We recently honored the passing of a co-op hero—a quiet, tireless, inspiring fellow by the name of Bill Gessner from Minnesota. Bill did a lot of work for many co-ops considering expansion, believing that co-ops needed to grow and reproduce, as they are the best option we have to contribute to our communities through an empowering democratic economic model. Bill wrote a wonderful article printed in 2015 about the spirit of generosity as a foundational core value in cooperatives, which kept coming back to me last month as I struggled with the BFC budget.
Co-op shareholders, especially the ones who have been around since the very beginning of our Co-op in the mid-70s, are no strangers to reducing their use of packaging. In those buying club days, breaking down large quantities of grains, rice, produce, and cheese, we were focused on access to non-conventional foods in bushel boxes and fifty-pound bags. But even then, we sometimes broke things down into plastic bags.
I recently attended the Neighboring Food Co-ops’ Association annual meeting, and was captivated by the keynote speaker, Ruth Tyson, who is the Coalitions Coordinator for the Food and Environment program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. She was able to draw some very clear pictures of our agricultural food system and its prejudice. Ms. Tyson highlighted three relevant themes: Just, Equitable, and Sustainable. Finally, it seems we are beginning to connect the lines between food sustainability and social justice, and to illustrate this to a larger audience than before, as the results of consolidation and government misdirection become sadly obvious to most anyone who is paying attention. Her main takeaways for us were these:
Sustainability. The capacity to endure without contributing to wanton depletion. Economically, socially, culturally, and ecologically, we at your Co-op are charged with positive contributions to the longevity of our community. Specifically, I interpret this to mean that we provide the goods and services that are needed in the local community, and we operate a fiscally sound business in order to contribute to the local economy. A tall order, to be sure. For two years now, we have been able to make a profit, although that profit is well under 1% of sales. Still, being on the right side of that zero is part of our charge.
As you can imagine, the grocery business is an energy-intensive proposition. What with refrigeration, heating and cooling, technology, and extensive cooking, we do require significant resources to run our store. But we have worked very hard over the last few years in particular to decrease our landfill contributions, and to offer you ways to reduce waste in purchasing your produce and bulk products.
This is an interesting end policy that invites much discussion. It was created relatively recently after a few difficult years of turmoil in our Co-op, marked by tragedy on many levels. The board, in reflection on this time, thought it necessary to explicitly address the overarching goal of a positive internal culture, as defined by cooperative values.
In last month’s column, I reported about our Co-op’s performance last fiscal year, through the lens of the first of our “Ends,” or overarching aspirational goals. Our second “End” states that the BFC exists to meet its shareholders’ collective needs for a welcoming community marketplace.
As you may remember, after our fiscal year settles out I report to our Board of Directors how well we have achieved, or attempted to achieve, our “Ends” during that period. These aspirational goals have guided us since 2007, when the then-Board of Directors adopted them. I think you may be comforted to know that this conversation takes place every year, without fail, and is supported by a wide variety of data collection to evaluate our progress. I will communicate as much as possible in these pages.
We had noticed a bit of a sluggishness in sales over the past quarter, so we were excited when the Indigenous People’s Day/foliage weekend pushed us well over recent sales levels in the store. The ramp-up that we experience this time of year sometimes takes us a week or so to catch up to, but this year we expect to have a more difficult time getting product on the shelves. I had mentioned in a recent article that service levels from our main natural foods distributor had been trending negatively, and this trend is sure to get worse before it gets better.
We had a visit not too long ago from Tracy Shriver, the Windham County State’s Attorney. She, along with Mel Motel from the Brattleboro Community Justice Center, proposed a program whereby the Brattleboro Police Department, on our behalf, would refer persons caught stealing items under a certain dollar amount from the Co-op to the Restorative Justice Center to work on confronting their behavior and making things right, for us, our shareholders, and our community.
In June of last year, the news broke that Amazon was purchasing Whole Foods. This was the biggest news in the natural foods sector in some time, and the effects of this acquisition continue to merit our attention. This summer, the news broke that United Natural Foods, Inc., had reached an agreement to purchase the conventional distributor SuperValu, based in Minnesota, for $2.9 billion. Many of you know UNFI as the warehouse in Chesterfield, NH, the former site of Stow Mills way back in the day.
The relationship that you as our owners have to our retail operation is quite different from that between customers and other stores, in so many ways. We have a large staff working on your behalf to bring you the products and services that you need, in a manner that is consistent with how humans shop in retail stores these days. But the details of what we do are still just beyond what you experience in your shopping trips, and I believe that we all gain from a better understanding of how our individual actions impact things like prices on the shelves and profits at the end of a fiscal year.