Whole Foods has taken a lot of heat recently — mostly due to CEO John MacKey’s Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece on the Health Care debate. What sparked a lot of criticism was his somewhat clueless opinion that if people would only eat organic food, they wouldn’t need expensive health care. Aside from the fact that this doesn’t take into account accidents, hereditary diseases or the unluck of the draw that is most cancers that can strike even the healthiest, his comments, to anyone who’s ever priced groceries in Whole Foods, was laughably naive.
Even the Middle Class gasp when shopping at Whole Paycheck. And if you’ve ever read any of Michael Pollan’s books, you’ll know that American Farm Policy, which heavily subsidizes large agri-business, stacks the deck against the producers of good, nutritious food. Growing corn for high-fructose corn syrup, genetically modified soybeans or operating a huge warehoused beef or chicken factory? The playing field is specially leveled for you. Small farmer growing sustainable, responsibly grown produce? Good luck. The red tape alone might be enough to drive you out of business. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the recent documentary, Food Inc., was of a Hispanic family that was barely covering their bills with three jobs between the two adults. They knew about good nutrition. They weren’t clueless. But they were shown trying to stretch their tiny food budget to cover healthy food. Couldn’t do it. Finally, they resorted to McDonald’s. The mother, with tears in her eyes, said she felt she was being a bad mother to succumb to Micky D’s, but some weeks it was the only way they could afford enough food for a meal for four.
But, I’m here to tell you, that, at least in my neighborhood, I think Whole Foods has gotten it right. A little background: it’s probably naive to think that a purveyer of organic foods would have a stronger social conscience than another retailer, but call me naive. Call my whole neighborhood naive. That’s why it hurt so much when we were royally screwed over by The Real Foods store when the chain was taken over by the Utah corporation Neutraceutical International. When Neutracuetical took over, they promptly fired all the employees in a union busting move (I’m calling it a union-busting move because that’s what the courts deemed that it was. The former employees won the case.) In a snit, Neutracuetical boarded up the store, let it become a magnet for graffiti, and refused to talk to neighborhood leaders or our City Supervisor. They also refused offers to buy the building by some very interested parties. Our neighborhood is pretty small and it’s not on the way to anything famous in San Francisco, so we don’t get much outside traffic. Our little neighborhood is filled with small mom and pop shops that have relied on a large “anchor” store to bring in the outside traffic that keeps our retail strip viable. Many merchants reported their business dropped off as much as 40% once Real Foods closed. After five years, our high street was looking like a ghost town. Even the Aveda outlet and GNC, national chains, couldn’t stay in business.
Then Whole Foods negotiated to buy the sadly outdated Bell Market that had been across from Real Foods. Bell had just never kept step with the times. In a neighborhood of crunchy granola activists and increasing gentrification, it was still selling buckets of lard, the cheapest canned goods and wilted produce. From the start Whole Foods reached out to the neighborhood. They sent representatives to City Council meetings and community meetings. They always had time for our District Supervisor. As the neighborhood became more desperate and more and more stores on the street closed, they accelerated their opening plans.
The day before they opened, they had a little party with live music and free food in their parking lot. It was unadvertised and was clearly for the locals. Today at opening day, they had masses of smiling aproned workers walking through the store with clipboards ready to answer any questions customers had. (Contrast that with the parking attendants who were running their small lot like a Police State. That’s okay if it brings more foot and bike traffic down past the other local shops.)
Walking in today, I was stunned to see that most of the promises they’d made to the neighborhood about the store, which I’d read skeptically in our local rag, had been kept. My complaint about Whole Foods has been that they have a lot of organic produce that is shipped up from Chile and other places. At that carbon cost, it’s better to eat conventionally grown as long as it’s local. Whole Foods also, at least in their bigger stores, seem to pay only lip service to local sourcing. They show lovely pictures of local farmers, but if you read the small print on the bins, you see that most of the stuff doesn’t even come from California. And most is out of season.
Well, not in my store. As I strolled through, I noticed every bin and produce rack had large signs telling you the origins of the food: Petaluma, Marin, Monterrey. The most long travelled items were from Washington State and Bakersfield. Well, that’s still pretty local. Maybe the difference is that our store is about half the square footage of a normal Whole Foods. They don’t have the room for six large tables of oranges. There is just one table. And it’s showcasing California grown.
Another big difference, I’m hypothesizing, is the local Whole Foods team. Apparently, they were a pretty autonomous group that was responsible for getting this store up and running and integrating it into the neighborhood. I’m sure there are corporate perameters they must follow, but is it a coincidence that so many local suggestions for the store were realized? I think not. Which is a good reminder that a company isn’t just the CEO. It’s also dedicated field people and local branches. Judging from this case, when those people are given enough latitude and autonomy, they’ll do the right thing for the neighborhood they’re in.
Yes, there are several local merchants who are worried. There’s a wonderful cheesemonger, The Cheese Shop, down the road. They don’t need to worry. Whole Foods has the popular basics covered, but for those exotic cheeses and a greater variety, I’ll still stop there. The local butcher shop, Drewes Market, will still get my orders for sausage, holiday roasts and game — all of which they source from Marin and Sonoma. I was disappointed to see that Whole Foods was running a coffee stand in the store, something they had hinted they wouldn’t do out of respect for our local coffee shops. But I popped into Bernies and they said they’d been mobbed. With the increased traffic coming to the neighborhood, they felt there was enough business to go around.
So kudos to the local team that put together this Whole Foods. It’s not the whole answer. If you are really concerned about supporting sustainable agriculture, you’ll still go to the farmer’s market and to places like Drewes Market. But, let’s be realistic, not everyone has the time every day to make that trip. And Farmer’s Markets don’t always run year round, even in California. So my Whole Foods will now be part of the mix when I’m not in Sonoma.