On Saturday, April 1, Vermont Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman spoke at the Co-op Annual Meeting, a yearly gathering of Co-op members that takes place each spring. This year the meeting was held at the Listen Center, a popular community hub on a grassy nook by the White and Connecticut rivers in White River Junction, Vermont. Everything about the event was warm and welcoming except the weather. More than a foot of early spring snow fell the night before. On the day of the meeting, the snow was still falling.
Saturday’s meeting was my 16th, not many by Co-op standards. (One funny, sprightly member who stood up to speak said he had attended more than 30.) The meeting had a celebratory feel. Members enjoyed good food, listened to the business report, asked questions, made suggestions, and talked about the previous year and years to come.
One of the highlights for me was hearing about Pennies for Change, a charitable giving program launched last year. Pennies for Change is founded on a simple, innovative approach to collecting money at the registers. Shoppers go to the registers, check out, and have the option to round up their grocery bill to the next dollar. Then the Co-op donates the difference to community nonprofits. In 2016, Co-op shoppers donated more than $137,000 to charity through Pennies for Change. Representatives from several nonprofits, including Listen, the Haven, and Willing Hands, stood up to thank Co-op members and shoppers and to explain how much good the donations were doing for the community. In short, it was a good day to be inspired.
It was early afternoon when Zuckerman, the genial lieutenant governor of Vermont, took the podium. His dark hair was pulled in a ponytail. He wore a crisp, plaid flannel shirt.
Zuckerman was the meeting’s keynote speaker. As a lieutenant governor as well as an organic farmer, it felt like he was both an honored guest and part of the family.
Zuckerman is an 18-year veteran of Vermont politics. He served in the Vermont House and Senate before being elected lieutenant governor. Zuckerman is also an organic farmer. He and his wife, Rachel Nevitt, run Full Moon Farm in Hinesberg, Vermont. They grow organic vegetables and raise organic pigs and chickens, which they sell at farmers markets and through their CSA. Their farm also supplies co-ops across Vermont.
I expected Zuckerman to speak about co-ops, the food system, and local economies, and he did. He explained that our food system is well-intentioned, making food inexpensive and accessible. “I think that’s a fundamental piece of what a just and civil society is about,” he told the group. But, he added, what a monolithic, highly mechanized food system has done in terms of health, workers’ rights, and environmental impact has been devastating. “With that downward drive, we now have a food system that doesn’t think holistically about what our economy really is,” Zuckerman said.
What I didn’t expect was where this topic would lead, or the connection it would make for me. We’ve become so accustomed to acrimonious political speech, and yet Zuckerman talked about an idea that was uplifting, inspiring, and—best of all—possible: Take just 15 minutes every couple of weeks and get involved in democracy.
Zuckerman’s ideas for that 15 minutes were simple and doable: read up on an issue, get educated about something important to you and your family, and perhaps most importantly, contact your legislator.
“One of my biggest missions as lieutenant governor is not just to listen but to convince you to engage,” Zuckerman said. “Each of you has expertise in your life experience that can be helpful to your legislator.”
Zuckerman’s idea about the collective power of 15 minutes reminded me of Pennies for Change. In six months, a few pennies here and there added up to more than $137,000 for the needy. My friend Gabe Zoerheide, executive director of Willing Hands, told me last fall that his organization expanded its reach and fed more hungry people thanks to the donations. It’s clear that many people giving a little change added up to a huge impact. Similarly, the idea of many people giving 15 minutes to democracy was both empowering and inspiring. In the time it took me to write this paragraph, I could have written my legislator about an issue that’s important to me, my family, and my community.
My colleague Amanda Charland, the Co-op’s director of outreach and member services, likes to say that being a co-op member is an act of defiance against a corrupt system that exploits humans and the environment. It’s a way to stand up and be heard. Zuckerman reminded me that getting involved in a democracy, even if it’s only for 15 minutes, is a way to stand up and be heard, too.