Was this newsletter forwarded to you? Subscribe here to keep up to date on NFCA News!
In this edition:
White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition & Health
Neighboring Food Co-ops spur action on food security goals following White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition & Health
On Tuesday, September 28, my work for the Hanover Co-op put me on a flight to Washington, D.C. Seated beside me was Karin Mott of Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. Karin and I had set off to join Amy Crawford of Brattleboro Food Co-op in the nation’s capitol. Together, we’d soon spend a remarkable day at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health.
The Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) was a sponsor of the legislation establishing the conference, and Karin, Amy and I were nominated by the NFCA and National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) to serve as delegates. It was with deep gratitude that we were able to build on the legacy of co-operative impact on public health.
Of course, food and nutrition advocacy is nothing new to food co-ops. Nor are the ideals of collaboration on a grand scale. My journey to the conference put me in the footsteps of Nan King who represented the Hanover Co-op at the first White House Conference on Food and Nutrition in 1969. For me, being a steward of such work is both high honor and substantial responsibility.
It was from that first conference more than 50-years ago that our nation’s fight against malnutrition, hunger and poor health evolved into life-changing programs that serve people in-need today. But the growth of resulting initiatives like SNAP (Food Stamps), the National School Lunch Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) was a slow evolution. Over the years, that progression has too often been divisive. And, today, lingering challenges remain.
On our flight down to D.C., Karin informed me of a large shortcoming of WIC for small grocers. In summary, she said:
Food Co-ops of every size fill food gaps and act as sources of health and nutrition education within their communities – both urban and rural. Yet, the USDA’s rigid requirements prevent smaller grocery stores like Middlebury — with its clear and careful focus on nutritious products — from becoming WIC partners.
Caregivers, expectant parents and young families rightly obsess about health and nutrition. A food co-op is typically the store of first-choice where they can easily find foods that match dietitian guidelines, gather healthful recipes, and keep their dollars at work in the community. But federal regulations are effectively denying families with limited incomes to use WIC benefits at their local co-op and other small grocery stores.
So, what are the first steps we plan to take to address the problem?
During our busy day at the White House Conference, we had a conversation with conference chair, Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. With 10 NFCA member food co-ops and start-ups in his state, McGovern is familiar the impact and potential of co-operative enterprise. As a follow up to the conference, we are planning a meeting to share our concerns and ideas for solutions with staffers and legislative aides from Mr. McGovern’s team, NH Congresswoman Kuster’s office, and others.
The gathering also allowed Karin to raise the WIC issue with Stacey Dean, USDA’s Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. As Karin told me later in the day, “Ms. Dean assured me that we would be hearing from USDA, and promised that, although USDA field staff may not immediately solve the problem, there will be a thoughtful and intelligent conversation aimed at working through the issue.”
Gaining high-level attention from USDA and benefiting from the leadership of Representatives McGovern and Kuster, puts us on a path to better federal policy. It is an example of how food co-ops can work together to solve issues faced by families who rely on nutrition programs and the many small, independent food co-ops and grocers that serve them.
You may be wondering how this matter directly impacts the Hanover Co-op. Well, it does not. Our larger size enables us to meet the regulatory restrictions of WIC-retailer compliance. Our scale also enables me to play an active role in advocating for commonsense solutions on behalf smaller co-ops in collaboration with the NFCA and NCBA. Doing so is part of my regular work in public and government affairs.
Our co-operative is a founding member of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, which was established by food co-ops in our region to create opportunities for just this kind of collaboration, shared learning, and policy advocacy. When we work together, we can have an impact that our individual co-ops cannot alone. It also builds on NFCA’s Healthy Food Access program, which brings our co-ops together to support food security by making health, nutritious food, and co-op membership more accessible to people on limited incomes.
When I returned to the Upper Valley the day after the conference, I was greeted by an email from fellow-attendee Amy Crawford of Brattleboro Food Co-op. Here is how she perfectly summarized the hope and potential for the renewed fight against hunger and for nutrition and health:
These are just a few samples of the reflections, partnerships, and opportunities the White House Conference presented to our co-operative and our neighboring co-ops as a group. With or without such an event, it is our lasting obligation to push for improved nutrition and greater food access for all.
As co-operatives, we are committed to mutual self-help — everyday people working to care for one another and to meet our shared needs. We cannot sit back and wait for someone else to come up with solutions. Community is worth too much, and we must step up, together.
Allan Reetz is serves as Director of Public and Government Affairs for the Hanover Co-op Food Stores. Contact Allan at areetz at coopfoodstore dot com.
Protecting our Co-operative Identity
Recent legislation attempts to change what it means to be a co-operative. To protect what makes co-ops unique, we must ensure that this doesn’t happen.
“Membership.” It’s one of the most basic terms that communicates the co-operative difference as people-centered businesses with both social and economic goals. The primary purpose of a co-op is not to generate a return on investment but to empower members “to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”1 As noted in the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) Guidance Notes to the Co-operative Principles, co-op members are “users of a co-operative’s services or participate in its business enterprise as consumers, workers, producers or independent business owners.”2
This unique relationship is also recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which affirms that co-ops are “user-owned businesses that are controlled by — and operate for the benefit of — their members, rather than outside investors.”3 For more than a century, co-ops have been defined by this linkage between membership and use or patronage of a collective enterprise, as opposed to investment. Governments around the world have enacted legal statutes based on the Co-operative Principles, enabling people to organize people-centered enterprises, usually in under-resourced communities with limited means, without giving up control to capital.4
But what would happen if the basic definition of co-operative “membership” was changed? What if being a member of a co-op was no longer linked to active use of the business, but simply meant being an “owner” with no responsibility to actively participate beyond purchasing an investment share? What if the primary purpose of the enterprise was not to meet member needs in a not-for-profit manner, but rather to generate a financial return for shareholders? What if voting power could be based on how many shares an investor controlled instead of one person, one vote? Would this change what it means to be a co-operative? Would it undermine the shared values and principles that unite the co-operative movement around the world? Would it weaken the ability of co-ops and credit unions to communicate what makes them unique from other business models?
These are some of the changes proposed in “Uniform Limited Cooperative Association Act” (ULCAA) statutes introduced in recent years in the U.S.5 Under this legislation, investors would be eligible to participate in co-operative governance through a subtle change in wording: external investors of capital would now be described as “investment members.” But there would be no requirement that these “members” be patrons or users of the enterprise, as has been central to the definition of a co-operative for more than 150 years. Collective capital could be distributed to investors and limits on financial returns would be removed, undermining the long-standing practice of capping dividends on investment. And voting would be fundamentally undemocratic, based not on the person but on how much capital they control.
When Limited Cooperative Association legislation was proposed in Vermont in 2011, the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) worked with partners to successfully challenge it, arguing that it did not represent Co-operative Principles and therefore should not be described as “co-operative.” The title of the statute was changed to a “Mutual Benefit Enterprise” and, most importantly, businesses organized under the law could not use the term “co-op” in their name, ensuring that the public would not be confused and true co-operatives could continue to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.
To date, ULCAA statutes have not been passed by any state legislatures in the eastern U.S. Surprisingly, however, it has to date been approved in seven states and the District of Columbia. Given this emerging misunderstanding of Co-operative Principles, it seems likely that it may be reintroduced in our region, alongside recent efforts to amend existing co-op law to undermine member-user control and public oversight by giving governance control to outside entities such as investors, non-profits, and other organizations.
When the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) first proposed the ULCAA back in 2003, many co-op leaders including the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) were rightly concerned that this effort could have far-reaching implications that could put the U.S. out of compliance with international law related to Co-operative Principles. Specifically, investor participation in governance and taking a greater share of financial returns would undermine the purpose of a co-op as primarily serving the interests of members who actively patronize or work for the business. This, in turn, could have implications for the tax treatment of co-operatives and their ability to compete successfully in the marketplace. More importantly, people would no longer have access to a truly democratic and participatory economic alternative for building more just, sustainable, and inclusive communities.
The stated rationale for these proposed changes was that co-ops lack the capital they needed for growth, and the only way to access it was to give more wealth and control to investors. In fact, co-ops have long been able to recruit additional financial resources without giving up member control through multistakeholder models engaging different classes of member-users, non-voting shares, loans, and other mechanisms. While members usually contribute capital to the operation of their co-operative, membership is not considered an investment as it is linked to governance rights, not financial return. If a co-op makes money in a given year, this surplus is used to develop the enterprise or returned to members based on their transactions with the business or, in other words, their patronage. To help grow the enterprise, members sometimes invest additional capital or offer shares to non-member investors. In this case, these shares are not attached to voting rights and receive a limited financial return, in keeping with Co-operative Principles. This approach has been used by many co-ops, including examples such as Dorchester Food Co-op, Equal Exchange, Organic Valley, and Real Pickles Co-op.
Rather than increasing access to capital, the real impact of ULCAA legislation is to fundamentally change the meaning of co-op “membership” and therefore the purposes of co-operative enterprise. “The predictable consequence of the Act is to open co-ops to control and exploitation by investors while misrepresenting them to the public as legitimate cooperatives,” wrote Vermont lawyer Laddie Lushin in an article for Cooperative Grocer in 2010 entitled, “A Trojan Horse in Our Midst.” “The ULCAA is packaged and promoted as a gift to co-ops, but it contains the means for their subversion and destruction. It presents an unprecedented challenge to the integrity and future of co-ops.”
When ULCAA legislation was proposed in Vermont in 2011, the NFCA worked with Lushin and Don Kreis (then a Board Member at Hanover Co-op Food Stores), the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-ops, and the National Farmers Union to challenge it. “The ULCAA is heralded as a law that will benefit farmer-, consumer- and worker-owned cooperatives because it will allow the cooperative to raise necessary capital through outside investors,” wrote the Farmers Union in a letter to state policymakers. “While this is a worthy aim, the ULCAA does this by abandoning the cooperative principles that have defined the cooperative sector for more than 150 years.”
Recognizing ongoing threats to our shared Co-operative Principles in legal statutes, the NFCA in 2014 passed a Resolution on the Co-operative Legal Identity, encouraging “its member food co-ops, other co-operatives and credit unions, and allied organizations to become involved in efforts to protect and promote the Co-operative Identity, to ensure the integrity of statutes and use of the co-operative name, and to promote use of the co-operative business model as an effective tool for self-help, poverty reduction, human development, and economic and social sustainability.”6 The resolution references other statements on the relevance of co-operative principles to legal statutes made by the ICA, the International Labour Organization, the United Nations, and the Co-operative Law & Regulation Initiative.
More recently, the Policy Book of the National Farmers Union, a leading advocate of co-operative enterprise since its founding in 1902, states its opposition to ULCAA statutes that “undermine the democratic nature of the cooperative enterprises and the interests of producer, worker, and consumer members. Such legislation contradicts the basic purpose of a cooperative established by 100 years of legal practice and precedent as a user-owned, user-controlled entity that distributed benefit based on use rather than capital invested.”7
The NFCA has continued to work with partners to advocate for the integrity of co-operative statutes, including democratic control by members. For example, in 2021 the NFCA and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives / Land Assistance Fund (FSC/LAF) formalized a partnership rooted in our organizations’ shared commitment to “co-operative values and principles, food security and sustainable agriculture, racial and economic justice, and Civil Rights and political democracy.” The agreement includes advocacy related to areas of shared interest including “food and agriculture policy, systemic racism (e.g. heirs’ property), political and economic democracy, and co-operative legislation.”
“The Federation was founded by co-operative leaders representing 22 limited resource co-ops that were community based and democratically controlled and who were deeply committed to the Civil Rights movement,” says Cornelius Blanding, Executive Director of FSC/LAF. “As a Federation of community development co-operatives, we are deeply concerned that the ULCAA threatens the democratic principles on which co-operative businesses are formed. This legislation poses a particular threat to black-owned co-ops who often face barriers to credit that could make this option appear a viable solution to their challenges while undermining the democratic voting rights that made co-operative principles so attractive to our founding and current members.”
As we work to address the challenges of racial and economic inequality, climate change, and corporate influence, co-operative Values and Principles are more important than ever. Together, we can build a more inclusive, sustainable, and democratic economy and society. But to do so, we must protect our shared Identity and the ability of co-ops and credit unions to offer a viable alternative that can empower everyday people to transform their lives, their communities, and our collective future.
Co-ops can help defend our Identity by educating their members, directors, and staff on Co-operative Values and Principles. Resources include the ICA’s Guidance Notes to the Co-operative Principles and the NFCA’s Webinar Series on the Co-operative Identity. You can also share the NFCA’s Resolution on the Co-operative Legal Identity with your state legislators and tell them to oppose any proposed Uniform Limited Cooperative Association Act legislation. Contact the NFCA for more information.
2 ICA, Guidance Notes to the Co-operative Principles, 2015:8.
4 Note that the International Labour Organization (ILO) Recommendation 193 states that United Nations “Member States should adopt specific legislation and regulations on cooperatives, which are guided by the cooperative values and principles.” https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_ILO_code:R193
While we celebrate National Co-op Month each October, we are thankful for the work our co-ops do year ‘round to enable people to build stronger communities.
This year, our co-ops highlighted the theme “Co-ops Build Economic Power,” by:
- Growing their Membership. With incentives from Cabot Creamery Co-op, REI, and Mad River Ski Area and their own unique member drive incentives like GreenStar Co-op’s relationship with Visions Federal Credit Union. GreenStar worked with this local Credit Union to promote membership in both their co-operatives throughout the month.
- Highlighting Co-op Suppliers. Our food co-ops got creative this year with ways to feature co-op produced items that we see on the shelves year-round. Like Urban Greens video on social media drawing attention to the many co-op producers who are also working to build a stronger and more resilient regional food system.
- Engaging Staff. Our co-op staff take pride in their work, recognizing that while they each do their individual jobs, together they are contributing to building more just, equitable, and sustainable communities. On average, food co-op staff receive higher wages and more are employed full-time than in supermarkets in our region. Over 60% of our 2,450 co-op employees are also members, sharing in the ownership of their community grocery store. We had multiple fantastic staff photos submitted for our Co-op Month Photo contest demonstrating the pride and camaraderie they have for their co-op work. See some of them here.
- Educating Policymakers. During Co-op Month we also take the opportunity to raise awareness amongst state and local decision-makers of the contributions co-operatives make to our economy. Co-op Month was recognized with proclamations from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont and from the Cities of Keene, NH, Greenfield, MA. On the national level, Co-op Month Resolutions were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate.
From in-store events, special sales and membership drives to community activities and more, our Neighboring Food Co-ops are spreading the word about the Co-operative Difference across our region. Co-operatives leverage our shared Co-operative Identity in the face of some of the biggest challenges we continue to face: a global pandemic, climate emergency, and systemic racism. Give thanks for the numerous, strong, and resilient co-ops working every day to build and economy that works for everyone!
As we give thanks this holiday season, we especially appreciate our food co-op staff, who are working hard to keep our communities safe while ensuring access to healthy, nourishing food.
All are welcome to shop at your local food co-op, and we invite you to become a member-owner, joining with your neighbors as we work together to build more healthy, just, and sustainable communities.
To find a food co-op near you, please visit: https://nfca.coop/members
Principle 6 Training
Look no further than the Co-operative Identity to see that inter-co-operation is part of our model’s DNA, motivating us to work together to build a more inclusive economy that works for everyone.
As a lead in to NCBA CLUSA’s Co-op Impact Conference in October, the International Centre for Co-operative Management at Saint Mary’s University offered a special training on Principle 6: Co-operation among Co-operatives. This interactive short course brought together co-operators from across sectors for a deep dive on this topic from diverse perspectives – from the role of associations and federations to business partnerships and supply chains, to the development of new co-operatives.
In case you missed it, you can join fellow co-operators in January for an online offering of the course. Content and examples illustrate the benefits of inter-co-operation in strengthening co-operatives, economies, and communities. Presenters include Karen Miner and Sonja Novkovic of Saint Mary’s University, Fred Freundlich of Mondragón University, and Erbin Crowell of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, who will discuss a range of frameworks and examples, giving you and your co-operative the tools to do more and go further to leverage our collective potential. The course includes interactive opportunities for participants to share ideas and experiences.
This course will be offered online on January 24-25, 2023, from 10:00 am-3:30 pm EST. To register, complete this registration form. The course fee is $300 CAD plus tax ($345 CAD total), and NFCA Member Co-ops can receive a discount on registration.
November Cave-to-Co-op Special
This month’s special cheese is Shepsog, Grafton Village Cheese Company, Grafton, Vermont
Shepsog is the Algonquin word for “sheep”, which once covered Vermont’s hillsides during the booming wool industry of the 19th century. The forest has since reclaimed the hills, but Grafton still sources top quality sheep and cow milk to make this mixed-milk, cave-aged beauty. Made from raw sheep and cow’s milk and aged for 4-6 months, Shepsog has a dusty gray and white mottled rind, with a firm texture that echoes the curd structure of the cheese. Expect aromas of cultured butter and fresh buttermilk, alongside bright flavors that are lemony and sweet, with notes of caramel and a clean, nutty finish. The sheep milk comes from an Amish co-op two hours west of Grafton, where they still milk the sheep twice a day, by hand, year round. The sheep are on clover grass based pasture usually May through October, and spend the winter in barns while eating hay and a little grain grown by the co-op.
The Grafton Village Cheese Company was founded in 1892 as the Grafton Co-operative Cheese Company, to convert surplus milk from local dairy farmers into cheese. In 1912, the cheesemaking factory burned down and the community had no cheese facility until 1962, when the Windham Foundation restored the factory and brought cheesemaking back to the community. The Foundation is dedicated to promoting the rural communities of Vermont. The profits from Grafton Village Cheese go back into the Foundation to further its commitment to keep rural Vermont alive and thriving. Today, quality and taste are still the hallmarks of the company’s products.
The Grafton Cave Aged line of fine cheeses takes Grafton beyond its roots in Vermont Cheddar cheese. The cheese is carefully matured in Grafton’s own cave aging facility using raw milk from small Vermont family farms that is thermalized and contains no artificial hormones. The rennet used is non GMO microbial rennet, suitable for vegetarians.
Each month, your Neighboring Food Co-ops feature our region’s artisan cheesemakers by offering a specially selected cheese at great price. The Cave to Co-op program is possible because of the partnership between distributor Provisions International, NFCA Co-ops and the many cheese producers in our region. Strengthening our local and regional farmers and producers by supporting artisanal cheesemakers is a key goal of the Cave to Co-op program.
All People Seen, All Voices Heard
Why a Multicultural and Multigenerational Look at Consumers Matters
To be competitive and to live up to our founding principle of people helping people, multicultural business strategy isn’t optional. It’s essential. As our country continues to become increasingly diverse, understanding multicultural consumers – from product preferences and ownership to financial habits to consumer worries, hopes and dreams – is increasingly important.
With multicultural consumers being the growing force, and as Gen Z and Millennials continue to change life stages, we need to understand all parts of their identity and serve them with intentionality. It’s not enough to just know the what, we also must know the why if we want to make real change to help more members.
Many co-ops and credit unions are familiar with the demographics of their members and community, but they may not have the whole picture. In years past, research has always been split by White, Black, Hispanic and occasionally Asian. Data on the Native American, Alaskan Native and Indigenous population would be missing, and information on the Multiracial population was non-existent.
A lot of surveys (Census included) forced people to choose one race/ethnicity to identify. Survey respondents who didn’t identify with the four called out race/ethnic groups would be gathered into “other.”
Now, with the new Census data, we can call attention to not only the Native American, Alaskan Native and Indigenous community but also the Multiracial community. One way racism shows up, especially against the Native American, Alaskan Native and Indigenous population, is that these groups are ignored and left out of data collection and research
Another group that is often left out of the conversation when it comes to financial services and wealth building is Gen Z. There’s a tendency to hold old stereotypes that Gen Z consumers and even Millennials are too young or at life stages that have not yet required the need for our products and services. The reality is Gen Z consumers are a growing part of our workforce — they are parents, caregivers, heading and contributing to households financially and are an important consumer segment for us to consider both now and for the future.
This inclusion of additional generations and races/ethnicities allows people to show up as who they are fully and for us to better understand consumers and their identities. Conducting research that encompasses a wide range of racial and ethnic identities as well as looking at consumers from Gen Z through Baby Boomers provides a big picture that is more clear and vivid, one that is representative of the communities we serve.
You’ll see all of this data in our 2022 What Matters Now™ research report. At CUNA Mutual Group, we believe a brighter future should be accessible to everyone. We can only achieve that by centering our customers and evolving with consumers to meet their needs. We have been on a journey to learn as much as we can about consumers through a cultural lens that considers not one, but the many aspects of identity that make us human.
Our research today has evolved from our research five years ago, and our future research efforts will be even more inclusive. We believe diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts should be transformational, not transactional. The events of the last few years, specifically the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others, as well as the lives lost and altered by the pandemic and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities has required consumers and organizations to face disparities head-on and find solutions together.
Our offering of this multicultural and multigenerational research, which includes perspectives on how the pandemic has impacted consumer finances, is aimed at providing credit unions with insights that will help us better serve all consumers and live into our founding purpose of people helping people.
Opal Tomashevska is the director of multicultural business strategy for CUNA Mutual Group.
The Neighboring Food Co-op Association partners with organizations like CUNA Mutual Group to increase awareness of co-ops and credit unions and how we can work together to grow the co-operative economy and build more just, inclusive, and sustainable communities. To learn more about CUNA Mutual Group, visit https://www.cunamutual.com.
Join the Farmers Union
As we give thanks for the bounty produced by our local farmers and fishers this holiday season, we need your help to grow the movement for more resilient, sustainable & inclusive food system in the Northeast.
- Supporting Food Security. As we work to help our communities rebuild, families must be able to access healthy, nutritious food from local producers.
- Strengthening Rural Communities. We need reinvestment in our rural hospitals and mental health resources, improved broadband connectivity in rural areas, and repairs to the damage done to our postal service.
- Fighting Consolidation of our Food System. Our regional producers and processors need more direct access to markets, greater transparency from buyers, and more stable prices for dairy and other farm commodities.
- Combatting Climate Change. Farmers need the resources, technology, and information necessary to adapt to climate change — and a seat at the table and a strong voice in the development of climate policies and programs.
These efforts are vital for the future of our regional food system. But we need your help to grow the movement by helping us grow membership in the Farmers Union.
We hope you’ll consider joining the Farmers Union at this critical time!
For more information, please visit www.newenglandfarmersunion.org.
Our Local Farmers Need You!
National Farmers Union advocates on behalf of nearly 200,000 American farm families and their communities. We envision a world in which farm families and their communities are respected, valued, and enjoy economic prosperity and social justice. Farmers are invited to join the New England Farmers Union chapter – and consumers can join as a “Friend of the Farmer” for just $15. For more information, please visit www.newenglandfarmersunion.org.