On Tuesday, September 28, my work for the Hanover Co-op put me on a flight to Washington, DC. 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 NFCA and NCBA CLUSA to serve as delegates. It was with deep gratitude that we were able to build on the legacy of cooperative 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 DC, Karin informed me of a large shortcoming of WIC for small grocers.
“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 that are only available through a handful of brands,” Karin said. “In fact, as of the 2021-2023 WIC Product List, [only] a small set of products are keeping the Middlebury Co-op from being able to serve as a WIC participating store. [Because of] 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.”
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.
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 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, Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. With 10 NFCA member food co-ops and startups in his state, McGovern is familiar the impact and potential of cooperative 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, New Hampshire Rep. Ann McLane 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 Reps. 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 NFCA and NCBA CLUSA. 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 policy advocacy.
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 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:
“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 and 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,” Amy wrote.
These are just a few samples of the reflections, partnerships and opportunities the White House Conference presented to our cooperative 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 cooperatives, 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.