Students prepare native tree seedlings which will be planted by fair trade farmers as part of the Co+op Forest carbon offset program.

More and more consumers in the last decade have demanded greater transparency in knowing where their food comes from and how it is produced. At food co-ops, this is often carried out on a grassroots level to educate consumers about how food is sourced and manufactured. In addition to those locally-based activities, food co-ops are also cultivating important allies on the national political level through the advocacy activities of National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA). NCGA’s advocacy work is influenced by a set of advocacy guidelines which are developed and maintained by an Advocacy Advisory Committee (AAC).

NCGA, the business services co-op for retail food cooperatives, currently serves 142 member and associate co-ops operating 190 storefronts in 38 states with a combined annual sales of over $1.6 billion. NCGA has been increasingly active since its founding in 1999 in strategically leveraging that influence and establishing partnerships to achieve changes that increase accountability and transparency in the natural foods industry, and in 2007 founded the AAC to develop a set of advocacy guidelines which NCGA staff could use as a guide in making operational decisions. According to these guidelines, NCGA “recognizes three global areas as critical to achieving [its] mission: a sustainable food system, fair treatment of people, and a healthy environment.”

grace-cox-vIn 2014, the AAC reconvened to conduct a biennial review of NCGA’s advocacy guidelines. The current committee is led by a group of co-op leaders from the following member co-ops: Rosemary Fifield, Hanover Consumer Cooperative, Allison Meyer, Seward Community Co-op, Grace Cox, Olympia Food Co-op and Melissa Cohen, from Isla Vista Co-op. “The Hanover Co-op’s membership represents a diverse demographic with wide ranging views on consumer issues,” said Fifield. “As I expected, exposure to other viewpoints and learning more about how NCGA operates in the name of its many members has been refreshing, informative and affirming.”

“Much of NCGA’s advocacy work takes place through our partnerships with like-minded organizations,” said Allie Mentzer, NCGA’s advocacy specialist. “Last year, we contributed roughly half a million dollars in dues and direct donations to organizations that help us further the goals laid out by our advocacy guidelines.”

Currently, NCGA is focused on two main issues: organics and GMO labeling because those are issues most pertinent to their member co-ops. NCGA is a founding member of the National Organic Coalition (NOC) which educates lawmakers about the benefits of organics, and advocates for farm policy that fairly supports organic farmers at the same level as conventional agriculture, putting organics on a level playing field. NOC members share a commitment to organic integrity, and frequently write policy comments to federal agencies in support of strong, enforceable organic standards.

NCGA also partners with the Just Label It campaign to get an across-the-board federal labeling law for GMOs passed. “We seeGMO labeling as a right-to-know issue,” said Mentzer. “Our current industry system of voluntary labeling isn’t working which is why we advocate for mandatory, federally-regulated GMO labeling.” Earlier this year, a bill that would codify the existing failed system of voluntary labeling was introduced to Congress, which is why NCGA and its partners’ work on the issue is timely and important to all consumers who want the right to know.

In addition to these two priority political advocacy areas, NCGA recently initiated an innovative program known as Co+op Forest. The Co+op Forest embodies all three global areas of the advocacy guidelines, transforming advocacy into action. At its heart, Co+op Forest is a carbon offset program to slow climate change, which addresses the “healthy environment” portion of the guidelines. The program also fulfills the “fair treatment of people” guidelines by partnering with fair trade cooperatives that plant native trees as part of a system of agroforestry that enriches the local community. And finally, because Co+op Forest works within the supply chain—the farmers NCGA partners with also grow organic chocolate which member co-ops sell in their stores—the program supports the guideline requiring a “sustainable food system.”

From GMOs to climate change, co-op staff and their shoppers sometimes get “cause exhaustion” while attempting to understand and address the many issues that arise in our food system. That’s why having NCGA partner with like-minded organizations and lobbying Congress can assist local co-ops, so they don’t have to do it all.

As AAC member Grace Cox said, “Members of the NCGA have found many ways to leverage our buying power to benefit our own co-op’s members. Through advocacy we have the ability to leverage our social and political power beyond our individual abilities.” Allison Meyer, also an AAC member agrees: “More and more frequently, customers at Seward Co-op expect us to have very well-informed positions on complex issues relevant to our industry—such as fair trade, genetically modified organisms—my daily work is bolstered in serving on NCGA’s advocacy advisory committee because I’m helping to inform and respond to topics like these, alongside intelligent co-op peers from across the country.”

Over the coming year, Connections will continue to feature updates about NCGA’s advocacy work, including specific articles focused on organics, GMOs and the Co+op Forest.

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4PCG Focus—Strategic Leadership:successfully articulating the cooperative’s direction/purpose and setting up the organization for movement in this direction. For more information about 4PCG, read the article in the January/February 2014 issue of Cooperative Grocer.

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