The Price of Success

  | Board of Directors, Food For Thought

A few years ago, I accepted a part time job running a fledgling program. It seemed perfect! I was committed to the mission, liked the hours, and was intrigued by the opportunity to build something from the ground up. Eighteen months later, the program was operating seven days a week, I was working full time with two staff, and the program was growing explosively. I jokingly told people I was the victim of my own success.

Cooperatives have a parallel narrative. Brattleboro Food Co-op, like many other cooperatives in the United States, began in the 1970’s when a small group of visionaries invested in an alternative model for purchasing food. These were small enterprises, frequently staffed by volunteers, and often located in storefronts or building basements. Forty-five years later we see that times have changed. Like our own, many co-ops have launched ambitious expansions and, on the surface, have the curbside and interior appeal of other grocery stores. When I moved to Brattleboro three years ago, I assumed that the physical store represented the undisputed success of the movement.

Now that I serve on the Board I know there is more to this narrative. The appeal of co-ops, and the market share they represent, haven’t gone unnoticed. Amazon has purchased Whole Foods; on-line grocery shopping has emerged; and packaged food “kits”—like Blue Apron—are available for home delivery. Americans are on the move! Almost half of all meals are consumed in a car! Conventional grocery stores have seen the winds of change and are offering organic and local fare, capitalizing on the growth in that market.

Co-ops are doubly challenged because they are mission-driven. They strive for profitability while remaining true to their vision and purpose, their raison d’etre. Cost effectiveness isn’t the only mantra: today’s co-ops are committed to sustainability, affordability, a livable wage for employee, fair trade and the local economy, diversity and respect for all, among other commitments. Co-ops value corporate citizenship, solidarity, and community initiatives and partnerships.

The Brattleboro Food Co-op has a generous discount program that is offered to many constituencies: seniors, working shareholders, employees and those receiving food assistance. Our Co-op’s discount program returned $700,000 last year to that population. At a recent meeting a fellow board member said: “This is a really large number”! Our General Manager talked about this in the July newsletter. Here is a paraphrase of some of what she said: we generated $20,000,000 in revenue, yet realized only $8,000 in net income. Health insurance premiums are expected to increase again, by another 20%. After completing a ninety-day probationary period, non-salaried employees are paid $13 an hour. It is only a matter of time until the minimum wage in Vermont will be $15 an hour. That conversation is happening in our national political debate. And even $15 an hour is a far cry from a livable wage!

I have spent a lifetime in human service work, advocating for the disenfranchised, those with mental health and addiction challenges and those combatting poverty. I was slow to the table on the issue of revisiting discounts, in part because I know many who struggle economically both personally and professionally. But, I have now come to understand, and accept, that our discount structure is not sustainable. Many innovative companies are defunct because the changing world left them behind: Polaroid, Kodak, Xerox to name a few. Like you, I value our Co-op for what it offers for purchase and what it gives to our local and global community. I want it to continue and to thrive.

Sabine will be holding conversations with our membership regarding changes to the discount program going forward. I ask you to listen with an open mind and an open heart. I encourage you to share your thoughts and concerns. I look forward to seeing you at these forums, at board meetings, or when our Board members are tabling.

by Mary Bené