The Supreme Court’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision reopened a 2013 Federal lawsuit filed by Eden Foods for the right to opt out of various health care coverages for employees on religious grounds (Eden Foods v. Burwell). Given their commitment to sustainability, family farmers, organic foods, and clean packaging, the suit stirred controversy nationwide, which stores have managed in many ways. Our Co-op will complete a 30-day comment period for Owners on August 2. Comments may be submitted via our website’s online forum or Contact Us page, or by completing a comment form in store. The comment period allows staff to assess the concerns of Owners, how many of our Owners would miss their products if they were removed, and whether or not Eden Foods remains a choice enough Owners wish to have when shopping in our store. We will also compare commentary to our sales, and see if sales have changed in light of discussion. We opened this comment period due to unusually high Owner input to be transparent and educational, and to have the conversation together.
Food and Product Selection Challenges
Product selection is tricky at any grocery store. With 31,000 Owners that have 31,000 varying priorities, it’s no different for us. The cooperative principles drive our Food and Product Selection Philosophy. Our commitment to products that “represent our Owners’ diverse values and contribute to healthy, just, tolerant, and viable communities” is a direct link to Cooperative Principle 1: Voluntary and Open Membership, open to all without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination, as well as Cooperative Principle 7: Concern for the Community, working for the sustainable development of our community through policies accepted by our Owners. We are also steadfast in our efforts to help “Owners make informed choices about products whenever possible,” nodding to Cooperative Principle 5: Education, Training and Information, helping Owners contribute effectively to the Co-op’s development, and Cooperative Principle 4: Autonomy and Independence, as our Owners help each other control our cooperatively Owned business. We Own together so that we can source products that meet each other’s tastes and carry the principles and our selection philosophy forward.
Our Ownership elects a Board of Directors that hires a General Manager to operate and staff the Co-op. Our staff carries out the Food and Product Selection Philosophy, a philosophy with high criteria: local, organic, natural, sustainable, humane, fairly traded, diverse values, health, just, tolerant, viable, accessible, transparent, small, cooperatively operated, ethical and environmentally conscious. We keep our philosophy in the positive, focusing on what we enjoy about our products. Remaining transparent, few if any of the products we carry meet all our ideals. Some producers meet many criteria, some fall short, and all are products that many of our Owners want to purchase in our stores. We use our philosophy as a guide, not a rule, allowing us to support companies that share many values and offer a variety of choices without limiting access to important product categories.
The decision to pull product is not to be taken lightly, and is not a decision that is healthy to make often. Our Owners expect certain products to be available, as routine is part of what makes the services we provide desirable and convenient. We want to maintain choices so that our grocery store meets the needs of the Ownership, benefits the neighborhoods in which we reside, and is a store that can be a one-stop food destination you can trust.
Comment Periods vs. Votes
Some have inaccurately characterized the comment period on Eden Foods as a vote. Very few brands we carry are purchased by a simple majority of Owners, as we typically try to keep a variety of brands available that meet many needs. An inclusive and accessible store is obliged to serve all of its customers, regardless of opinions aligning with a majority. A comment period, rather, allows our staff to review a wider variety of considerations when deciding whether to keep or pull a product while also allowing our Owners to become aware of a product issue and then show us what impact the issue has in terms of both the community and changes to sales.
Product Removals, Boycotts and Bans
Co-op staff usually adds and removes products based on philosophy, quality, Owner input, sales, and availability; discussion or public action is simply not needed. In this unusual instance, your Co-op has not made any decision regarding Eden Foods, and will not until the comment period is over. Some Owners have asked if we are banning Eden Foods. No, a ban would remove the product from the store outright, and never allow it to return. The Co-op does not engage in banning product: we typically pull product quietly, and will call out vendors via boycott only when we really feel a message needs to be sent. The purpose of a boycott is to pressure a particular entity to change, letting the boycotted party know what it would have to do to return to our shelves. If boycotted, the product could return contingent upon improved practices.
Politics and Partisanship: They’re Different
Some Owners are surprised the Co-op would engage its Owners in political discussion. That makes sense. We have Owners who shop our store simply because they like the experience and the food is good. Some Owners shop here to meet particular dietary concerns. Some shop here to politically demonstrate their belief in practices we and our vendors endorse. We support these varieties of Owners and more. This not the first time the Co-op has engaged in politics to support Owner and community needs, asking previously for input on workers’ rights conflicts, humane animal treatment, organic standards and more. The Co-op has recently lobbied and petitioned at the local, state, and Federal level regarding organic standards, GMO labeling, FDA regulations, and local food access. Providing an alternative food source, which is what your Co-op does, may be construed as a political act in and of itself. That does not mean that it is partisan; in fact, per our bylaws, we are nonpartisan. We believe there is a lot of grey area in what makes a person decide to eat and support natural and organic foods, and those decisions stretch way beyond partisan lines. Eden Foods is proof of the grey area, showing not only in their company’s choices, but in our Owner commentary on the issue as well. Varying opinion is healthy for a grocery store: it provides a wide range of values to support. It means we appeal to many people who can come together on common ground through our food. You won’t see your Co-op endorsing political candidates or checking out who supports who for political office, but you will continue to see us working with both sides of the table, following the issues that affect our products and the people who make them. We will also continue providing and exploring more means to educate, foster the discussion, and advocate for our Owners.
Eden Foods: Where it Stands Currently
We carry almost 100 Eden Foods products. On July 9th, The Capital Times stated without requesting verification that Eden Foods “is one of the Co-op’s largest suppliers.” Eden Foods ranks roughly 65th in product count. As of writing, 163 comments have been posted by Owners, some Owners commenting multiple times. The National Cooperative Grocers Association encourages member Co-ops to suggest “customers vote, on this and other issues, with their dollars by supporting those companies they like and believe in.” Whole Foods has taken a similar stance, stating in the Daily Beast: “We recognize and respect that customers may have their own personal criteria for buying or not buying a product, and it’s every shopper’s right to vote with their dollars on that basis. We hope that if people have feedback for Eden Foods, they share it with them directly.” Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee has written to Eden Foods letting them know the concerns and is forwarding customer comments directly to them as well. New York City’s Park Slope Co-op in Brooklyn is reviewing a board resolution to pull Eden Foods products. Wheatsville in Austin has a petition process outlined to address concerns such as these (we are investigating adopting a similar process for the future). Central Co-op in Seattle has dropped 80% of their product due to sales and sent an open letter to Eden Foods citing this issue as the cause. Weaver Street Market Co-op has decided to pull the product. Some co-ops are still deciding how to approach concerns, and some co-ops have not received any customer input at all. Eden Foods has replied to the pressure with a statement delivered personally to co-ops discussing the issue, including our Co-op. Their position on reopening their federal case in court stands, and it is unclear if a store boycott would have greater impact than personal boycott at this time. Their statement is posted on our website. We look forward to the completion of the comment period and analyzing the best position to take to serve all our Owners.