by Terrie Ellerbee/associate editor
Grocers are “subtle partners within their community,” says Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association (MGA).
The words “Consumers, Careers & Communities” are prominently displayed on the MGA website, and though she knows they hate to do it, Pfuhl wishes grocers would do a bit better job touting what they offer in those arenas.
When grocers do their jobs especially well, shoppers don’t even think about the many processes it takes to bring safe and wholesome food choices to them every day. Consumer safety is, of course, paramount.
As for the “careers” element, Pfuhl, who has been with the MGA for 17 years, tells The Shelby Report that it can be frustrating trying to get the message out about the wealth of opportunities in the grocery industry.
“Sometimes people have a misperception that in the grocery business, ‘Well, I can be a cashier or a bagger and that’s kind of the end of the road.’ There are awesome careers in this industry. I mean lifelong careers,” she says. “We’ve got people who’ve worked 45 years in a store. It’s a wonderful opportunity, but people don’t realize it.”
In the community, grocers give much more than safe food choices and jobs. Grocers give untold food, goods and services, not to mention money, time and space, to help others.
“Say, for example, a store does close, then people say, ‘Oh, my gosh, we didn’t really think about what that meant to the ball field or the cheerleaders or swimmers who can come in and bag groceries and raise funds, or the hot dog stand for the Boy Scouts…and then you start getting into the funding of the food shelves, and what goes back into the community from the grocers,” Pfuhl says. “The grocers don’t do it to just get the accolades. They do it because it’s the right thing to do within their community.”
Pfuhl says 2012 looks to be a record setter for the association’s Minnesota’s Own program, with growth in both participation and donations. Through the program, the state’s food industry has been provided millions of meals for people in need. Every October, grocers work collectively to raise awareness. The association then gives Silver Plate awards to those who best support the program.
“It’s another opportunity for us to speak on behalf of what the industry does all year long,” she says. “We can do these wonderful things without having mandates. This is what we do just as communities.”
Why does the grocery industry need a lobby, anyway?
The MGA covers the state with pre- and post-election legislative store tours to educate lawmakers on grocery issues. Legislators like visiting local stores and talking to their constituency. And few know better than local grocers the health of the communities they serve.
On the flip side, the MGA’s new “Capitol Carryout Program” educates grocers about lawmaking. Pfuhl says the MGA is very excited about the course, which takes about a half-hour to an hour to cover the basics of the legislature, including how a bill becomes a law. Grocers appreciate the refresher.
“It’s a great tool. The role they play, why they need to be involved, what the industry means to Minnesota,” Pfuhl said. “We get so many great questions. We see much better engagement then from those people—we call them graduates of our Capitol Carryout. It’s really well received with our members.”
Pfuhl laughs, remembering people asking when she first started her job, ‘What on earth would you have to lobby for when it comes to grocers?’
“You start walking them through, and it’s…really every issue somehow plays back into that, into how we sell groceries. People take the grocer for granted in their communities. You come in. You buy groceries. You go home. You don’t really think about all the areas that are affected and that go into getting those groceries into that store,” she says.
The role the MGA plays cannot be overstated. It is through the association that education flows back and forth.
“It’s the greatest way for us to start building success up there (the capitol), and the foundation that we have then with those legislators…it makes a difference,” Pfuhl says. “It’s incredibly rewarding.”
This year will present new legislative challenges because the results of the November election caught Pfuhl and many others in the state by surprise. For the first time since 1978, Democrats will control every statewide office, five of the eight congressional offices, the state house and the state senate.
“We anticipated one of the bodies flipping, but not both,” Pfuhl tells The Shelby Report. “This puts the business community at a definite disadvantage going into the session. We are cautiously optimistic in that we do work across the aisle on our issues…I’m hoping there will be logic, and that we’ll be able to mitigate some of the challenges. Hopeful.”
That brings “a new set of challenges to our role at the capitol and for the retail food industry to advance and deliver on its priorities,” Pfuhl says in a letter to MGA members.
“The first step to working with lawmakers on important retail food industry priorities is to contact your legislator, start a dialogue, let them know about the innovative ways you are meeting your customers’ needs, the great careers you provide, the critical role you play in the community and how important their support will be in the coming session for you to survive in this economy.”
With a $1.1 billion deficit in the 2014-15 biennial (or operating) budget to grapple with this year, Pfuhl believes it is a near certainty that there will be proposed tax increases at the state level. Democrats now in control in the two state chambers also may desire increased environmental regulations and bring labor issues, like a minimum wage increase, mandatory sick time and changes to hiring protocols, to the forefront.
She pleads with MGA members to take their role seriously and explain to legislators the impact those changes could have on them.
Legislative priorities listed for 2013
Early in 2012, the fight to allow alcohol sales on Sunday failed—again.
In a list of 2013 MGA legislative priorities, Pfuhl would like to see the state’s “antiquated” liquor laws re-evaluated.
As if to prove her point, a Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) story quotes Rep. Joe McDonald, a Republican from Delano, as saying during a debate over the issue last year, “I think the blue laws are a part of Americana that everyone wants to get back to.”
Ridding the amendment to the state constitution that prohibits Sunday alcohol sales failed 97-25.
Pfuhl also lists energy as an issue, hoping the state will keep electrical power abundant and affordable to businesses. Minnesota is a top state for wind energy production. Those types of alternatives are necessary, she says, but conventional sources shouldn’t be limited while they are being developed.
Sustainability is on the list, too. She points out that grocers “provide voluntary positive environmental programs and proactively educate consumers on green practices.” Pfuhl would like to see private sector programs and partnerships instead of government-mandated bans of certain materials or take-back programs requiring excessive recordkeeping.
The financial impact of changes to healthcare insurance, which the National Grocers Association found in a member survey to be the No. 1 concern for independent grocers, also makes the list of MGA’s priorities for 2013. The MGA would like to see genuine consumer-based solutions as well as the promotion of preventative medicine to help contain costs.
Another issue that keeps popping up in the state is the urge to curb what can be purchased with funds for food assistance. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is a federal program, but it is administered by individual states. In Minnesota, there have been efforts to police what recipients may purchase in the grocery store. Some want to ban, for example, sodas, candy and “junk food” like cookies or chips. They see a link between obesity and food insecurity and believe such a ban, perhaps starting with sugary drinks, might help curtail health problems. Others put it more simply: the government should not fund the purchase of empty-calorie foods.
But others, including the MGA, consider such restrictions a bad idea. It would be nearly impossible to police, particularly with 20,000 new grocery products on average coming to the marketplace each year. Restrictions would hit small grocers especially hard because they might not be able to keep up with the changes. That could lead to them losing their eligibility to participate, which would benefit no one.
In addition, Minnesota gives cash benefits to people on SNAP assistance, and it would indeed be impossible to track those purchases.
MPR reported in a separate story that the number of Minnesotans seeking assistance in the form of SNAP, food shelves and subsidized school lunches all hit record levels in 2012, but the pace of increase has slowed. Food stamp use grew 3 percent from November 2011 to November 2012, a steep drop from the 12 percent growth rate the state saw in the same period a year earlier.
Forecast for job growth improves
Minnesotans were watching the U.S. fiscal cliff negotiations closely in late December and early January. With a 20-day state government shutdown in July 2011 still fresh in the memory of Minnesota Management and Budget officials, for the first time, two separate forecasts were prepared for 2013: one if the country went over the fiscal “cliff,” and another if it didn’t.
Tom Stinson, chief economist for the state, tells MPR that because the cliff dive was avoided, employment growth could surpass the forecasted 50,000 new jobs for the state this year. (Had the country taken the dive, the number of new jobs may have shrunk to 5,000, he says.) Accelerated job growth is more likely to come in early 2014, according to the forecast.
The state’s employment picture does appear to be brightening. In November, 10,800 jobs were added, dropping the state’s unemployment rate to 5.7 percent, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, 2 percent lower than the national rate of 7.7 percent in November.
The Star Tribune reports that the state has regained about 110,000, or about 70 percent, of the 156,000 jobs it lost in the recession.