Walden Mutual Bank: A bank for everyone who [cooks / grows / makes / loves / eats] local food

Walden Mutual is the first new mutual banking charter in New Hampshire in 100 years! Christina Johantgen, Head of Marketing, shares about her journey to the banking industry and what Walden hopes to accomplish in the next 5 years.

Thank you Walden Mutual for sponsoring our 2021 ITAR Conference!


Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, and how did you end up doing it? 

Hello! I’m Christina Johantgen - Head of Marketing at Walden Mutual Bank* (*soon-to-be bank, we’re currently “in organization”). It still feels foreign to say I work at a bank, since frankly it’s not an industry I would have imagined for myself (and not an industry generally known for mission-driven work). That being said, I’ve been committed to food for a while now. At first as a baker, pizza maker, falafel roller, rice fryer, and cashier for my university’s dining services. Later as a part of the early team at Walden Local Meat and now as an occasional cider maker, sheep milker, and egg washer. I love that food gives people a tangible way to interact with the environment. But for me, it’s as much about the food itself as the community it attracts. In school, I chose to work in dining services because it meant spending time in places that were meeting points for our community. 

At the time I don’t think that was a conscious choice…but looking back it’s easy to see where that came from. Half of my family is from western New York and the other half is from Puerto Rico - food is a big deal on both sides of that spectrum. As I’m sure anyone reading this knows, the growing seasons here are short and you have to celebrate every one. Growing up my dad told stories about running in the Sauerkraut Festival - a road race where the prize was a can of sauerkraut. On the other hand, Puerto Rico is rich in food and flavors year round - it borders on illegal to have a gathering without food and it’s a badge of honor to try everything.

But back to banking… I always treated banking as a life-utility. I picked a big bank that felt familiar, opened an account, and never thought twice about what my dollars did after I deposited them. Yet when we choose a bank, we’re choosing where our money sleeps at night...not just where it sits, but how it’s used for lending on the other side. That lending often isn’t aligned with any kind of social or environmental goals. 

At Walden Mutual we’re bridging that gap specifically for local, sustainable food and agriculture. In 2022 we’ll be opening bank accounts as well as making loans to businesses across the food ecosystem. So every person who opens an account can have a clear view of what their savings support. We’re also bringing back the mutual model, which hasn’t been in wide-spread use since the early 1900s (though there are a few still left). I’m excited to bring an outsider’s lens to our marketing, and build a meeting point where anyone can make a meaningful impact in the local food system.


What is the problem/issue you see that Walden Mutual was created to address?

We’re aiming at a few big issues. For one, we saw a lack of opportunities to align our values with our deposit dollars. There are certainly ways we can reflect our values through purchases or donations, but there’s a missed opportunity for people to make ongoing positive impact in the community while saving money.

On the lending side, we’re just as interested in how food comes out of [the ground / water / tree / field] as how it moves through the community. So that means working with farms as well as the infrastructure, non-profits, retailers, and other businesses that make up our food system. Right now, there aren’t lenders that understand the nuances of the entire food and agriculture ecosystem while offering depositors a role to play. 

The third one is less an issue…more the opportunity to revitalize the mutual model. Walden Mutual, as a cooperative, works in the interests of our depositors and nobody else. Mutuals were originally built to drive stakeholder value. This feels like the perfect time to bring that model back together with the modern, digitally-native banking experiences we’ve come to expect.


What are you doing to address those issues? How are you supporting sustainable farm and food systems?

We’re excited to be a new kind of banking partner for sustainable farms and food systems. We offer customized and competitive loans across the food and agriculture ecosystem, and we’re excited to offer support that goes beyond funds. By leveraging the experiences of our team and other community-members, we’ve already been able to make connections for businesses that were looking to expand their cold storage, get into new distribution channels, and reach new customers.

We’re also in the process of developing a set of tools to help our partner businesses track their impact (both social and environmental) over time - whether they’re expanding their regenerative operations, or enhancing the protections they extend to their workers.

All of this is leveraging the best parts of current online and mobile banking. Banking with us won’t mean communicating via carrier pigeon or visiting a branch that’s 50 miles away.


How is Walden Mutual different from other banks? What is a mutual?

So glad you asked! Mutuals are certainly not new, and we’d argue they’re not that niche (Vanguard, one of the largest investment funds in the world, is also a mutual). A mutual operates much like any other co-op - with no shareholders, instead owned by and working in the best interests of the community. Our profits will be distributed throughout our community as higher interest, lower fees, or other benefits. It’s a positive-feedback model and one that has staying power. 


What lessons have you learned along the way, either prior to starting/joining Walden Mutual or as you are creating this organization?

It has been an interesting journey applying my experience in startups to an industry that I always saw as set in stone. Recently I was helping write our future notices… letters that cover everything from good news when people pay off their loan to bad news when there’s been an overdraft or a missed payment. The standard language on those is fairly robotic, but there’s nothing keeping us from communicating with our partners more as equals. Even in the worst-case scenario when someone isn’t able to afford payments, the next step is all about connecting and collaborating on a possible solution… and no one wants to reach out to a faceless, angry robot. 


How do you plan to be in relationship with farmers and your customers? How do you think about partnerships with NESAWG and other organizations?

We’re still in the early stages, but as a mutual focused only on New England and New York, we want this to be relationship-driven. We want to partner with innovators all across the food ecosystem here - farmers and producers as well as the organizations like NESAWG who’ve been working on food systems change for a long time. 

We’d like to be an enabler - supporting the people who are getting their hands dirty and bringing more individuals on board. Our hope is that we can constructively contribute to the movement for the region to feed itself, and would love to see 50% of our diet come from local farms in the next 20-30 years.


How will Walden Mutual center equity and address issues of systemic racism that have been particularly problematic in financial/banking institutions? 

Acknowledging that we're new to this scene, there are a lot of people in our state and in our region who have been working towards more equitable systems - food and financial - for a long time. Our vision is to work with those people and organizations to co-create new products and programs that intentionally cut against structural barriers to inclusion. "Co-create" is an important word in that vision. People and communities who have direct lived experience will always be better positioned to design more equitable futures - so our objective isn't to create solutions on their behalf; it's to partner with them, to share our resources so that their vision can be more fully realized.

We're still learning about what that looks like, but we've been testing out some ideas with organizations in New Hampshire. One more concrete example: We've been prototyping a credit building loan, specifically designed to help New American farmers establish a foundation of credit history within the US financial system - so they can eventually qualify for larger USDA programs. We're hoping to prove the viability of that type of product - so we can extend it to other communities who've faced historical barriers to capital access.


Tell me about a recent victory/accomplishment you’ve had in your work that you feel is bringing you closer to your mission?

Hmm… it’s hard to think of one specific victory, but something that has felt like a success is all of the positive feedback coming through social media and email. On our early posts we had several responses from people sharing their own farm stories or volunteering where they were from. We wrote a blog post about why we were focusing here - on New England and New York - and it started by acknowledging that this area has a handful of challenges (such as a short growing season, rocky soils, etc). It definitely sparked discussion, and people chimed in about what they loved about this land… even if it sometimes meant “farming rocks”.

At the end of the day (and as a mutual), we’re nothing without our community. So it’s extremely meaningful that people are so proactively connecting with our mission and joining our waitlist before we’ve opened.


What is your vision for Walden Mutual? Where do you want the organization to be in 5 years?

It’s a treat to think that far ahead - considering we’re still working on opening. Five years from now we’ll still be here, still be super local, and hopefully be a strong enabler on the path to making this area the epicenter of sustainable food [growth / production / education / culture] and more.  


Is there anything else you want readers of this piece to know?

We’re very excited to open in early 2022! We’re hoping for April or May, but in the meantime we’d love for interested readers to join our waitlist at waldenmutual.com. We send out very occasional updates, and when we open then you’ll be the first to know. If you have any questions we’re also more than happy to hear them. We can always be reached at hello@waldenmutual.com and we read every message!


Photos provided by Christina Johantgen and Walden Mutual