From left, Allan Reetz of Hanover Food Co-op, Karin Mott of Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op and Amy Crawford of Brattleboro Food Co-op at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. 

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On Tuesday, Sept. 28, my work for the Brattleboro Food Co-op put me on a flight to Washington, D.C. I would soon join Karin Mott of Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op and Allan Reetz of Hanover Food Co-op in the nation’s capital. Together, we would spend an unforgettable 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 public health agenda.

Karin, Allan, and I were nominated as conference delegates by leadership at the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) and the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA). With deep gratitude, we carry their trust forward to serve the more significant cooperative sector as it builds on the legacy of cooperative impact on nutrition.

Of course, food and nutrition advocacy are 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. Being a steward of such work is a high honor and substantial responsibility. From that first conference more than 50 years ago, 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 (NSLP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) was a slow evolution. Unfortunately, over the years, that progression has too often been divisive. And today, lingering challenges remain.

Karin informed me of one considerable WIC shortcoming while in D.C. In summary, she said: 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 handful 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 we can carry on our shelves.

Cooperative food stores of every size solve food gaps and act as information sources within their urban and rural communities. Yet, with WIC, for instance, a smaller grocery cooperative like Middlebury — with its clear and careful focus on nutritious products within a smaller store — USDA’s rigid requirements effectively prevent that customer-owned business from becoming a WIC partner.

Expectant parents and new mothers rightly obsess about health, nutrition, and their baby’s milestones. However, a food co-op is typically the store of 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 confusing federal restrictions, we believe that needs to be resolved. So, what are the first steps we plan to take to address the problem? During our busy day at the White House Conference, we spoke with the conference chair, Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. The cooperative impact is no secret, with 10 NFCA member co-ops in his state. In the coming weeks, we will request a follow-up meeting with Mr. McGovern, where we will share our concerns and ideas for solutions. The conference also allowed Karin to raise the issue with Stacey Dean, USDA’s Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services.

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Karin later told me, “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 to work through the issue.”

Gaining high-level attention from USDA and knowing Congressman McGovern’s deep concern for such matters puts us on a path to better federal policy. It is how food cooperatives strive to solve issues faced by many small, independent grocers, especially new parents who rely on WIC.

The biggest issue directly impacts many smaller-sized co-ops as they cannot bring in some of the major/name brands that are required to participate in this program, whether due to shelf spacing or just not moving through enough volume to carry it.

Our cooperative is a founding member of the NFCA, established by food co-ops in our region to create opportunities for 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 healthy, nutritious food and co-op membership more accessible to people on limited incomes.

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 ideas, new alliances, and opportunities the White House Conference presented to our cooperative. With or without such an event, our continuing obligation is 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.

Amy Crawford is theMarketing & Community Relations Manager at the Brattleboro Food Co-Op.