With the midterm elections behind us and a number of significant political issues affecting the independent grocery industry ahead, it’s a good time to shine a light on the importance of having your elected officials in Congress stop in for a store visit.
The National Grocers Association has been coordinating store visits for years now and has seen the impact that they have in developing relationships, said Laura Strange, vice president of industry relations, communications and marketing for the National Grocers Association (NGA).
“We think it’s important for members of Congress to hear from leaders in their district. They don’t always come to DC with a grocery retail background,” she said. “Through the store tours, they can see and hear how the legislation they are working on can impact people in their communities. And they receive a firsthand look from not just the business owners but the store associates, too.”
Jim Shook, owner of Lake Region IGA in Hawley, Pennsylvania, agrees. “If you want to know what’s happening in your community, go to the local grocery store. From seven months old to 75, we see everybody.”
So far in 2018, NGA has organized a dozen tours in stores around the country, said Strange.
Here’s a look at some from the past year and takeaways from each experience:
Rep. Tom Marino (left) visited with store owner Jim Shook (right) during a tour of Lake Region IGA in Hawley, PA
Lake Region IGA in Hawley, PA
- Who/when: Tom Marino (R) visited January 25, 2018.
- The issues: The biggest issue discussed was the proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). During the visit, Rep. Marino voiced concerns about making sure program recipients are getting healthier options and wanted to explore the idea of having grocery stores report what’s being purchased through SNAP. Store Owner Jim Shook explained the POS system and how tracking and reporting that information would be a financial burden for the store. “That was the main part of the conversation. Through that and follow up conversations, he’s changed his mind about how to approach the program,” said Shook.
- The takeaway: “It’s always helpful if you can have time with an elected official. It was nice to have 100 percent of his attention, which you don’t have if you see them at an event.”
- Tips for others: “Be very candid; don’t be afraid to let them know what’s on your mind. I would absolutely to do again.”
House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (right) met with General Manager John Garber (left) as part of his visit to Red Front Supermarket in Harrisonburg, VA.
Red Front Supermarket in Harrisonburg, VA
- Who/when: Bob Goodlatte (R), who is also House Judiciary Chairman, visited on March 19, 2018.
- The issues: This visit was quite timely, as NGA’s lobbying team was fighting the Harvest Box proposal. John Garber, the general manager at Red Front, voiced his concern over a proposal in President Trump's budget to overhaul SNAP by delivering boxes of pre-selected food to recipients instead of allowing them to choose which items they want for themselves.
"The Harvest Box would negatively impact not just Red Front but all food retailers in that it would circumvent the stores, taking sales directly from their registers," said Garber.
- The takeaway: During the tour, Goodlatte cast doubt on whether such a plan would be approved by Congress. SNAP is part of the Farm Bill, which is still in the process of being re-negotiated, but by all accounts, the Harvest Box is off the table.
Rep. Adrian Smith (center) visited Henderson’s IGA in Valentine, NE
Henderson’s IGA in Valentine, NE
- Who/when: Adrian Smith (R) visited on August 1, 2018.
- The issues: Building relationships. Store Owner Tim Henderson was more than happy to oblige when NGA suggested a visit with Congressman Adrian Smith. Congressman Smith, whose expansive district is one of the largest in the country, covering 65,000 square miles and 68 counties, was happy to listen.
- The takeaway: “He traveled about 230 miles to get to the store, and then spent several hours talking to me, our employees, and our customers. He asked questions about what it’s like to run a family business, and all the things that are affecting how we operate. He was in no hurry, and when he left, we really felt like he’d heard our concerns and cared out the outcome,” Henderson said. “That kind of relationship building is really what being an independent is all about.”
Rep. Dan Newhouse (right) met with store owner Chris Brown (left) during his visit to Wray’s Marketfresh IGA in Selah, WA.
Wray’s Marketfresh IGA in Selah, WA
- Who/when: Dan Newhouse (R) visited on October 24, 2018.
- The issues: “On our walk around the store, we discussed the local issues a bit—Rep. Newhouse is a farmer, so he wanted to talk about how we ensure shoppers have access to fresh, local food, ” said Store Owner Chris Brown. The first official issue they discussed was the language problem in the tax reform bill last year. The second issue was the lawsuit over SNAP reporting. “On both issues, Rep Newhouse agreed to follow up and review the issues. This is the win. Both issues are of importance to independent grocers,” he said.
- The takeaway: “Having your elected officials come visit and tour your location is a must—whether it is a local elected official or your state officials. It is communication with our elected officials. That is how we educate them to our issues,” said Brown.
- Tips for others: “Do it. You are only talking about your business. What could be easier?”
If you are interested in hosting your legislator in your store, contact NGA's Channing Pejic, coordinator of political and legislative affairs, at email@example.com.
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