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Is Whole Foods Sustainable or Just a High-Priced Hoax? I Took a Job There to Find Out

Was Whole Foods truly sustainable, or was it just a high-priced version of the same food one could find in a conventional supermarket?

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One day, about 30 customers and I piled into a bus Whole Foods had chartered to take us to meet their local suppliers. We visited three farms on our trip -- Stehly Farms Organics, Bella Vado and Tierra Miguel.

The first stop, Stehly Farms, was a 300-acre farm that grew organic avocados, citrus and blackberries. Only about an hour outside San Diego, it was truly local. At the farm, we dined on fresh-squeezed orange juice and guacamole while Noel, our host, told us the history of his farm. He also pointed out the solar panels that reduced his electric bills drastically and a mountain of chicken manure he had obtained for use as fertilizer.

Later in the year, I had the opportunity to try the blackberries from Stehly Farms, verifying that Noel's claims about them were all true: they were enormous and juicy. Interestingly, on a later trip to Arizona, I discovered Stehly blackberries in the Paradise Valley Whole Foods. It seems that Whole Foods, while highlighting the local products in each location, also distributes some of those products regionally.

Of the three places we visited, only Stehly was an actual supplier for Whole Foods. At our second stop, Bella Vado, we watched a machine imported from Italy transform ripe avocados into avocado oil. At the time, Whole Foods had committed to selling Bella Vado's avocado oils in its stores, a promise it made good on less than a year later.

Unlike Bella Vado, Tierra Miguel, was not on the fast track to becoming a Whole Foods supplier. Tierra Miguel's 87 acres were lovingly tended in line with all of the organic and sustainable principles I had learned from Judith and Mike and other farmers who had taken the time to educate me.

The farm operates a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program in which members prepay for regular boxes of produce. Because of this, Tierra Miguel's first priority is supplying food to its members, and any future relationship with Whole Foods will occur only if it grows more than it needs for its CSA program.

The True Believers

During lunch at Tierra Miguel, I chatted with Carolyn Kates, the marketing guru behind the field trip. Carolyn is a retired hospice nurse who works at Whole Foods because she enjoys the work and believes that Whole Foods has a positive impact on our food system. During my first week in the bakery, the warmth in her eyes and smile immediately drew me to her, and I know she must have been a tremendous comfort to her dying patients and their families during her nursing career.

Although every Whole Foods employee works to increase the store's profits (and thus increase their own paychecks through the company's gain-sharing program), I believe that Carolyn promotes local products for more noble reasons as well. She is one of the many people I met while working at Whole Foods who I would classify as "true believers" -- employees who seek to make the food system more sustainable through their work.

Unfortunately, the true believers do not have enough pull to transform Whole Foods as much as they would like to. For example, in the aftermath of the faux farmers market in the parking lot, the management and marketing team at my store became determined to sell local, organic strawberries.

I became aware of this effort when a local food activist came past my gelato counter one day, offering customers and employees a taste of the berries and recording our reactions as he went along. The berries were the real deal, not the red, Styrofoam balls so many Americans have become accustomed to getting from their local supermarket.