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Why Whole Foods Is Scoring Big Points in Detroit

Food justice activists worried that Whole Foods could jeopardize local businesses teamed up with the company to work on solutions.

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AMB: I want to hear about those, but first, what were some of the successes?

LC: The local hires. When we started meeting with them they were talking 35 new local jobs, they are up to I think 110, and 70% of those are Detroiters. I think they doubled the number of new local jobs [they were intending to fill].

GR: Also, attending to the local products. They helped people to improve their products so they had an opportunity to be marketed there...and other places.

LC: And I thought they did a really great job around outreach. They have a standard application process through computers, and they adapted that when we expressed concern that it might not be accessible.

GR: Another piece is the artistic/cultural piece—the murals, the inclusion of various local artists. It really became an opportunity.

LC: And they lift up the nutrition education work they do in neighborhoods, a lot with faith-based groups. From what I’ve seen and heard, the groups really enjoyed it. Whole Foods worked with whole congregations to educate and make commitments around more nutritious eating.

MLM: They also organized nine churches to apply for funds from the Whole Foods grants, and the churches got those.

LC: Our work included connecting them up to the emergency food pantries, like Brightmoor, Storehouse of Hope. Storehouse got a grant which allowed them to purchase fresh produce from a local grower. Our whole thing has been to remind Whole Foods where they are, in an African American city with high levels of poverty. We want them to not escape between the walls of Midtown, but to be more relevant in the greater community. Our question has always been: how do Detroiters across the city benefit from Whole Foods market. That is the question we are measuring against.

AMB: What are some of the things you are still hoping for? Ban the Box [an effort to eliminate the job application standard that makes people identify themselves as formerly incarcerated]? 

LC: We raised the issue of Ban the Box with them, and they said felony conviction has no impact on whether they hire or not.

GR: We did ask them to take the question around felony conviction off the application but they did not.

MLM: It keeps people from applying.

LC: The other piece is wages; we want jobs, wages and benefits that can support a family. They say they pay above industry rate, we were pushing for a living wage, and we want jobs that lift families out of poverty. If you are getting up going to work every day we want wages that sustain your family. They fell short on those numbers.

GR: I would have also loved to see a lot more green construction and paying attention to the effects of construction, like what is released into the air. They are conscious in the food, but I don't know about their consciousness in the construction.

MLM: It would have been great to see LEED certification.

LC: One of our hopes is that our experience with Whole Foods, and the lessons we have learned, can be shared in the community.

AMB: That speaks to my next question. Is this a model or process you would recommend to other cities or communities?

GR: We are developing a toolkit which can be used by anybody, meaning a local neighborhood organization that wants to deal with a new grocery store or some other developer: it doesn't even have to be about food. It is a step-by-step process that helps people to get organized and move forward. Our idea is to print some copies of the toolkit, distribute them through relationships, and have it on our website. Also, we hope that those who use it can improve the toolkit as more is learned.

 
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