Green Report 2010
How your co-op is stepping up efforts for a more sustainable world.
by Nancy S. Grant
“Living green” and “act sustainably” are familiar concepts at Valley Natural Foods. As a food co-operative, the focus here has always been on nutritious, wholesome items for you and your family. Featuring local seasonal products are smart, sustainable practices that every shopper can see. But there’s a lot more “green” going on behind the scenes.
Creating a new “green” recipe
At Valley Natural Foods the hunt is on for more ways to take better care of the environment, and to develop procedures that fit this community and this co-op. This year is a turning point along the path to a more environmentally sensitive future while maintaining the co-op’s focus on delicious, healthy food.
Everybody knows the basic recipe for a PB&J sandwich: spread some peanut butter on one slice of bread, add jelly, top with a second slice of bread, and enjoy. There are plenty of individual variations –use chunky peanut butter instead of smooth, use fruit preserves instead of jelly, use a flour tortilla instead of sliced bread.
The basic recipe for a greener co-op is pretty simple, too. Reduce, recycle and reuse at every opportunity, focus on local products and services, think about how actions affect the natural world near and far. However, operating a food cooperative presents special challenges that require a customized approach to the broad “green” recipe. Each effort must take into account the need for the safe preparation, storage and display of all items sold in the store. To keep the cooperative running on a solid financial basis, the up-front costs of any new action must also be carefully compared to the long-term benefits.
During the past several months managers have been striving to get as many people in as many departments as possible involved in finding the right ingredients and trying new approaches to every activity. Each change must make practical sense. In this “First Green Report,” you will see the progress made so far –and hear about new goals for the future.
Broad goals, many details
Taking a few minutes to chat during a busy afternoon at the store, General Manager Susan McGaughey says, “Part of our co-op’s mission statement is encouraging a healthy community. Our values are FRESH – that stands for Family, Relationships, Education, Sustainability and Health.” Your co-op’s board of directors recently updated the co-op’s ENDS statements that focus on this FRESH approach as a guide to daily operations. This governance policy sets out the reasons the co-op exists, and establishes broad goals.
Two key concepts included in the FRESH acronym are
- Supporting a healthy environment through good practices
- Maintaining a healthy bottom line for our co-op member-owners
It’s up to the management team who’re involved in day-to-day activities and decisions to develop long-range plans and figure out what changes, if any, will benefit the co-op as a whole.
McGaughey says, “It’s a balancing act. Part of it is listening to our members and what their needs are, and part is knowing what food industry standards are. We’re looking at healthy choices to maintain a healthy bottom line for our members, and trying to support a healthy environment.”
Using energy wisely
Finding ways to reduce electricity consumption is an old habit here. During the store expansion in 2008, exterior neon signs were replaced with more energy efficient LED signs. Year-round, the automatic dual airlock doors at the customer entrance keep cool air-conditioned air in and warm outdoor air out during the summer months, then keep warm heated air in and cold outdoor air out during the winter months. This simple idea is a big step toward saving energy used by the HVAC system.
Another simple idea also reduces energy use year-round. The fronts of coolers that are open for customer access during retail hours are covered overnight with pull-down shades that keep chilled air in place until the next day.
Kathleen Boegemann, operations manager, spends a lot of time maintaining building equipment, lighting and store fixtures year round. Energy efficiency is an ongoing, ingrained practice for Boegemann. “We perform normal quarterly maintenance on the roof-top compressors,” Boegemann says, “because it’s energy wise to help keep them running properly. Then when the little fluffy seeds from the cottonwoods are drifting around, I make extra trips up to the roof to clear them away.” Keeping the area around the compressors free of debris helps they run more efficiently.
Boegemann has many other regular store maintenance duties. The food coolers are cleaned every month, while other chores have a longer repeat cycle. “An old, almost worn-out light bulb doesn’t operate as efficiently as a new one and uses more energy. We re-bulb the entire store every five years.”
This year, federal grant money being channeled through local governments to help encourage lower energy use and improve energy efficiency is boosting Valley Natural Food’s progress toward even more sustainable operations. McGaughey and Boegemann have been working closely with the City of Burnsville and the local rural electric cooperative, Dakota Electric Association, to use this grant money to purchase new items that will help to better manage the food co-op’s energy needs.
McGaughey says, “We are retrofitting our refrigeration units from old fluorescent lighting to LED lighting.” This new lighting not only uses fewer kilowatts of electricity when operating, it also will reduce the heat load in the cooler cases. That means it will take less energy to keep food at the proper temperatures.
This project has three measurable benefits. The new lighting will:
- Reduce the co-op’s electricity consumption by 23,625 kilowatt hours each year
- Reduce power plant carbon dioxide emissions by 70,825 pounds each year
- Save the co-op $1,159 in operating costs each year
A recipe with three Rs
Orlando Haripal, fresh departments manager, explains some of the green ideas in use in the produce and meat departments. “Instead of dumping the trims from our meat department, we contract with an independent company to take it away and use it as the basis of other products such as fertilizer. We also save empty cardboard cartons and store them temporarily until another independent company picks them up for recycling.”
Commercial recycling of consumer items is not yet available in the store’s neighborhood, so Sheila Hisdahl, a Valley Natural Foods cashier with a personal commitment to recycling, gathers up empty bottles and other items in the employee break room, takes them home, sorts them and adds them to her own recycling bins.
That’s one R—recycling—but what the other two Rs, reducing and reusing?
Susie Hessburg, communications specialist, notes that the co-op’s bulk food department offers a great opportunity to do both. “Using your own container over and over again is easy. You pre-weigh it, add only the quantity of products you want, and then print a small, simple sticker for the cashier to use. That’s a very eco-friendly way to shop for staples.” Reducing packaging and reusing existing containers helps cut down on waste.
At the checkout lanes Hisdahl sees other examples of reducing waste when shoppers remember to bring along their own reusable tote bags. When co-op shoppers use their own bags that means the co-op can spend less money on plastic and paper bags. Pennies saved on checkout lane expenses lead to dollars saved during an entire year, reducing operating costs for all members.
Trying new ingredients
Keeping a keen, green eye on expenses plays a key role in many co-op decisions. Replacing the old water heaters with newer “on demand” water heaters should cut down on energy use and costs throughout the year. Replacing the paper towel dispensers in the restrooms with electric hand dryers should also reduce costs, while eliminating a lot of paper waste, too. But saving money isn’t the only motivation.
McGaughey says, “We have a responsibility to care for the environment. I like that we are doing this for our grandchildren –it’s not just about today.”
The recipe for a more sustainable future includes many more ingredients. Look for signs in the store highlighting new green ideas. And be sure to watch for updates about your co-op’s progress in the e-newsletter and in the print magazine This is Living Naturally.
Nancy S. Grant is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Cooperative Communicators Association. She’s the author of The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Your Carbon Footprint.