Social Justice Review: Hy-Vee

(The opinions expressed here are solely mine and do not reflect upon anyone I know. In other words, Hy-Vee, please don’t fire anyone I know who works at Hy-Vee. They had nothing to do with this. Also, this is a rough draft.)

For those who don’t know, Hy-Vee is a grocery store chain that opened in small town Iowa 90 years ago and has now expanded to eight states. If you’re from Iowa and older than 30, you likely grew up shopping at either Hy-Vee or Dahl’s (RIP) or both when the deals were good. Hy-Vee is part of Iowa’s identity (we know the jingle), and Iowans are fiercely loyal. This loyalty, however, can become blind, and it’s time to evaluate Hy-Vee’s role in social responsibility and equity.

Let’s start with the hopeful because who doesn’t need hope right now?

Hy-Vee puts a lot of money back into the community. They created, head, and contribute to multiple programs to hire veterans, address food insecurity, practice sustainability, provide millions of dollars in scholarships, and fight the pandemic. They provide over 80,000 jobs to the Midwest, and they are–as they like to remind us often–employee owned. Why wouldn’t they want to remind us? That’s a thing of pride. Even the current CEO is an example of the Hy-Vee success story. This company has all the trappings of a truly Iowa Nice corporation.

So, how about their role in social justice?

Well, Hy-Vee stepped up this summer to honor Juneteenth. Ultimately, Hy-Vee donated one million dollars to several Black organizations including Urban Dreams, a local social justice organization. Hy-Vee also has a long history of hiring individuals with disabilities. Personally, this is one area where I applaud Hy-Vee. On the surface at least, they appear inclusive and mindful of mobility assistance. (Am I linking you to death? Hey, I just want to prove this isn’t random ranting.) I also saw an article addressing Hy-Vee’s assistance to disabled truck drivers.

Personally, I shopped at Hy-Vee for most of my life. If I wasn’t shopping at Dahl’s, I was probably at Hy-Vee. I know a ton of people who either worked or still work for Hy-Vee. It’s important to be fair here. Hy-Vee does contribute to the community, to the Iowa economy, and to our culture. They provide important, essential services, and I’m barely scratching the surface.

You know what’s coming, right? If you’d like to remain ignorant about Hy-Vee, stop reading now.

Sure, Hy-Vee shows up, and like most corporations, they do so with flaws. Some corporations have unintentional flaws. Sometimes, those biases, ignorances, and prejudices embedded in American culture reveal themselves as Hy-Vee along with the rest of us learn to do better.

The observations I’m about to discuss aren’t criticisms of those all-too-human flaws. Instead, they are observations about intentional decisions and actions Hy-Vee has made, which harm others and the community. It is these conscious efforts that harm their attempts at social injustice.

Regarding racial inequity and injustice, Hy-Vee got itself into a lot of trouble with several members of the Black community this summer. Iowa Capital Dispatch detailed the experiences of one former employee and how her decisions to speak up, attend Black Lives Matter protests, and express her concerns about Hy-Vee’s COVID-19 response resulted in management confronting the employee. In the end, she quit her job there. The on-going protests this summer targeted the employee’s former store in what has now become a point of contention between the community, Black Lives Matter leaders, the Des Moines Police, and Hy-Vee.

Hy-Vee’s response was not to support the employee or defend her. It was to defend itself. Shortly after this incident, Hy-Vee put massive black banners on all of its stores stating how much money they’d donated to racial equality efforts. While I can only speak for myself, this move came across as defensive. In fact, Hy-Vee’s donations to racial justice organizations came on the day George Floyd was buried. Hy-Vee’s commitment to racial equity was, at best, reactionary. I have seen little from Hy-Vee in the way of support for Black Americans or any other underrepresented since the protest at their store.

To be fair, most of America’s reaction to racial injustice is reactionary, so let’s move on.

Notice I’ve not mentioned Hy-Vee’s commitment to the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans. (I’ve also not mentioned several other underrepresented groups, so I recognize the irony, and I apologize.) That’s because, based upon quick research, there isn’t any. If you Google “Hy-Vee” and “LGBT,” the results are damning. Hy-Vee has a history of allowing bigoted organizations to fundraise at storefronts and donating to homophobic political candidates. I also know Hy-Vee has been unkind to LGBT+ leaders and organizations (don’t ask).

It’s this last point that’s the biggest problem for Hy-Vee.

Per Forbes, Hy-Vee is a $10 billion a year corporation. They don’t make that kind of money without getting involved in politics because, as all businesses know, political policy affects their bottom line. Now, Hy-Vee did not directly donate to any political candidate or party. Instead, the Hy-Vee Employee’s Political Action Committee (PAC) donated. I want to make that clear because people will say, “Oh, Hy-Vee donated to Trump.” Corporations cannot directly donate to a candidate or campaign. It must go through their PAC. Moreover, Hy-Vee’s employees, corporate officers, and board donated individually to campaigns. Those distinctions are important because that allows Hy-Vee to deny that they’ve endorsed any candidate. It allows them to say things like this:

“It’s imperative that a business of our size constantly be talking about economic outcomes on a local, state and national level on a continual basis. That’s just good business. As one of the few 90-year-old companies in the Midwest, we must constantly be looking at outcomes that may impact our business model and opportunities for employment. The year doesn’t matter, but the policy does — and certain policies can have detrimental effects on the retail sector if not closely monitored and reviewed.”

https://iowacapitaldispatch.com/2020/10/24/hy-vee-ceos-political-message-to-employees-cites-tax-concerns-social-unrest/

Hy-Vee’s spokesperson stated this in response to what I consider the biggest problem with Hy-Vee: Their not-so-subtle support of the Trump administration. Of the money Hy-Vee Employee’s PAC donated to political candidates, an overwhelming amount has funded Republicans since 2012. In fairness, some money has gone to Democrats, but the split is drastic. Hy-Vee Employee’s PAC donated over $1.5 million since 2012, and only a few thousand has gone to Democrats. The issue isn’t that Hy-Vee Employee’s PAC or individual employees are wrong for doing so. They aren’t. It’s their right to donate. It’s that Hy-Vee isn’t trying very hard to care about social justice. Basically, their efforts are performative. I remind you that the $1 million they donated to racial justice causes occurred only after George Floyd’s murder gripped America’s headlines, and it is less than they’ve donated to political candidates and causes over eight years. And one million dollars is not even one percent of Hy-Vee’s revenue.

That quotation came from the same piece in which the Iowa Capital Dispatch shared the words of CEO Randy Edeker:

“I never endorse and I try not to ever push a certain candidate or a direction. I always try to speak about Hy-Vee. I have some of the concerns about some of the policies that are being discussed by some of the candidates. Some of the tax policies would be very impactful to Hy-Vee. And the changes in taxes were part of the way we were able to bring a lot of good things to the employees this past year. Social unrest unfortunately continues to be a problem around the community and we continue to invest in our local groups who we really think can bring unity to our towns.”

https://iowacapitaldispatch.com/2020/10/24/hy-vee-ceos-political-message-to-employees-cites-tax-concerns-social-unrest/

The Capital Dispatch breaks this down nicely, and I want to echo their observations. It is the use of the phrase “social unrest” that concerns me. Edeker isn’t concerned with racism. He’s not thinking about Black Iowans demanding police brutality stop. He wants the protests to stop being a “problem.”

Furthermore, he mentions how the current tax situation was favorable to Hy-Vee. As Republicans are in power at nearly every level and in nearly every state in which Hy-Vee operates, Edeker’s attempts to be subtle with his message failed.

But this is not a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to Hy-Vee’s “we don’t know her” attempts at covering their support of Trump, their favoritism toward the Trump Administration (scroll to the bottom and get a glimpse of how anti-LGBT+ is by putting the poster boy of homophobia in front of their logo and their super-gross hashtag), and their gooey relationships with Trump-loving Republicans. (How that last bit of information in the last link is legal, I do not know.)

The most disturbing part of all this is Hy-Vee’s minimal action regarding COVID-19. Health justice is social justice, and Hy-Vee seems not only unconcerned but gleeful about this pandemic. Initially, Hy-Vee did not require employees to wear masks. It took them six weeks to implement the policy. We can forgive them for that. The CDC wasn’t clear on if masks were helpful. But even then, Hy-Vee did not provide employees masks.

Hy-Vee did make a number of changes, and I do applaud them for that. However, they’ve never required customers to wear masks in store. And then this from the Capital Dispatch (Oh, just go read it):

“In an email, Hy-Vee spokesperson Tina Potthoff stated, ‘Due to COVID-19, many supermarkets have set records this year with so many consumers opting to eat at home versus eat out. Hy-Vee had more than $11 billion in sales in FY 2020 compared to slightly more than $10.6 billion in sales in FY 2019.'”

https://iowacapitaldispatch.com/2020/10/24/hy-vee-ceos-political-message-to-employees-cites-tax-concerns-social-unrest/

While Potthoff is merely stating a fact, there’s something disturbing about opting to state this fact this way. There’s no getting around the reality that their spokesperson credited a lethal pandemic for their increased profits. And it’s not a small profit. I’m sure a bunch of small businesses are also seeing increases in profits due to the pandemic. It’s that we’re talking in billions.

Did their spokesperson not think how this might come across?

Obviously not, because there was more:

“Hy-Vee’s Aisles Online business quadrupled due to fears of the deadly virus, Potthoff said.”

https://iowacapitaldispatch.com/2020/10/24/hy-vee-ceos-political-message-to-employees-cites-tax-concerns-social-unrest/

My brain cannot comprehend the callousness of stating profit in this way. A portion of Hy-Vee’s “business quadrupled” because of fear of death and suffering. I suppose nothing could be more American than that.

Truth is: I have so many issues with Hy-Vee’s Band-Aid approach to social justice that–earlier this year–my husband and I stopped shopping there. I have only two prescriptions running through their pharmacy that I’m working to get switched, but we will have walked away from Hy-Vee entirely soon. I haven’t even gotten into questions about their environmental blunders, their just-above-the-poverty-line pay, and their encouragement of diet culture.

It’s not that any grocery store in the area is perfect regarding social justice. The complaint is more that Hy-Vee’s efforts are overridden by their commitment to politics and practices that create and contribute to social injustice. Frankly, they have the money, the skilled-workforce, and the knowledge to do better. They just don’t.

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