Thoughts on the November 4, 2017 Co-op Cafe in Greenfield

[I attended the Co-op Cafe event sponsored by the CDS Consulting Co-op and the Neighboring Food Co-ops Association -- and was moved to share the following thoughts with some of my fellow attendees.  On reflection, it seemed like it might be useful to post my thoughts publicly -- if only, perhaps, to attract the attention of others who attended similar Co-op Cafe events this year in other locations around the U.S.]

Fellow Cooperators:

This is an experiment, so please bear with me.  I am writing to a somewhat random list of folks who attended Saturday’s Cooperative Café in Greenfield, sponsored by the CDS Consulting Co-op and the Neighboring Food Co-ops Association.  My purpose is to generate some dialogue and, perhaps, to make a bit of a course correction in the regional and national conversation among food co-op board members both regionally and nationally.

As the organizers made clear in the presentations they used to frame the discussion, we serve our cooperatives, and represent their members, in challenging times.

When I first joined the board of the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society in 2003, our co-op had a more or less uncontested 25 percent share of the local grocery market.  The talk was of how to grow.  We consistently paid out a substantial patronage refund each year.

No more!  Our co-op is on track to finish the year in the red.  Sales are drifting downward.  Workplace issues are on the increase, as economic pressures on individuals mount and co-ops find it more and more challenging to be generous with employees.

Given all of that, it was refreshing to participate in such a positive and lively event as the one we were treated to in Greenfield.  How useful to take a step back and consider the positive impacts our co-ops have on people and communities.  How helpful to think about how all of us – elected trustees and trusted employees – contribute to the successes we achieve.  How vital it is for each of us to take stock of what we can do, as individuals and as members of our co-ops’ teams.

I nevertheless find myself wondering whether others share my interest in taking the conversation to a higher and more intense level.  Why?  Well, a couple of things really struck me about Saturday’s proceedings.

The first was that the only thing we heard from our national organization – the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA, currently doing business as National Co-op Grocers, or NCG) was a pre-recorded talk from Shiela Ongie, NCG’s sustainability manager.  She talked about “the new normal” and described NCGA/NCG as “a business services cooperative.”

The second thing that struck me was how often the informal chatter at the tables turned to various crises that boards of individual co-ops have confronted recently.  At once co-op, the board has had to hire six general managers in seven years.  At another, board meetings became so contentious that it was impossible to conduct meetings without an outside facilitator to maintain order.

My sense is that we are too disconnected from each other and from our national organization.  We should be sharing our stories – our troubles and our triumphs – with each other.  And we should be engaged in active dialogue with NCGA about this “new normal” and what we, together, are doing about it.

As it happens, we have an excellent model in the Neighboring Food Co-ops Association.  It has been around in one form or another for more than a decade and, unlike what we have at the national level, the NFCA has always been a forum at which board members and GMs (plus other key co-op employees) have held freewheeling and frank dialogue about what’s really going on.

Our business ties, however, are at the national level – largely through the national buying program of the NCGA through which co-ops combine their wholesale purchasing power to acquire goods from UNFI, the nation’s biggest distributor of organic and natural foods.  Are you aware of how interdependent this makes your co-op with the other co-ops of NCG/s eastern “corridor”?  Did you know that one NCG co-op (PCC in Seattle) is so big that it’s exempt from these interdependencies – in essence, this co-op is its own NCG corridor?

I have a vivid memory of attending CCMA in 2005 – yup, that long ago – in Albuquerque and hearing the first president of NCGA explain what this new organization (born as a merger of several regional food co-op organizations) was all about.  I raised my hand and politely asked when the boards of member co-ops would have a chance to participate in the work of this new association.  The NCGA president told me to be patient; that it would take a while to get the national buying program off the ground.  She promised that once NCGA had fully launched those important efforts, it would turn to the kind of work one would expect from a national association.

Regrettably, NCG never did that.  Instead, it dropped the “A” from its trade name (but not its legal name) and now describes itself as simply a “business services cooperative,” as we heard from Shiela Ongie.  Understanding the need for connection among boards, NCG pays the CDS Consulting Co-op (e.g., the folks who led us on Saturday – Michael Healy, Marilyn Scholl and Mark Goehring) to superintend our gatherings, but it avoids engaging with us directly, much less being accountable to us.

Saturday’s Co-op Café was my idea of a good time.  I enjoyed making new friends, connecting with old ones, and having animated conversations about why and how our co-ops make a difference in our communities.  But I yearn to join with directors from food co-ops everywhere in taking the conversation to a higher level – so that we understand what we are accomplishing as a player in the national economy.

In my judgment, the most important and inspiring thing ever written about co-ops remains the widely circulated essay by Brett Fairbairn, “Three Strategic Concepts for the Guidance of Cooperatives.” The most important of those three concepts is cognition – “the glue that keeps the co-op and its members together when both are changing,” according to Fairbairn.

He concludes: “Each co-operative will have to find its own approach and its own mix of communication practices, educational activities, research functions, units, and policies that support the cognitive processes of the organization.” That’s true of us as individual co-ops and as a network of cooperative grocers.  As the elected representatives of the owners of that network, we need to take our cognition to a higher level – to get past bland generalities and cheerleading based on the mistaken assumption that everything else, from what happens in our stores to the details of our national buying program, is off-limits as “operations” or taboo as potentially too contentious.

What do you think?



My annual invitation for your help in the struggle against Cystic Fibrosis

This is one year in which the raw data really does tell the story.  So, as they say on public radio, let’s do the numbers:

71: Rose’s FEV1 as measured on Labor Day.  Rose is my daughter, a high school sophomore. She has cystic fibrosis. FEV1 is “forced expiratory volume over one second” – a measurement of how much air you can blow out of your lungs. A ‘normal’ person, who doesn’t have cystic fibrosis, should have an FEV1 of 100.  Go below 40 on a permanent basis and you need a lung transplant.

25: The number of days Rose spent in the hospital after that dismal FEV1 result.

$136,000: The bill for those four weeks, paid for by the kind of health insurance everyone deserves.

$0: The amount of money I had left after Rose beat me at Monopoly one night at the hospital. What can I say? The kid managed to get her hands on Boardwalk and Park Place – and then build houses on them.

0: Number of times the U.S. Senate voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act while Rose was in the hospital, despite repeated threats to do so.  The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation was one of many mainstream healthcare organizations that pulled out all stops in an effort to preserve this critical protection for people with chronic illnesses.

8: Number of Tampa Bay Rays struck out by Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox on September 9, when we strolled over to Fenway from the hospital to watch a game. Alas, Rose had to stay behind because being in the hospital as a CF patient is just like being an inmate in a supermax prison. The Sox beat the Rays 9-0.

1,656: Number of Morning Edition sports commentaries by Gold Star CF dad, former Cystic Fibrosis Foundation board chairman, and National Humanities Medal winner Frank Deford including his last on May 3, just a few weeks before his death.

2: Number of times U.S. Rep. Tom Marino (of Pennsylvania's 10th district) withdrew his name from consideration as the nation’s drug czar this year in disgrace. Marino, the only CF parent in Congress, was nevertheless a consistent and outspoken vote in favor of repealing the Affordable Care Act.

2: Number of U.S. Senators who heard Rose’s dad testify in Concord in June that repeal of the Affordable Care Act would be a cruel blow to CF families. At least two other folks from the CF community also testified. Thank you senators Shaheen and Hassan for listening!

… and finally:

103: Rose’s FEV1 as measured on October 11 – a few days after Rose left the hospital and returned to school.  What an astonishing improvement – lung function literally better than perfect!

As such a remarkable year winds down, my heart is again filled with gratitude – to all of our friends and loved ones whose help and good wishes were so welcome while Rose was in the hospital, and to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF).  So, once again, I am offering up this annual opportunity to connect you.

I don’t know how it works with other diseases, but in the CF world the CFF is the mother ship. 

They sponsor the research that has unlocked the secrets of the disease at the cellular and genetic levels.  They partner with drug companies to develop the breakthrough therapies.  They accredit the CF care centers to make sure high standards prevail.  They keep the patient registry – a vast storehouse of data that makes it possible to understand how the disease really affects people.  And they stand tall with CF families when Congress and the man in the White House need to be introduced to their consciences.

So, with each paycheck, I have my employer deduct some money and send it to the CFF.  And, at the end of the year, I make a donation to the CFF’s annual fund.  I invite you to do the same.

Consider doing it, this year, in memory of Frank Deford.  I am sorry I never met the man.  He was a real hero and you should read the book he wrote about his daughter, who died of CF at just eight years of age back in 1980.  Thanks to families like the Defords, we have come so far since then.

Resources are scarce and this is a difficult time for our nation.  We are all bombarded with requests for money from all kinds of worthy charities.  But if it would give you pleasure to connect with Rose and her quest to live and thrive with CF, then please consider a gift to the CFF Annual Fund.

I’d be honored if you made your donation through my CFF Annual Fund page, which you can find here.

Thank you heartily!

My June 23, 2017 testimony at the emergency hearing convened by Senators Shaheen and Hassan on the GOP healthcare bill

Senators Shaheen and Hassan:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today in my capacity as the proud father of my smart, accomplished, ambitious and healthy 15-year-old daughter Rose, a kid who also deals every day with a life-shortening chronic illness: cystic fibrosis.

Rose is an equestrienne, a math whiz, a big sister, a social activist and also someone who has to spend two hours a day on various therapies designed to fend off the effects of her CF. Then, all night long, Rose is wired up to a pump that gives her supplemental nutrition through a PEG tube – basically, a surgically created orifice in her belly.

Still, we are blessed. In 1980, the late sportswriter Frank Deford lost his eight-year-old daughter to CF, because back then we didn’t know how to treat the disease. Deford went on to help lead the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and today the Foundation is the most successful healthcare charity in the universe. Thanks to the therapies and treatment protocols the Foundation has developed, I have every reason to believe I will never experience what Frank Deford experienced – a dad burying his daughter.

Cystic Fibrosis is the quintessential preexisting condition – in a good year, with no hospitalizations, it costs upwards of $100,000 to treat CF. Rose just found out this week that this isn’t a good year – she’s likely to have to spend some time in the hospital this summer to chase out the opportunistic bacteria that like to ruin the lungs of CF patients.

So, without the Affordable Care Act or something a lot like it, my daughter is uninsurable. Maybe she can get as job with health insurance, but then there’s the problem of lifetime benefit caps.

The CF Foundation has unlocked the genetic and microbiological secrets of this disease, and now it is asking CF parents like me to urge senators like you to save the Affordable Care Act. For a mainstream charity like that, without a partisan bone in its body, to take a stand like that is, to paraphrase Joe Biden, a big deal.

Indeed, it’s a big deal for me to speak at a forum like this. I’m an appointed state official who would like to be re-appointed, and the way to do that is to stay out of politics. But I am first and foremost a loving father, and I have a conscience that does not allow me to remain silent. The healthcare bill pending before you is cruel and unconscionable, and in the name of every dad who has ever lost a child to a chronic illness I urge you to consign this bill to oblivion.

What a week for cystic fibrosis dads

Here’s something I’ve learned in 15 years of being the father of a child with cystic fibrosis.  Fatalism has no home in CF nation.  It is the kind of disease that provides everyone affected with it – patients, parents, siblings, healthcare providers, scientists, policymakers – with constant opportunities to do something useful, creative, even courageous toward the cause of making cystic fibrosis less awful .

It is with that in mind that I consider this week’s news about two of my fellow CF dads.  One made a glorious exit.  Another covered himself in ignominy.

NPR made quite a fuss this week after sports commentator Frank Deford surprised his fans by announcing his retirement from public radio on Wednesday after 37 years.  The network paid tribute to Deford’s uncommon ability to convey the essential humanity that is the reason even the congenitally unathletic should care about sports.  But there was no mention of what caused Deford to be a writer of such wisdom and depth.

I think Frank Deford’s great insight and compassion comes from the fact that he’s a Gold Star CF dad.  His daughter Alex died in 1980 at the tender age of eight.  You can get the whole story in Deford’s book, Alex: The Life of a Child.  As you read this fabulous volume, consider that Deford did so much more for the CF cause than just share this intensely personal story with the world.  Deford served as the chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation from 1982 to 1999 and, to this day, is chairman emeritus.

Did this service make a difference?  Did it matter that Frank Deford was for all those years shaking down sports grandees and other luminaries for donations as he championed the cause of beating back this disease?  Hell yes.  In 1980, it was pretty routine for a girl with CF to die at age eight.  Now, thanks to the CF Foundation, we have unlocked the genetic and microbiological secrets of this disease and we are on the brink of reducing CF to the status of a curious medical footnote.  My daughter will outlive her dad in no small part because Alex Deford did not outlive hers.

That makes Frank Deford a hero.  The same will not, and cannot, be said of another CF dad – one Thomas Anthony Marino.

Tom Marino represents Pennsylvania’s Tenth District in Congress and is, to my knowledge, the only cystic fibrosis parent in either the House or the Senate.  Yet when a mere four votes provided the margin of victory this week for the American Health Care Act, Marino’s was among the 217 yeas.

As a mainstream charitable organization, the CF Foundation steadfastly avoids making enemies or looking partisan.  But the foundation did not mince words about what Marino and his 216 colleagues did.  “The American Health Care Act, as passed by the House today, is woefully inadequate for people with cystic fibrosis,” said Preston W. Campbell, M.D., president and chief executive officer of the CF Foundation. “The people who would be most severely impacted by this legislation seem to have been forgotten in the health care debate and we implore the Senate to do better for people living with chronic and life-threatening diseases, including people with CF.”

My blood boils as I recall the CF Foundation dinner I attended in Washington several years ago at which Marino spoke in his capacity as co-chair of the Congressional Cystic Fibrosis Caucus.  As he talked about his daughter Chloe, I remember thinking that, although I probably disagreed with Marino on many issues, here we found our common cause and our common humanity.

I guess not.  Marino even had the audacity to mention in his press release lauding his vote that he’s a CF dad.

Some may find this criticism unfair or at least ill-timed.  Earlier this week Rep. Marino withdrew his name from consideration as the next White House drug czar in the face of reliable reports he was about to get the nomination.  Marino’s announcement referred to a “critical illness” in his family. For all I know, Marino may be on the brink of joining the ranks of Gold Star CF dads.  

If so, that’s actually the opposite of an excuse.

There is a reason President Kennedy coined the phrase “Profiles in Courage” to describe members of Congress who summon the fortitude to do the right thing and cast the right vote when conscience calls.  I am with Paul Waldman of The American Prospect, who wrote:  “If there has been a piece of legislation in our lifetimes that boiled over with as much malice and indifference to human suffering, I can’t recall what it might have been.  And every member of the House who voted for it must be held accountable.”

No one should be called to account more harshly and more emphatically then Rep. Marino.  The CF Foundation should throw him right out of the CF Congressional Caucus.

There is quite literally a cost to everything Frank Deford and all of the other CF heroes have accomplished for families like mine.  Thanks to all of the new drugs and other treatments, a long adulthood with CF can be available to all – but staying healthy with CF carries a bill in excess of six figures in a good year.  I know this.  Tom Marino knows this.

In Frank Deford’s book about his daughter, an especially memorable moment involves the author delivering young Alex to the room where a surgical procedure was to be performed on her lungs.  At first she resists emphatically, but then says she is ready.

So I started to lay her down where they would cut her open. And in that moment, I could not hold back any longer; one tear fell from all those welling in my eyes. And Alex saw it, saw my face as I bent to put her down. Softer, but urgently, she cried out, "Wait!"  We all thought she was only delaying the operation again, but instead, so gently, so dearly, she reached up, and with an angel’s touch, swept the tear from my face.”

“I will never know such sweetness again in all my life,” Deford wrote.  With such sweetness comes opportunities to do great things – to be heroes their their daughters and to other people’s daughters as well.  Frank Deford is a hero.  Tom Marino is not.

The Co-op on Yelp? Yikes!

If you’re ever inclined to feel complacent about our Co-op and its place in the local food economy, just head for the consumer rating site and check out the reviews of the Co-op Food Stores in Hanover and Lebanon.  (For some reason they have no reviews of the Co-op Food Store in White River Junction.)  One greets with slack-jawed astonishment the extent to which the Co-op can be misunderstood and misconstrued.

For example, there is this review of the Hanover store from July 11, 2016:

“This store was recently remodeled to be more of a chain-style quickie-mart. It now has more processed and pre-made food, but no longer has a full selection of groceries.

“It's still a fake coop, and you don't actually own your shares.

“I can't recommend this place to anyone but the desperate or car-less. Prices are like double what they are at normal stores and coops. Quality and selection is horrible. Veggies/fruits are old and rotten inside for the most part. Meats are gross - the supposed "natural" and "eco" type meats are horrible, worse than midwestern feedlot stuff. Regular grocery stock is old and sometimes well past the sell-by date. Pre-made food is fair-to-bad.

“They do sketchy things like using rainbow trout ("steelhead") instead of salmon in their sushi.

“Like other reviews say, If you have a car, it's best to go one town over and stock up at Hannaford, and then stop by the "big Coop" at Centerra on your way back if necessary.”

Where to begin?  I don’t see how even the most casual visitor to the Hanover Co-op Food store could conflate its product selection with that of a convenience store chain.  There is, admittedly, a growing emphasis on grab ‘n’ go items at all grocery stores and the Co-op, for good or ill, does not pretend to be immune to this trend.  But you can still shop for old-fashioned groceries at this store – everything you need is there, from peanut butter and jelly to wagon wheel pasta to fresh brussels sprouts to Marmite.  (Though why anyone would willingly subject themselves to Marmite I do not understand.)

Fake co-op?  Don’t actually own your own shares?  A howling falsehood, plain and simple.  The rest of the characterizations fall squarely into the realm of what in some circles is known as “veggie libel.”  Clearly the Co-op has to act decisively to dispel the myth that its prices are out of line with the competition’s.

Here’s a 2014 review of the Lebanon Co-op Food store:

“Just FYI, the "Coop" isn't a real coop, it's just a regular chain grocery store with a club-card discount program.

“You have to buy "shares" for the club-card, but you don't really own the shares. The Coop can repossess your shares without paying you. For example, they can force you to buy more shares, or else they will repossess your current shares without any compensation. You can see this and more on their online "bylaws." It's predatory, in my opinion.

“Quality is just awful. It's declined significantly over the last several years. The meat, fish, and produce are terrible quality for the most part. Worse than chain stores. The "organic" and "natural" meats used to be ok, but now they are worse than the cheap feedlot stuff at other stores. The produce and sometimes the fish are just plain old and sick. And laughably expensive.

“Basically, the Coop is a fake Walmart version of real co-ops. Worst example of "greenwashing" I've ever seen. Clearly, the executives at the Coop chain are aware that we're all stuck up here with no other choices. The suppliers/distrubuters they use are so disgusting it makes me wonder what kind of corporate racket is going on with this place. Someone is raking it in. Wonder why this "Coop" refuses to disclose their executive pay? To me, it seems like their business plan is based on taking advantage of customers, since we're evidently all country-bumpkins, helpless elderly, naive college kids, or downscale leaf-peeping tourists.

“Buyer beware! Do your due diligence. Check those "use by" dates. Check the fruits and veggies for rot as soon as you get home. Don't be scared to return rotten and spoiled items.”

Do you get the idea that this review was written by the same person who wrote the review of the Hanover store?  They both use the term “feedlot” and repeat the patently false claim that Co-op members don’t really own their shares.  The Co-op cannot “repossess your shares.”  No store, whether calling itself a co-op or not, could survive by doing the kind of stuff described in either of these reviews.

Finally, there is this review from 2015:

“I adore the Co-op.  I almost gave it 4 stars just because the prices are so high that I can't afford to do all of my grocery shopping here, but I couldn't bring myself to take a star away.  Honestly, I'm okay with paying higher prices for the items I get from the Co-op, since it's all high quality, and so much of it goes back to local farmers, businesses, and the community.  As I said, I can't afford to do all of my grocery shopping here, but when I need a high quality ingredient or two to be the stars of a meal I'm making, this is my go-to place.  I also like that it's right down the street from my office, so I don't have to drive all the way into West Leb to get a couple of ingredients.

“I waited a while to become a member, just because $50 seemed like a lot to me.  Then, I realized I only had to pay the $50 once to become a member for life, and then it didn't seem so bad.  On the 15th & 16th of every month, they give a 10% member discount, and members also receive all kinds of discounts from other local businesses and services.  My personal favorite perk is the cooking class discount for their Culinary Learning Institute.  My favorite classes are taught by Eli, who has never cooked something I didn't like... even when he uses ingredients I don't particularly love, like mushrooms.  The guy is a magician with food!  They regularly invite microbreweries in to do food and beer pairing classes, and students are able to interact and ask questions about the food and beer.

“Another couple of highlights for me:

“The cheese section!  Cheeses from near and far!  I could spend an entire paycheck and gain 50 pounds all in one shot here.  Cheeses from France, Italy, Switzerland... and honestly, some of the best cheeses (in my cheese-loving opinion) are from local farms right next door in Vermont.

“The beer section!  All kinds of great microbrews, and one of the top selections in the Upper Valley.  Matt runs this department, and he does a fantastic job with keeping the selection diverse and ever-changing.  I'm always finding fantastic new beers I've never tried!  Matt also does a great job helping Eli with the food and beer pairing classes.

“Produce!  Most of it's organic, a lot of it's local, it's all fresh, and yes, it's expensive... but when I needed some really great, fresh, and tender Vidalia onions to be the star of the French onion soup I was making, this was where I went for the onions, baguettes, and some really fantastic Gruyere cheese.  I guarantee my French onion soup came out way better than it would have if I'd just gone to Price Chopper for the ingredients.

“The rest of it is really great too, but those are my highlights.”

What’s the moral of the story?  The Co-op has to get real with its members about its prices.  I suspect that a thorough inquiry would reveal that the Co-op is sometimes more expensive than its competition, sometimes isn’t, and is overall a cost-effective source of groceries in the long run.  I will never forget being at a board meeting several years ago at which a member of the management team handed out a detailed comparison of the Co-op’s prices with those of one of the supermarket chains with a major presence in our area.  The Co-op was actually cheaper overall.  When I asked why the Co-op wasn’t publicizing this the answer I got was that the Co-op feared inciting and then losing a price war with the investor-owned chains.  I said:  Why would lower grocery prices for all, throughout the Upper Valley, be a bad thing?  He looked at me like I was crazy.