ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Casey Holland recently bought what she thought was an organic eggplant from La Montañita Co-op.
Once she got home, a closer look at the veggie’s sticker revealed otherwise.
For Holland, the eggplant’s “conventional” origins — and the fact that it was not obviously noted with signage — were troubling. The co-op member and frequent La Montañita shopper says she’s noticed more non-organic fruits and vegetables in the stores’ produce section without the kind of clear marker that would typically accompany it. Worse, she said, management did not consult with members before making changes to its produce department.
“There’s a complete lack of transparency to me, which is concerning, as well as an almost complete disregard of the values on which the co-op was founded — primarily that being member input on any major changes,” said Holland, a member for four-plus years and a onetime employee.
Management at the Albuquerque-based cooperative agrees signage on the items introduced earlier this year might have confused members. They are working on replacements that clearly state which items are conventionally grown.
But they say the larger produce department changes are necessary for the organization’s long-term viability and came as a result of customer feedback.
With membership trending downward — it’s about 17,000 today, down about 1,000 from its peak — the board of directors organized a series of cafe-style meetings with members last fall in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, said Robin Seydel, community advocacy director. An estimated 300 people took part, and a recurring complaint emerged: prices were too high.
Earlier this year, management began increasing the amount of conventional produce on hand. La Montañita has specifically incorporated nonorganic versions of eggplant, avocados and other fruits and vegetables identified by the Environmental Working Group as the “Clean 15” for having the lowest pesticide levels in tests. Offering some lower-priced conventional offerings makes it more affordable for some people to shop the co-op, Seydel said.
Such tweaks also make the co-op, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary, more competitive in an increasingly crowded industry where even traditional stores offer a similar array.
“We call it the new normal of the marketplace,” Seydel said. “I think Costco sells more organic than anybody else at this point and we know that our members, (based on) our annual member survey, shop at at least two or three other locations on a regular basis based on price.”
The new additions haven’t come at the expense of organic offerings, according to La Montañita general manager Dennis Hanley. He said La Montañita had an estimated 130 organic items when it began making changes earlier this year. Now it has about double that, with a goal of hitting 300. Some of that came through buying power — the co-op recently started buying produce for all six locations together, rather than having each store do its own purchasing.
“I think all we’re trying to do is have access to healthy choices (for customers),” Hanley said. “(For) someone who just wants organic, we will lead. They will find it. (But) they will just find a lot more (choices).”
The organization’s management said some shoppers have enthusiastically embraced the changes. But some others clearly rankled others. Comments on La Montañita’s Facebook page reflect the disappointment.
“I am stunned and saddened by the board’s recent decision to carry pesticide laden food that poisons soil and air and the bodies of farm workers,” wrote one. Another wrote the co-op “has become increasingly corporate.”
Longtime member Richard Hostetter organized a meeting last week at a local church to discuss with members what he thought were some problematic trends within the organization. It even drew some members of La Montañita’s upper management, who Hostetter said were able to explain the reasoning.
“At first when I walked into the store and saw the ‘Clean 15′ and what I thought was some not-too-clear signage on it, I was outraged,” he said. “As I’ve come to know the back story (and) the reasons why and all, this is really a good thing. I’m not real happy having the conventionally grown produce, but I think it’s what the co-op needs to do.”
Employees taking steps toward union
The produce selection isn’t the only thing changing at La Montañita Co-op.
Employees at the Co-op’s Rio Grande Boulevard store have taken steps toward unionizing.
Representatives with a local chapter for UFCW said they have been contacted by store employees, who will soon vote on whether they want the union to represent them in contract negotiations. Chris Saavedra, the UFCW employee advocate working with the Rio Grande staff, said they want to address “their wages, their benefits and their working conditions as a whole.” The UFCW is not working with any of the co-op’s other five locations.
La Montañita’s upper management said in a news release “we fully embrace, respect and support our staff’s right to organize, consistent with the standards established by the law.”
An flier of unknown origins has been circulating around some co-op stores warning of possible union-busting and purporting to explain the reasons behind the unionization push. It mentions wages, the cost of benefits, the disparity between upper management compensation and that of employees, and executives ignoring “employee and member safety concerns about pesticides in conventional produce.”
Saavedra said the flier reflects the concerns he’s heard directly from staff members.
“They’re just really frustrated they can’t voice out any of their concerns,” he said. “They really are working in a voiceless environment.”
Human resources director Sharret Rose said she’s aware of the flier, but disputes that it is a statement of fact. She and General Manager Dennis Hanely said they are legally limited in their response to the situation but are eager to share the co-op’s broader position. Their news release touts the organization’s commitment to “democratic control, autonomy and independence, education, information and training and concern for the community.”
“We care deeply about our Co-op team members, often thinking of ourselves as a cooperative family dedicated to these principles and values and make every effort to create a work with dignity atmosphere for all,” it said.
Rose said the starting wage for an employee in Albuquerque is $9.50 an hour. Employees who work at least 20 hours per week qualify for benefits at 90 days of employment, with the co-op covering at least 80 percent of their health insurance costs.