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Feb 28, 2007

Whole Food, Whole Dollar?

An interesting article in today's New York Times about Whole Foods, questioning whether the company's founders have lost their original vision.

When I was in high school, a small organic shop opened in Sebastopol, and was called Food for Thought. It was tucked away in a little cluster of shops on Main St. and sold organic, local produce by day, doubling by night as a performance space for Johnny Otis, of "hand jive" fame. Eventually, FFT moved into a larger, more prominent space, and was my hometown's main supplier of organic and all-natural goods. My brother worked there for a few years bagging groceries and sweeping up at the close of the day, and many of my classmates were employed off and on. There were bulk bins of yummy and varied grains, my very favoritelemonade was often on sale, and it was a good, quick place to grab a snack after school, before piano lessons.

We all know where this is going, no? Food for Thought (or, as some of my more cynical friends called it, "Food for Profit") was sold by its laid-back owners for some astronomical (at the time) sum to Whole Foods, then in the process of gobbling up most of the independent organic markets around the country. I was still fairly unfamiliar with the company, but I was disappointed that a chain was coming to a town that is still holding out against strip-mall-ization (Rite-Aid, McDonald's, Burger King and Safeway -- a decades-long resident -- being the notable exceptions).

The Times highlights some salient points; when Whole Foods was created, its founders intended to sell local, organically grown foods and socially responsible ingredients. Over the years, the focus has been waylaid a bit by a corporate mindset and the ability to make more and more. In the face of recent criticism, the company has promised to aquire more locally grown foods and plans to open their parking lots to farmers' markets, according to the Times -- even though they buy from huge vegetable farms and ship the produce all over the country.

While the stores do provide a good variety of the "all natural," I can never forget that despite its earnest ambitions, Whole Foods is an emormous company dedicated first and foremost to turning a profit. Last week, its aquisition of the ailing Wild Oats bumped stock up 5%, delighting shareholders and strengthening its position as the mainstream supplier of organic products. (I don't think Safeway's recent organic line, while a nice effort, will ever completely measure up.) After all, Whole Foods sells more than just food -- it sells a lifestyle.

This is the crux of it, then, and why Michael Pollan (read The Omnivore's Dilemma now, please.) calls the chain hypocritical. Though WF plugs organic, sustainable and local, most of its organic beef comes from abroad and some of the major branded produce it sells comes from Earthbound Farm (plagued last year by bacteria-laden spinach)-- whose location on the central California coast is hardly local to Washington, DC.

It's funny -- when I lived in Washington I did most of my shopping at Safeway (the basics), a small organic market and Whole Foods. I usually winced at the exorbitant prices (who hasn't felt a small shock when glancing at a WF receipt: how could five items cost so much??) but didn't have much choice if I wanted fresh cheese and a few varieties of tofu. I tried to get most of my fruits and vegetables from the weekly farmers markets though it wasn't always feasible.

But now that I'm in California, I can count the number of times I've visited a Whole Foods store on one hand. I go to my little neighborhood organic market, Trader Joe's, and the Civic Center or Ferry Building farmers markets for mostly everything. The strange part is that I hardly miss Whole Foods, and I can't imagine why I ever spent so much money there. I would much rather go to the source, and support the independent owner if possible (of course, the beauty of WF is that it brings everything together under one roof, which makes life a lot easier).

I think what many of us are looking for is a company that truly lives up to its mission without comprising itself along the way up the economic food chain. Rather than host farmers markets, why not buy directly from the farms? Instead of importing beef from other countries, why not work directly with local ranchers? I feel WF has a responsiblity to its customers to be honest and true because of how it has marketed itself; to continue selling Horizon Organic products when there is criticism that cows receive little access to pasture, for example, is worrisome.

But I'll not give up on Whole Foods just yet -- I do think the company's owners still have a chance to sort out what exactly they want to do, and in what direction they'll go. I hope they'll do some serious re-thinking about what "natural" means and how they can incorporate the small into the large. I couldn't do it myself, and it seems a herculean task, but I do hope they can accomplish it -- really.

As for the rest of us: spring is coming, and that means many farmers markets closed for winter will re-open soon. Check them out! Get to know your growers! If you're really lucky, your brother will work on an organic farm for the summer, give you lots of discounted vegetables, you'll be spoiled (and hooked) for life, and supermarket produce will never compare. Not that I would know, of course.

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