Flex and Reflex; and The Co-op’s Learning Curve

  | Food For Thought, GM Report

Flex and Reflex

Thinking about the last few months, it continues to amaze me how much change we have needed to absorb, and how much change will remain a part of all of our lives. Here at the Co-op, we all feel this personally—in about 150 different ways—and together as an organization. And yet, we are required to proceed, more or less, on a schedule that still needs attention. So we do our best, while having little idea of how things are going to develop or devolve.

In that vein, we have been working on a budget, with low sales and low margins, and infrastructure that either needs to be replaced (can you believe this store is already eight years old?) or installed for new business models (like curbside or the changing foodservice landscape). And even though we can’t make the numbers work profitably yet, we feel like we have no choice but to continue as best we can to provide the services for our community. Our current plan includes the reduction of the discounts from 8% to 5%, so we are realizing an estimate of $185,000 more in our margins that we have this year. Thank you for your help on this part of things, a hardship we have not proposed lightly. At this writing, though, we are still looking at a significant bottom line deficit this year, because our sales have taken a beating despite the attention to pricing and promotions, simply from access issues. We have also continued to keep people working as much as possible. We are committed to curbside availability, and are still working hard on providing an online portal for ordering, which will help us do curbside for a little less labor. We assume that we will be in pandemic mode for at least six to nine more months, likely longer, so our crystal balls are very murky. Departments like the Deli and Wellness have realized that pandemics are not kind to their usual business, and rebounding from this sudden impact is hard indeed. We will revise every quarter as more information and experience come into play.

And we are now launching into our negotiations with the bargaining unit of our Co-op for the next three-year contract. Even as we are facing the kind of uncertainty none of us have ever encountered, we still have to figure out how to balance all the Co-op’s needs in order to support our staff in wages and benefits. We have already brushed up on our interest-based bargaining skills (by virtual means) with the help of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and are embarking together on this new dialogue, against a backdrop of acute uncertainty,

So you will continue to see changes—some of them nearly imperceptible, some of them jarring—as we try to maneuver through these difficult challenges. I am approaching it all as a short-term deficit, while making some decisions to position us better for the long-term viability of this Co-op that we all love and on which we depend. I will certainly keep you in the loop.

Thank you for your support. Now more than ever.

The Co-op’s Learning Curve

As we have all experienced, everything lately is difficult and ever-changing. Yet, and still, we have lots of work to do to address and change the part that we as a Co-op, and we as individuals, are doing to change the course of our society from that of an oppressive white construct to that of a just and equitable culture in which people of color can move through their lives without constant fear and disenfranchisement, and one in which we all value each other for the richness and depth that we offer. In that effort, we have done some personal study and research, initially around Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility, which both the management team and the board read and discussed, and in listening to podcasts together to learn about heinous parts of our history that most of us knew little or nothing about. Our naïve privilege has informed our understanding of the world, the system of corrections, the role of law enforcement, our educational system, and on and on. There is much to study and much to change.

I have had many conversations over the last few months about this issue. As you might expect, they are wide-ranging. One person challenged me/us to stop discussing books and instead do something effective, like get out the vote this November. Good point: we have been in touch with the Town of Brattleboro to see if we might support voter registration right here at the Co-op. If you are interested in this particular effort, there are many local groups working hard on getting the vote out; we will continue to update you both here and in the store with information as it becomes available. Many individuals have shared their own personal journeys with readings and podcasts to fill in the significant gaps in our knowledge, and to a person, we have all acknowledged the magnitude of this task, although dwarfed by the daily challenge that a person of color navigates for their entire life. And, as sad as this makes me, a few have vowed to not shop in our Co-op due to our tiny little efforts in this regard, and I have even been threatened for “fomenting social unrest.”

Other moves we have made are to continue in our internal educational work, both at the operational and board level, with diversity, equity, and inclusion trainers to assist us in systematic change here. We are working to improve our hiring practices, including instituting ways to circumvent unconscious biases, and we are making sure that our financial contributions are supporting area organizations that work for POC-access to good food.

This is big work, and this will take our lifetimes. We ask for your forbearance as we make our way slowly and inefficiently through this, and urge you to do your own work in this regard, both on your personal beliefs and in more active and far-reaching ways. Check out some of those lists, like 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice, or Justice in June, a guided daily chart, based on the time you can carve out of your day, to progress through your learning (thanks to board member Tamara Stenn for this suggestion). There are many resources, many of which have been around for a while, but which are just as valid today. This is good work, and this is energizing work, and this will fuel some of the best conversations and interchanges you will have in your life. So, get learning.

See you around!


By Sabine Rhyne, General Manager