by Alex Gyori
In looking back over my three decades at the Brattleboro Food Co-op as a coordinator in the management collective then as general manager, my recollections have run the gamut, from light moments to thought-provoking learning experiences. Over the next several months of Food For Thought articles, I plan to share some of those adventures and learnings with you.
Working for the Co-op has provided a means to clearly identify my belief system and personal priorities, through having applied my energies to an endeavor that aspires to achieve goals that I also believe in. My commitment to social justice in particular has been sharply honed.
At some point during my first year as a coordinator, a Co-op member and I were working side by side on a task that gave us some space for a bit of chit chat. Our conversation detoured at one point from the jokes and banter, and got into the subject of food prices in relation to employee compensation. The member’s viewpoint was that food, being a human right, should be as cheap as possible, and that employees should be paid no more than minimum wage ($3.65 per hour then) to help assure the lowest prices. I had a very hard time with that idea. Trying to raise a family with two very young children and a beneficiary of the W.I.C. program at the time, I was irritated, and admittedly, defensive. I knew that the co-op member, a skilled tradesman, was earning more than four times the minimum wage. The discussion turned out to be an important learning moment.
Although I was working in a food retail environment, the idea that there was a cultural expectation around the price of food had not yet occurred to me. My focus up to that time had been mainly getting the job done, making sure the orders were placed, the goods stocked and priced. I had not yet begun to reflect on the consequences of the juxtaposition of the Co-op’s aspirational values around fair remuneration to producers, quality of life, environmental sustainability, wage fairness, all of these last taken for granted, but when positioned against the price of food, creating a dichotomy that is difficult to solve. Dedicated to achieving those high goals, expressed over the years in mission statements and today in the current Ends Policy, the Co-op wittingly or unwittingly set for itself a very high bar, and a difficult one to achieve. In the wider competitive marketplace, other food purveyors, unfettered by a similar set of values, can achieve attractive prices, but at what cost?
So that chance encounter many years ago opportunely sowed the seed of a constant preoccupation for those of us entrusted with running the Co-op—to strive to achieve the delicate balance in the price of food, meeting the needs and expectations of people, providing what the Co-op needs to remain a thriving, relevant entity for our community, and adhering to the goal of a socially just workplace. As for the member who started me thinking about this issue, he still shops at the Co-op but we have never continued the conversation.