ORLANDO, Fla. — Food retailers can play up their status as important political constituents to influence legislative activity, according to a panel at Food Marketing Institute’s Future Connect conference here Tuesday.
One strategy that can help educate legislators is to get them into the stores and see for themselves the issues that retailers face, according to two supermarket government relations professionals on the panel, which was moderated by Jennifer Hatcher, senior vice president government and public affairs, FMI.
Teross Young, vice president of government relations, Delhaize America , said when Delhaize was seeking to teach legislators about the potential impact of country of origin labeling a few years ago, the company persuaded some legislators to visit its stores.
“We walked the stores with them, led by the store manager of that store, so they would see the local impact,” he said. “Those kinds of visits, where members of Congress can get a hands-on view of what’s going on, have been a favorite for us.”
Likewise, when K-VA-T  was having trouble getting through to a senator on a particular issue, it finally made some progress when it invited him into the distribution center, according to Israel O’Quinn, director of government and community affairs for K-VA-T.
“We took him around and showed him what we were talking about, and then he started to understand,” O’Quinn explained.
Inviting politicians into stores and distribution centers has another advantage, explained Bradford Fitch, president and chief executive officer, Congressional Management Foundation, which seeks to educate legislators on issues. “They love to get their pictures taken in your stores,” he explained.
Fitch noted that it is ever-more difficult to get through to these legislators, citing increases in correspondence of between 200% and 1,000% in the last 10 years because of email and the internet.
One way to get through is to interact with politicians using personal stories, he explained, as opposed to promulgating impersonal form letters seeking action on issues.
O’Quinn of K-VA-T — who was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates himself last year — said that in writing letters to congressional representatives, it is important to both make the appeal personal, and to be direct.
Read more: SN's 2013 Future Connect coverage 
“You need to make a ‘direct ask,’” he said. “You need to ask them exactly what you want — how you want them to vote on a particular issue.”
He also stressed the importance of forming relationships with legislators and their staff, no matter what level.
“There is no relationship that is too small, from a town councilman, all the way up to a congressional representative or even a senator,” O’Quinn said. “Even if you know a person on their staff, it can be just as valuable as knowing the congressmen themselves.”
Young of Delhaize pointed out the importance of putting a “grass roots” touch on communications with legislators, as opposed to the “Astroturf” of mass emails and letters.
“Grass roots has a personal touch that you can put to it,” he said. "Legislators clearly need to hear from you.”
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