Brown Bag Monday: Is Whole Foods Friend or Foe to the Organic, Local Movement?

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I have to admit that I guiltily love Whole Foods.

It is kind of like how I feel about my car. I know it is not good for the environment to drive, but I do it anyway (a lot). We try to carpool when we can, or we combine as many errands as possible in to one trip. We think about biking to work, downsizing to one car, buying carbon offsets and then…none of that really ever happens.

That is how I feel about Whole Foods. After reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma many years ago, I realized that Whole Foods makes every intention for the consumer to feel like they are buying local, organic meats, dairy and produce, but this is often not reality. In Michael Pollan’s view, Whole Foods is “a store where organic, local and artisanal food is just window dressing to help sell a much more ordinary industrial product.” But sometimes it is just so easy when you have had a long day, you have to run to the store, and Whole Foods is on the way home. Their beautifully manicured produce makes you salivate as you plan dinner using their $6.00/lb red peppers flown in from Chile.

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Today was one of those days when the convenience of it all enticed us in to our neighborhood Whole Foods. We made a family outing of it. Lolo didn’t get the memo that all infants are supposed to love their car seats, so we “wear” her around so she can have the full view of the happenings around her.

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We needed corned beef for our St. Patrick’s Day dinner. We quickly found a perfectly stacked display of Irish beer set out for the weekend festivities. My husband found a coupon right next to the display for $2.00 off your corned beef. His remark…”Cool!”

There were practically green arrows on the floor with leprechauns leading the way to the cabbage. We then made our way over to the meat section and were hit with this:

Corned Beef

I mean, come on. Who can resist the ease of it all. So we procured a size big enough for our little party, picked up some other items and we were off; all in under 30 minutes. I AM your target market.

So what do you say about Whole Foods. Is it corporate greed dressed up as Freddie Farmer? Or are they making a palpable impact in the availability of organic (and sometimes local) products for consumers to enjoy?

Lolo’s Mom

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30 thoughts on “Brown Bag Monday: Is Whole Foods Friend or Foe to the Organic, Local Movement?

  1. I’m in France, so we don’t have Whole Foods. But to be honest, I prefer to buy from local small producers where possible, rather than organic that has to amass thousands of airmiles to get to the market.

    • Its a great point. Often times in the US, small, local producers may be organically farming, but they can’t afford the US certification to label as organic. Knowing your foods producers can alleviate those concerns and you eliminate the carbon footprint.

  2. I’m right there with you. I try to stick to local as much as possible, but sometimes I just can’t resist the convenience & variety of WF. And they do have more local options than what other grocery chains carry if you have them time and inclination to look for those items. At the end of the day, they are a business and their goal is to make money (and there’s nothing wrong with that). My biggest problem with WF is that they lead customers to believe ALL of their products are safer/healthier/more environmentally friendly than what you’d find elsewhere and that really isn’t the case. How much of that is WF’s responsibility and how much is the customers’, I’m not sure.

    • Well said. Ideally we’d all have the time to be fully informed and be able to at least weigh these types of decisions consciously, unfortunately there’s reality.

  3. Whole Foods is a guilty pleasure of mine too. However, I have to say, when I’m careful about what I buy, it does have a much better selection of local/organic than the other stores close to my home… Or at least that’s what I tell myself 😉

    • I’ve been poking around their company info, core values, and quality standards to potential vendors pages and it seems their goals are the following. Natural and Organic. Great shopping experience. Treat employees well. Profits for shareholders. And community education and support. I haven’t seen them mention local yet; so I think they nail their core values. I think it is their regional community outreach that makes us add local into our thoughts when we shop there.

  4. Love this blog! And the pictures Lola being carried around are just adorable.
    I do miss Whole Foods, and if I had the money I would shop there all the time.
    I am currently in Germany and am absolutely in love with the farmer’s markets here. I go about twice a week.
    Back in the US I didn’t have access to them. I also read the Omnivore’s Dilemma and agree you shouldn’t trust everything WF sells, and stay local as much as possible!

  5. We do not have any Whole Foods around us and I actually have never been to one 😦 So, I am unable to comment about Whole Foods. Luckily we do have a Sprouts Farmers Market store that I shop at regularly.

  6. As one of those local small CSA farmers here’s my input. Reno, NV and surrounding cities were food deserts in more than the traditional sense. All food was big ag mono culture corporate grocery. We did even have little ‘gourmet’ stores like Corti Bros.

    But today, there is a huge food culture downtown Reno is no longer the ten cent gamble tour for cheap entertainment while drinking free.

    Today, we have celebrated chefs, innovative little cafes of all ethnicity, and a community food co op about to reach a sales goal of 3 million dollars. Opened four years ago in 280sq ft and 800.00 saved in a shoebox. No kidding! What makes this even more incredible they are now in a 7200 sq ft building and buy over 700,000. Of locally produced meats and veggies/ and would buy more if their were more small farmers producing!

    I attribute out part of our success to Whole Goods. It came to Reno, did a beautiful job as a good company and as a conduit to educating consumers that good food, real food, food that is fresh cost money. The Whole Food customer raised the standard of expectation. While I am not a fan of the food miles – I am a fan that by providing these positive experiences those seeking the next level of participation in their food and community then move to support directly a program like ours that provides heritage meats, produce, eggs and an experiential opportunity to be part of a farm. Our Great Basin Community Food Coop fills in the things we cannot dairy, dry goods, healthy household and personal
    products. In the winter when we are covered on snow- they are able to buy in and source fairly close to the food shed.

    Whole Foods was the gate keeper- our community then went further bringing it home and making it our own fair, healthy, food model.

    Girlfarm.org

    • Very insightful. I think you capture the complexity of the relationships that occur in a community and the unexpected benefits that are often overlooked at the macro level.

  7. I too love shopping at Whole Foods. I do my best to hit the farmers market for fresh produce but find Whole Foods to be second best when it comes to quality and price. I too felt unsure after reading the Omnivores Dilemma but then saw John Mackey defend himself and the store a few years ago as he was put to task by Michael Pollan. He placated my skepticism and since then I have found again and again that prices for standard goods rival Trader Joes and for organic, local produce, prices are far less than Safeway. I think they know they are part a movement and are up to the task.

    • John Mackey recently spoke at UC Davis’ Graduate School of Management (where I am a student). I agree, he a great spokesperson and defender of his company’s mission.

  8. I admit it. I shop at WFM. And I don’t feel guilty about it. I consider shopping at their 6th and Lamar store in Austin (corporate HQ) like a vacation for me.

    I think it’s like anything else–you have to take the good with the bad and make smart choices. I still read labels and put things back on shelves. But I do that at my farmer’s market too. (I once discovered someone making artisanal granola with canola oil…no thank you!)

    The thing is, to make the best food choices we can in a busy world, I think it kinda takes a village. I own a share in a local dairy. I buy meat from a local ranch. I’m at the farmer’s market twice a month, if not more. But I also have to shop at grocery stores too. And Whole Foods gives me more choices that are in my acceptable range than the Walmart Neighborhood Market down the street. They aren’t perfect, and I don’t pretend they are. They are a piece of my food puzzle. And I think any family trying to make the best food choices for their family should be able to shop where they can do that…without feeling guilty about it. 🙂

  9. I like Whole Foods and wish there was one closer to me. I’m in the north area of Sacramento and they are all 20-30 minutes away. I find myself going there when I’m looking for new products that are a bit “cleaner” than the ones I currently use. They are more expensive but it doesn’t stop me from shopping. Going to cheaper places may be better on your wallet but more detrimental to your health. I stopped shopping at Walmart last year because I felt I was selling myself out for “Low Prices”. If anything I feel like we need to support the places we want to see in our communities. I want to see more Whole Foods and farmers markets so we must keep shopping at them. I really look forward to spring when the farmers markets open up throughout the week.

  10. I think Whole Foods is on the line of making profit and distributing healthy food, in the end we all need to make money somehow right? But I think as long as we put our money into buying healthy, organic, local food (not necessarily from whole foods) we can make sure that we are protecting our local farmers, our health and our environment. 😀 we all just have to put our part into making it happen, I’m starting to see more organic products come out at wal mart and smiths stores here in New Mexico, so why not try to make a change? shop at our local farmers markets and buy the organic stuff at these big chain super markets, believe it or not; money is our way of saying what we want (sort of like voting) If we demand healthy choices we will soon see apples being promoted instead of bags of chips. (just a small thought :D)

    have a nice day

    • It is interesting to see the evolution of the offerings at the big box stores, like WalMart. As you say, they are in the business of making money (nothing wrong with that…I am an MBA student) and they are responding to the changes in what their customers want. Thanks for the comment.

  11. Great avenue for discussion. I, also, have thought about WFM and if they are are benefit to the local person trying to eat and live local. We had a WFM about 30 minutes from me where we lived previously, which was fun to carouse. What I found was they were over priced, but did carry hard to find items, so I had to decide…..would I rather buy from WFM or order the items? I personally, would rather shop Trader Joes than WFM any day.
    Now, I live in an area where neither store is available, so I drive past one of the milk suppliers for WFM and visualize the milk and cheese beautifully displayed………

  12. I have been to Whole Foods and it is a beautiful site, but in St. Louis the only two stores in are elite neighborhoods. I live in an area that is more on the rural side and we have one fresh produce store in town. I prefer to shop there, but it is not always local either.

  13. We agree with your concerns. I produce food that could never enter the US market because i would never meet their criteria but we are truly naturally organic. Many farms use organic chemicals and meet the criteria. Buy local, meet your farmers, help them and they will help you.

    Shelly Caref

  14. Pingback: Brown Bag Monday: Are You Willing to Pay? | loloslunch

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