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Face Time For Independents On Capitol Hill

Photo of independent grocers meeting with U.S. Rep. Garrett Graves on Capitol Hill
A delegation of NGA member grocers meets with U.S. Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA).

Things are heating up in Washington, as a divided Congress works toward a new Farm Bill and reshapes policy amid a hotly contested election year. Things were particularly hot – and sweaty – late last month, when independent grocers converged on Capitol Hill to make the case to their senators and representatives for supporting antitrust enforcement, credit card reform and a robust nutrition policy that enables these supermarket operators to better serve the folks in their communities who need it most.

NGA’s Fly-in for Fair Competition hosted dozens of grocers over May 21-22, first prepping them on how to effectively engage pols on their turf, then guiding them through the halls of Congress.

Among the grocers from across the country, one group of mostly Louisiana-based operators, retailers and wholesalers alike, spent a sultry morning crisscrossing from House to Senate for meetings with their hometown reps, putting faces and stories to issues that transcend politics and illustrating how what happens on the banks of the Potomac hits home in the parish, the bayou and the delta for citizens trying to feed their families.

Independent grocers recognize the importance of this mission and take the time away from their businesses for the sake of their industry.

Ernie Matherne from Matherne’s Market, which operates four stores serving River Parish and Baton Rouge communities, had last made this advocacy trip some years ago and decided it was high time to attend again. “It’s all about the networking – networking and relationships,” he said. “This is still a people business.”

Bobby Williams, with wholesaler Associated Grocers of Baton Rouge, was making his third trip to Washington on behalf of his industry and was primed for battle. “You gotta do it,” he imparted to his colleagues.

Williams talked Garret St. Germaine from the Pierre Part Store, a full-service grocery, deli, hardware store and home center about 90 miles west of New Orleans dating back to 1911, into attending his first fly-in, and the impact on him was clear. “It’s impressive to see them [Senators and Congressmen] take time out of their day to talk to you,” St. Germaine said. “In our industry, you need to be involved.”

He already sounded sold on his next trip: “The more you come, the more they see your face.”

And that’s the point of the fly-in: personalizing the issues to compel elected officials to recognize the impact of their actions on consumers. Repetition is key to driving the message home.

“This is planting seeds,” Williams said. “Hopefully, something will grow and be fruitful.” In today’s economic climate, advocacy is a must: “Competition is so intense, you have to leverage everything you can.”

Training Day

Twenty-four hours before the Hill visits began, independent grocers started arriving in Washington to first receive guidance on how to best make their messages resonate with policymakers.

In addition to political consultants, fly-in attendees heard from some of their own – grocers with a few Hill meetings under their belts.

Photo of independent grocer panel members at NGA Fly-In event
NGA President and CEO Greg Ferrara leads a discussion about how to connect with lawmakers, featuring SpartanNash’s Jim Lilly, Harps’ Kim Eskew and Kristin Popp from Woodman’s.

Jim Lilly, vice president of government affairs at SpartanNash and a former Michigan state representative, advised his industry colleagues to tell stories about their employees and how policies impact them, to illustrate why legislators should care.

“It’s a way to connect with lawmakers that might not otherwise be business-friendly,” Lilly said, explaining how important it is for grocers to stand together on the issues. “It’s the collective effort that makes us successful.”

It’s the show of strength that’s important, not that everyone is a policy expert. “We don’t need folks who are vocal on every issue. Sometimes we need them to work behind the scenes,” he said, adding, “Build that relationship – build that momentum.”

Kim Eskew, chairman and CEO of Arkansas-based Harps Food Stores, concurred about the importance of relationships. “Helping educate them about what we do every day is really important,” Eskew said.

Kristin Popp, executive vice president at Wisconsin-based Woodman’s Markets, shared her reflections after attending her first fly-in last year: “Understand who you’re meeting with and how it connects back to your issues and their district. Talk about how it impacts the consumer at the point of sale. Coming year after year helps you establish those relationships.”

And be prepared, Popp added – you might only have a few minutes to make an impact.

As for advice to first-time attendees, Popp said, “Ask questions, Absorb and observe.”

Lilly recommended, “Keep the energy up – be positive.”

“Have fun – enjoy yourself,” said NGA President and CEO Greg Ferrara. “This is a phenomenal experience, to be able to petition your government.”

[Related: NGA Wraps Successful Fly-In For Fair Competition]

About the author

Jim Dudlicek

Director, Communications and External Affairs at NGA

Jim Dudlicek is Managing Editor and Content Strategist at NGA. The National Grocers Association is the trade association representing the U.S. independent community supermarket industry. NGA members include retail and wholesale grocers located in every congressional district across the country, as well as state grocers’ associations, manufacturers and service suppliers.

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