June 10, 2020

Dear Co-op Owners,

Over the past couple of months, I’ve felt the unprecedented collective response required to fight the COVID-19 pandemic has in many ways elevated the national consciousness of our shared well-being and the importance of care and protection of each other. Making our store and staff safer through this crisis has been a collaborative process internally and we’ve had great community support as well. We’ve also engaged with a lot of local organizations to help support their work meeting new pandemic-related community needs. I’m very grateful for this supportive collaboration and community partnership through this difficult time. It is inspiring. 

The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, followed closely on the heels of the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, has overwhelmed us with tremendous waves of fear, grief, and anger. White supremacy, the other deadly national pandemic, is terrifying. To echo the statement of our Board of Directors, racism has been a deadly disease raging through our country for over 400 years, killing countless people. Everyday racism is causing fear, pain, suffering and death for Black people and people of color in this country. Clearly, we are long overdue for an unprecedented collective response to fight this disease.

As the days have unfolded since George Floyd was murdered, unprecedented numbers of people have already come together to call for justice and an end to racism in widespread demonstrations across every state and the District of Columbia. Despite efforts by some to silence protesters and further divide us, there appears to be momentum building for solidarity that black lives do indeed matter and that we must join together to fight racism now.

I’m hopeful we can nurture this sense of shared responsibility on a national level to effectively unite in the work to dismantle racism. I recommit to this work in solidarity with people of color. I recommit, as a white woman with much to learn, to this work on a personal level, and I also recommit to this work on an organizational level as the manager of the co-op. I’m grateful for the support and guidance of LaDonna Sanders-Redmond, our Diversity Equity and Inclusion Program Manager, as well as the many local organizations and community members providing leadership, support, and education about undoing racism.

In a recent demonstration, co-op owner Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian said some things worth repeating and reflecting on, including the following: “White silence is violence. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’ White people, he was talking to us. There is no such thing as passive anti-racism. There is only active anti-racism. White people, we are either part of the problem or part of the solution. So let’s get serious about creating profound systemic change. White people, I’m talking to you: let’s get busy.

Our hearts go out to all who have suffered and lost loved ones. We need to keep working together to fight the COVID-19  pandemic. We need to unite now to fight racism and dismantle the white supremacy that has long plagued our country. To again echo the statement of our Board of Directors last week, we don’t have all the answers―but at the co-op our shared cooperative values of equality, democracy, and solidarity help guide us forward in our ongoing work for a just marketplace that nourishes the community. 

Our community’s response of working together to care for each other is a good start on the work that lies ahead for building a better future. We are stronger together. Thank you for all you do!

An Update on Store Operations

Pandemic time in the co-op has been an intensely busy time for our employees. About a third of our staff have been out on leave due to a family member or themselves being in a high-risk category or having childcare issues. It has only been a few months, but the number of changes that have taken place makes it seem like years. The following summary highlights key issues, changes and what is coming next. 

Expanding Hours in Our Store

In March, we cut back our hours in response to limited staff availability to ease the stress on those working. We have now increased our staff and also expanded our store hours to 8 a.m. - 8 p.m. as of Monday, June 1st. The first hour, 8 a.m. - 9 a.m., is reserved for those 60+ or people with high-risk health concerns. By increasing our hours, we can spread people out more evenly over more hours throughout the day. Over the last few months, shopping patterns have changed―our weekdays have become our busiest days, while weekends, which prior to COVID were our busiest, have been our slowest. Also, our formally busy weekday lunch hours (12 - 2p.m.) are now our quietest. This shows how much our collective routines have changed.

We are maintaining the maximum customer count of 40 people―a current health department requirement for social distancing.   At this time, we do not have a specific date for going back to our regular 8 a.m. - 10 p.m. hours. We will make that decision based on recommendations related to COVID-19 safety for our staff and community, as well as our internal capacity.

Safety is Essential

Our priority has been to help keep everyone safer at the co-op. We've appreciated your flexibility as safety guidelines evolved and new practices were implemented at a rapid pace. You've supported our hand washing and sanitizing process, clean gloves, face masks, social distancing, limits on the number of shoppers, one-way aisles, the prohibited use of reusable packaging and bags and limited store hours with the first hour reserved for 60+ and others with high-risk health conditions. There have been a lot of changes for everyone to keep up with.

We will continue with safety measures for the duration of the pandemic and adapt them as needed. With more people out and about, it is as important as ever to remain mindful of all the key COVID fighting measures―especially in public locations. Of course, state and local officials call for self-quarantine of all persons with COVID-19, however any of us could have and spread the disease without knowing. To help protect us all from unknown exposure while shopping at the co-op, we require that you either wash your hands with soap and water or use the hand sanitizer we provide in the front entryway. We also offer, but do not require, gloves as an added layer of protection. We do require that all store customers and staff wear a face covering. We have some face masks you can purchase if you don’t have your own. A bandana or scarf that consistently covers your nose and mouth is also fine. Note that you must keep whatever covering you use over your nose and mouth at all times while inside the store. The concept of all of us wearing face masks is that we protect each other by keeping our droplets to ourselves. We are now requiring customers unable to wear face masks due to health conditions to wear a complimentary face shield in combination with attention to social distancing for shopping in our store. This is a measure we’ve developed in consultation with the Department of Health for employees unable to wear face masks due to health reasons as well. The face shields are not as effective as the face masks, however they do help mitigate the risks in combination with social distancing. Special thanks to UMass for the donated face shields. For those with allergies or health conditions preventing them from meeting our COVID-19 shopping safety requirements, we are also offering a curbside pickup service.

We know not everyone likes or agrees with everything we've implemented, but we are making these decisions based on the information we have to minimize health risks for us all. We appreciate your overall acceptance and support, as well as your feedback. It does seem that the measures we've been taking have been effective for minimizing our risk. We are very grateful for that―thank you! 

Handmade Face Mask Donations

We've had lots of people sewing and donating cloth face masks for us, as well as taking the time to thank us for our work. The beauty and care of the handmade masks and the words of appreciation have helped buoy our spirits through this unprecedented period. Thank you for your heartwarming care and support! 

National and Local Supply Chains

Through all of this, you've had patience and endured the disruptions in the national grocery supply chain resulting in erratic product availability. In my 35 years of co-op grocery business experience, I've never seen anything like this. It has been a hard couple of months for those of us working and we know it hasn't been easy for you either. We are continuing to work to bring in new vendors while seeking alternative supplies of key items that are in short supply. While the "in-stock" situation overall is much better than it was in late March and early April, we expect it to continue being erratic for the coming months. We appreciate your flexibility in brands and product options. An emerging supply shortage issue we are watching with concern is the anticipated shortage of paper grocery bags due to the combination of widespread plastic bag bans and COVID-19 restrictions on reusable grocery bags. 

The “just in time” supply chain systems for everything―from food to other essential supplies―quickly collapsed in March when the whole country was advised to stock up their pantries. The national supply systems were incapable of responding to the immediate changes needed in this crisis. Overly stocking up exacerbates the problem. At the co-op, daily deliveries of grocery staples are still falling about 30% short of what we order. This is anticipated to continue for some time. In short, our large scale consolidated national food production and distribution system is built for efficiency and profit. It has not been built to allow us to stock up and meet our needs to get through a national and international crisis like this―at least not with the level of product availability we have become accustomed to when grocery shopping. 

While we are seeing the weaknesses in the national food system, on the flip side we are seeing the strengths of local food supplies and the importance of essential workers, including immigrant workers in our food system. Local food producers are also facing challenges with the loss of customers due to the closure of schools and restaurants, the shortage of workers due in part to federal policy related to seasonal immigrant farmworkers, and the challenges of implementing COVID-19 safety measures in their operations. The good news is that local and regional independent food producers have enough diversity and flexibility to respond more quickly to changing community needs. They have come through to help fill our shelves at the co-op, as well as to fill a wide variety of community needs―from local breweries and distilleries making hand sanitizer to home deliveries and food donations. And importantly, because they are part of the community, they are more motivated to collaborate in problem-solving to address our mutual challenges.

Continuing to strengthen our local food systems and support essential workers, including our skilled immigrant farm workers, is clearly key to rebuilding our economy and communities. Cooperative businesses, cooperative values and working in partnership with local businesses and community organizations with attention to social and environmental justice are important parts of the path forward. Thank you for your participation and support!

What is next?

We are coming to terms with the reality that serving our community through the COVID-19 pandemic is not a short term project. It looks like we are going to be dealing with the disease until we have widespread effective vaccinations. This means we will need to continue with safety precautions moving forward over the coming year or more. This is longer than we originally expected when the pandemic arrived in March. That reality takes some emotional adjustment. It also requires some practical planning. 

Curbside Pickup

We have been serving up to 60 - 70 people daily with high-risk conditions by providing a curbside pick up service. We quickly put together a low-tech program for online orders and have been working to improve it over the last couple of months. Our goal has been to develop a system to support our most vulnerable community members immediately while working towards developing the capacity to roll it out to our full community. 

We are in the process of a technological upgrade which includes an online ordering program in late summer. Our goal is an improved online ordering system for the curbside pickup program and opening it to everyone by fall. We have a vision to not only provide a much-needed community service, but also to make it a fun, interesting and engaging aspect of how we do community building, support local vendors and highlight our cooperative values. 

In the meantime, we are continuing to develop our curbside program for those most at risk. For the foreseeable future, our former inside deli seating area has been repurposed for our curbside program staging area. 
  
Prepared Foods

The stay-at-home guidance included no on-site dining, so we shut down our indoor and outdoor seating areas. Even prior to that, we closed our popular self-serve fresh salad and hot foods bar, and we doubt that feature will be back. We still have great made-to-order sandwiches and pizzas for takeout, freshly made sushi, and we've expanded our Grab n' Go meal offerings and composed salads.  

We are now working on a redesign of our programs for takeout orders and meal kits to utilize a more convenient ordering, payment, and pickup system. We hope to finalize our plans and start phasing in the implementation over the coming months, so stay tuned.

Bulk Foods

We eliminated our bulk scoop bins because of potential issues with hand scoops being a heavy touch point for the potential spread of COVID-19. We also eliminated all reusable containers for the same reason. We have continued to offer bulk via gravity bins, which offer all the benefits of bulk purchasing with minimal touch and risk of contamination. We have been pre-packaging as much as we can to replace the scoop bin products. We have replaced our jars of herbs and spices with pourable containers. We are also in the process of bringing in new liquid bulk dispensers to meet our customers' needs for cost-effective quality solutions with less packaging. We don’t know when reusable packaging will be allowed again or what steps will be required for us, but the use of gloves in this department is likely for the long-term.

Thank You to our Employees

It has been nearly three months since our employees found themselves as essential workers on the front lines of a world pandemic. While grocery shopping in a world pandemic has many challenges, working in a grocery store during a world pandemic has at least many challenges―and most of us are full-time. We’ve worked through a lot of issues to improve our procedures and adapt our facility to meet the new needs for sanitizing and social distancing. We’ve all learned it isn’t easy working in a cloth face mask all day long, and a few of us are wearing face shields as the next best option because we are unable to wear the face masks. We’ve developed many new systems and keep adapting them to work better. We are so lucky to have such a talented and dedicated team. They take safety seriously, and they take their role in providing essential community service seriously. Through all of this, our employees have maintained their commitment and pride in supporting local food producers, providing delicious, fresh and healthy food, and providing authentic welcoming service. A big thank you to our co-op staff! 

Thanks again for your support! Shopping for groceries has been a whole different experience in many ways since the pandemic stay-at-home guidance began. Your ongoing support with your shopping dollars has kept us buying from our local vendors and farmers. It has also kept our staff employed at well deserved higher compensation levels as essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic. We know you have non-local options for groceries and your commitment to our co-op and the local economy makes a difference. None of us expected to be on the front lines of a pandemic crisis, yet here we are―stronger together, doing our best to serve and support our community safely and to continue working for the greater good. Thank you for your support!