Fall is here, and our Annual Meeting is right around the corner! The theme for our meeting this year is “ensuring a thriving future for our Co-op,” and we have an engaging panel discussion planned, so if you are a shareholder remember to save the date for November 9th. Staying financially healthy is foundational to our longevity, of course, but we have many other things to consider as well. We exist to meet the collective needs of our shareholders. Ensuring a thriving future means that we understand how these collective needs may be evolving and that we develop plans to support them. The Brattleboro Food Co-op has an opportunity to meaningfully increase the value that we bring to shareholders and the impact we have on the community.
For example, by focusing our efforts on realizing annual patronage, we have an opportunity to bring more financial value to our shareholders. One strength of the cooperative model is that the better we do, the better our shareholders do. We are fortunate here in Brattleboro to have over 8,500 shareholders, most of whom are local. If we can consistently share profits back to our shareholders via patronage, we contribute significant dollars that are shared right back to our families and into the local economy. This is not profit for profit’s sake; this is profit that will benefit each one of us in meaningful ways. How we go about remaining profitable at a level that allows us to give back to our shareholders and community is something we are constantly evaluating. We must do everything we can to help our local economy, and focusing on our economic health for the benefit of our shareholders is a critical way for us to do so.
Our Shareholder Labor program was established as a way for our shareholders to contribute to the BFC and earn a discount. We expanded this program with our Commitment to Community program, which enables shareholders to volunteer at organizations throughout the area. As we think about the future, we must ask what other meaningful ways there are for us to help connect our shareholders to our community and each other. Focusing our Shareholder program around creating enriching engagements with each other rather than simply acting as labor in the store will encourage more connections with each other, more participation, and be more rewarding in many ways. We have shareholders with rich experience and backgrounds who are passionate about a wide range of things. We can create stronger connections with each other by sharing our passions, like teaching others how to prepare a favorite food or sharing gardening techniques, than we can by filling bulk containers in the Co-op. In other words, it makes sense for us to focus on building a Shareholder Engagement program that allows people to help each other and the community, rather than remain focused on a Shareholder Labor program that is about store-related tasks.
We are also thinking carefully about the future of our discounts. The BFC provides access to several different discounts: we have an Elder program, a Shareholder Labor program, and a Food for All program. In the context of our overall financial health, discounts have a significant impact. Each dollar of discount is a dollar in revenue that the BFC does not receive. Patronage, by contrast, is paid to shareholders only after we ensure our financial health. Discounts (specifically Shareholder Labor discounts) can also lead to challenging legal questions that other co-ops have experienced around compensating people for their time in a way that aligns with minimum wage requirements and other regulations. Of course, discounts are an integral part of ensuring that the healthy, organic, local, fair-trade products we emphasize are accessible to as many people as possible, and we must preserve that benefit. For many others, however, the discount is nice to have but far from a financial necessity. By focusing our discounts on supporting those in need, we may find that we significantly expand the number of people and families we are able to reach. In short, as we think about our future, we must evaluate how our discount structure is meeting the needs of the BFC, our shareholders, and our community.
These are just a few examples of complex questions that require continued and careful consideration. As we think about ensuring a thriving future for our co-op, I look forward to helping our Brattleboro Food Co-op navigate these issues in a way that also honors our legacy and history. We are and will continue to be authentic to our core values and mission. Thank you as always for your time, and enjoy the foliage!
By Lee Bradford, General Manager