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.
For each of us, acting as a delegate to that rare gathering allowed us to bring a cooperative voice to the agenda of public health.
Karin, Amy and I were nominated to be conference delegates by leadership at the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) and the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA). It is with deep gratitude that we carry their trust forward to build on the legacy of cooperative impact on nutrition.
Of course, food and nutrition advocacy is nothing new to cooperatives. 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. In summary, she said:
In order to participate in the WIC program as a retailer, a store MUST carry a certain number of products that fit into every category, including conventional products and sizes which are only available through a handful of brands.
In fact, as of the 2021-2023 WIC Product List, a small set of products are keeping the Middlebury Co-op from being able to serve as a WIC participating store. Through that system, our co-op cannot accept WIC cards as payment for any products, even the ones on the list that we can carry on our shelves.
Cooperative food stores of every size fill food gaps and act as information sources within their communities – both urban and rural. Yet, with WIC, for instance, a smaller grocery cooperative like Middlebury — with its clear and careful focus on nutritious products within a smaller store — faces USDA’s rigid requirements that effectively prevent such a customer-owned business from becoming a WIC partner.
Expectant parents and new mothers rightly obsess about health, nutrition, and their baby’s milestones. 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 locally.
But if a new parent cannot also use WIC benefits at their local cooperative because of federal restrictions, we believe that needs to be resolved very soon.
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 [FEATURED PHOTO]. With 10 NFCA member co-ops in his state, cooperative impact is no secret to him. In the coming weeks, we will request a follow up meeting with Rep. McGovern where we will share our concerns and ideas for solutions.
The conference 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 Congressman McGovern’s long-standing leadership on such matters puts us on a path to better federal policy. It is an example of how food cooperatives strive to solve issues faced by many small, independent grocers, and especially new parents who rely on nutrition programs.
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 larger size also enables me to play an active role in advocating for commonsense solutions on behalf smaller co-ops and local businesses. Doing so is part of my regular work in public and government affairs.
Our cooperative 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 advocacy. 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. Here is how she perfectly summarized the hope and potential for the renewed fight against hunger and for nutrition and health;
“The co-op’s mission is to feed the community, our neighbors, our families, and our friends. Being a part of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, & Health was an honor…an experience one doesn’t forget.
It is heartening that our political leaders recognize the need to be a part of the solution to ending hunger, and even more importantly, they have a strategy to do so by 2030.”
These are just a few samples of the ideas, new alliances, and opportunities the White House Conference presented to our cooperative and neighboring co-ops. With or without such an event, it is our lasting obligation to push for improved nutrition and greater food access for all.
Anywhere we can make a difference, we will step up. For cooperatives, sitting back is not an option. Community is worth too much.
(Featured Photo, from left to right) Congressman Jim McGovern (D), Massachusetts District-02; Karin Mott, Marketing, Education, and Membership Manager, Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op; Amy Crawford, Marketing & Community Relations Manager, Brattleboro Food Co-op; Allan Reetz, Director of Public and Government Affairs, Hanover Co-op Food Stores
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