How do you ensure your elected officials understand how policy issues impact your day-to-day operations? A store tour—like the one the National Grocers Association (NGA) recently set up for IGA retailer Alex Stodola—could make all the difference.
NGA has been coordinating store visits for years now and has seen the impact that they have in developing relationships, said Laura Strange, NGA’s senior vice president of communications and external affairs.
“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,” Strange said. “Through the store tours, they can see and hear how the legislation they are working on impacts people in their communities. And they receive a firsthand look from not just the business owners but the store associates, too.”
With an election year approaching and a number of pressing policy issues in play, Stodola, who recently took over the family business as owner and manager of Stodola’s IGA in Luxemburg, Wisconsin, was more than happy to oblige when NGA suggested a visit from Rep. Mike Gallagher. The 35-year-old, 8th district representative is a former U.S. Marine Corps officer who holds a bachelor’s degree from Princeton and a PhD in international relations from Georgetown University.
Despite Gallagher’s impressive credentials, Stodola found the congressman to be approachable and relatable. “It was nice. We talked, toured the store, and got him to try some of our local specialties,” Stodola said. “He’s not a real controversial politician, which made for an easy visit,” Stodola said.
While they talked briefly about international affairs and current events, most of the conversation focused on the “on-the-ground” perspective of being a small-town retailer in general and issues impacting the independent grocer in particular.
One of those issues, which Stodola credited NGA for getting him up to speed on—is the shortage of truck drivers across the country. According to NGA, the lack of qualified drivers is increasing the cost of consumer goods, which in turn hurts the economy. This is particularly true in the food retail business, when freshness and quality is so important to prevent food waste and food safety issues.
It’s a problem that hits closest to home for Stodola, who has experienced firsthand the occasional delays in produce deliveries. “Sometimes it’s hard to get fresh deliveries, as the distributors have difficulties covering that last gap out to our part of the state,” he said.
In February, bipartisan lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives introduced legislation to try to address this problem. According to information from NGA, the Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy (DRIVE) Safe Act would establish an apprenticeship program for 18 to 20-year-olds to put them on the path to good-paying interstate trucking jobs. Currently, most states will allow young adults to obtain a commercial driver’s license at age 18, but federal law prevents drivers under the age of 21 from working across state lines.
While Gallagher is already on board as one of the co-sponsors of the DRIVE Safe Act, it helped to connect with him on the importance of obtaining reliable, quality fresh food, said Stodola. “We were in the produce department and I was able to point to the food as we were talking about it,” he said.
In the meat department, Gallagher tried head cheese, a house-made regional specialty which isn’t actually cheese but pig or cow organ meats turned into a meat jelly or pâté consistency, that’s typically served on bread or crackers. According to Stodola, Gallagher must have liked it because he returned to the store after his initial visit to buy some for home.
Overall, Stodola came away from the visit feeling like doors are now open to any potential contact with the congressman going forward. And while Stodola has responded in the past to certain calls to action from NGA, the experience has him paying closer attention to issues impacting independent grocers, and opening up those lines of communication with his elected officials.
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