Co-op's quandary: Boycott, or not?

"Personally, I have stopped buying Eden (Foods) products," Weaver's Way general manager Glenn Bergman said. "For me, the principle is that important." He said employers such as Eden should not be allowed to impose their religious views on others.
"Personally, I have stopped buying Eden (Foods) products," Weaver's Way general manager Glenn Bergman said. "For me, the principle is that important." He said employers such as Eden should not be allowed to impose their religious views on others. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 03, 2014

Obamacare, organic soy milk, and birth control pills have proven to be a volatile mix for Eden Foods, a small, highly regarded natural foods company.

Last year, the Clinton, Mich., company's owner, Michael Potter, sued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, objecting to a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires company health insurance plans to cover preventive medicine - including contraception.

Citing his Catholic beliefs, Potter said he should not be forced to help his employees obtain birth control, or any other "lifestyle drugs" such as Viagra and hair-loss remedies. Eden lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Its case, however, was revived within days of the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling in June. In that decision, the justices concluded that, just like churches and faith-based nonprofits, small, privately owned companies whose owners have religious objections are entitled to an exemption from mandates that conflict with their moral convictions.

The ruling drew protests from women's-rights and health advocates, and so has the Eden Foods case. Hobby Lobby, however, is an arts-and-crafts chain owned by evangelicals. The stores pipe in Christian music, close on Sundays, and carry a number of home decor items with conservative themes.

Eden Foods, by contrast, is a pioneer in the organic-food business and draws its most loyal customers from the nation's 140 food co-ops, whose members tend to hold more politically liberal views.

In response to Potter's lawsuit, they have been organizing boycotts, some so successful that co-ops in North Carolina, California, Maryland, Washington State, and elsewhere have stopped carrying Eden products.

Members of Philadelphia's Weaver's Way Co-op are torn about what to do and plan to meet later this month to discuss what action - if any - to take, says the co-op's general manager, Glenn Bergman. He called the situation "a tough one."

The debate has generated letters, e-mails, phone calls, and agita in the aisles of its stores in Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill.

The majority of those who have spoken out expressed outrage at Eden's position, and he agrees with them.

"Personally, I have stopped buying Eden products," Bergman said. "For me, the principle is that important." Employers like Potter, he said, should not be allowed to impose their religious views on others, adding that denying contraception coverage violates women's reproductive rights.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has issued several statements condemning the Supreme Court's ruling, calling contraception an "essential" part of health care.

One statement says that "by enabling women to time and space their pregnancies, it reduces fetal, infant, and maternal morbidity and mortality. Contraception prevents unintended pregnancies, thereby reducing the need for abortion as well as preventing a potential worsening of preexisting health conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease. And contraceptives can help treat women for many conditions that are well-managed by hormone therapy."

Bergman said plenty of practicing Catholic and conservative co-op members side with Potter. But they are not the only ones who believe Eden deserves continued support.

"I wouldn't boycott them," said the co-op's purchasing manager, Norman Weiss. "They hold higher organic standards than the government, they treat their employees well, and they never sold out to become part of any big conglomerate."

To demonstrate the complexity of the problem, Bergman and Weiss offered a tour of their Mount Airy store. The co-op, founded in the early 1970s, owned and sustained by a socially conscious community, strives to maintain the highest principles, they said. Yet nearly every shelf contains a story of moral ambiguity.

Bergman reaches into a wooden crate and pops a ripe organic grape tomato into his mouth.

"These are locally grown," he says, and so he feels confident about the source. But the lettuce and celery in adjacent boxes come from a distributor who, he says, "has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to political campaigns and PACS that are pretty far to the right."

They tap on the window of a freezer case stocked with bags of organic sweet potato fries from a company that has been bought by ConAgra, a corporate giant criticized, sued, and fined in years past for discriminating on the basis of age and race, polluting the environment, and producing salmonella-tainted peanut butter.

"What is pure?" Bergman asks, as he makes his way to the display of Eden organic beans, packed in BPA-free cans. "Here, it is the right to have birth control. Over there, it's sustainability. It's hard to find good suppliers. They're trying like everyone else to stay in business."

Eden's position on birth control, Weiss said, should be weighed not only against the company's other merits, but by comparison to its competition.

With its initial loss vacated by the Supreme Court, Eden now is back in the Court of Appeals, awaiting further action. In late August, however, the Obama administration offered a compromise that might make the Eden question moot, said Jean Hemphill, a partner at the Ballard Spahr law firm and expert in health-care law.

Entrepreneurs such as Eden who don't want to abet contraception would be allowed to merely notify the government of their religious objections.

"They don't have to fill out any forms," she said. "They just have to tell the government who their insurer is and the government will make the arrangements with the insurer."

The accommodation, Hemphill said, ought to do the trick: provide employees with their health benefits - and contraception coverage through non-employer channels - and at the same time, allow owners to exercise their religious convictions.

The public has until October to weigh in on the proposal.


mdribben@phillynews.com

215-854-2590

@dribbenonphilly

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