People initially come into cooperatives for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, they come looking for health reasons. Typically, a conversation with a health provider engenders a search for a supplement, a food replacement, a lifestyle change. In some towns, this may only go as far as a visit to a national chain that sells mostly supplements and has little customer service. We don’t have any of those types of stores nearby, so the Brattleboro Food Co-op is frequently the go-to place for this discovery process.
Even though I’ve heard the mantra about October being Co-op Month for 35 years, and even though there is some absurdity around celebrating important concepts—or even entire cultures—for a month or a day, the act of acknowledging things that often get taken for granted or ignored can be productive. (We all know that, especially in the age of tweets, human beings now have the attention span of a flea, and this mechanism is one way to remind ourselves about things that are important and relevant.)
As we continue to work towards the complex improvement of our downtown, I continue to think deeply about the rather wide-ranging views of what both compassion and reasonable accountability look and feel like. No doubt like you, I contemplate this on a personal level, on an organizational level, and on a community level.
I have heard from many of you already in response to the article in last month’s newsletter. In fact, I got into so many good discussions in the aisles that I started the discussion forum series early, on July 28. For those of you who missed last month’s article, we are looking hard at our discount program in an effort to decide how to financially order our priorities. Please note the dates for the discount focus groups in the event calendar. We are inviting a specific number of people to ensure that we have some good discussions, but any and all are welcome to the Community Room when these are scheduled. These focused discussions offer close looks at our finances as well as our current goals, while also providing a time for ideas and feedback on all that is presented. Interested? Please let us know.
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.