turn over. I totally understand that, and, if you start going to another store to buy that one thing, you’re going to also buy your other stuff at that other store. So if I start buying, ordering my specialty things from Amazon, or driving down to the Massachusetts to buy them I’m going to buy more stuff in Massachusetts, or online, cause I like, opened the door to the other store, and so I think there’s like a really grabbing people with those, like core cultural identity foods in a non-transactional way, would make all the difference.


CURTISS: And I would add to that, that it’s not performative because a lot of times white folk, engage in this performative exercise of acknowledging the other, or wanting to be one with the other, and so that there needs to be some soul searching on the part of the Co-op, its leadership, and staff that comes across as being authentic as opposed to being performative.


LEE: Yeah, I think that’s an incredible, incredibly important point. And I appreciate the great conversation here tonight, and unfortunately we are at 7: 20. So we’re going to need to wrap it up and transition to our closing with Jerelyn. Panelists, I just cannot thank you enough for your participation, taking the time and energy, and sharing your thoughts, and I hope that was valuable for our shareholders. I just want to restate: lots of great comments and thoughts in our chat that we’ve not, we just won’t have time to get to, but we will be going through the transcript here and making sure that we respond to some really great points, and even the ones that you know Emilie, to your point challenge us, right like “hey- you’re awful at this. You got to do better”. That’s the feedback that’s going to help us get better. So I really appreciate all the comments and right now I’m going to say thank you to our panelists and Jerelyn, I’m going to transition back to you, I believe, and we’ll take it from there for our closing again. Thank you again to our panelists. Thank you.


JERELYN: So thanks so much, Lee, for moderating a really very engaging conversation. I learned a lot, and I want to also thank our panelists: Curtiss Reed, Emily Kornheiser, Patrick Moreland, Andrew Courtney, and Amanda Witman. Each of you represents significant aspects of our community, each of you, as a contributor and a very large sense to the character of our town and region, and you all play a role in supporting the Co-op to be the best that it or we can possibly be as a contributor to this community, and I just want to acknowledge all of the shareholders that are on the call.

It is hard to have an online event where we’re all participating together. I do recall past shareholder annual meetings where we had a World Café, where we are all talking to each other, and we do look forward to that in the future. But what we wanted to do here was have an engaging conversation with people from the community that would then spur us to be thinking about all that’s really important for our Co-op and, the thriving future that we’re all aiming for.

I want to remind everyone to vote. Our voting period, as Judy mentioned, starts tonight at 8 pm.

And is exactly two weeks. It closes on Wednesday, November, 23rd, at 5 pm. You can vote online or at the store. Look at the home page of the Co-op website for the link and an additional –  shareholders for whom we have their emails, will be sent a message with the link. So be sure to ask in the store if you have questions, so we are going to open up the chat for everyone in a second for you to share a closing thought with each other.

What touched you at this meeting? What did you learn this evening?

What questions are you wrestling with? What do you wish for the Co-op?

First, before we open up the chat. I’d like to share a Terry Tempest Williams quote about democracy, which I believe is that the core of cooperative values

“The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions.

Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings?

Not just our minds and offer our attention rather than our opinions?

And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously without giving up ever trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy.”

So I’m hoping that Jen has now opened up the chat.

Please share a thought with everyone, if you’re so inspired, and as you get ready to leave this meeting, let’s say goodbye, by waving to each other. Feel free to scroll through the screens of your friends and companion shareholders, and we’ll leave this up, and, Jen, you can take me off so that we can see a full screen of people. So watch the chat, and also let’s… (music)

LEE: Bye, everybody! Thank you so much

JERELYN:  Alright. So we’re going to close up soon. Bye, bye!