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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?

From Recipe for Americaby Jill Richardson. Reprinted with permission of Ig Publishing.

As a sustainable-food aficionado, my attitude toward Whole Foods and other national chains offering organic food changes based on the available alternatives.

When I can buy directly from local farmers and food artisans, I avoid places like Whole Foods. However, when I am on the road and my next best option is Subway, I look to Whole Foods as an oasis.

After reading The Omnivore's Dilemma's harsh account of Whole Foods and its suppliers (Michael Pollan traces some of the food sold at Whole Foods back to its suppliers, and what he discovers is not necessarily the "supermarket pastoral" that the company promises) and then seeing Pollan debate Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, I decided to get to the bottom of the matter by taking a job in the bakery at a Whole Foods in San Diego. My goal was to answer the following question: Was Whole Food truly sustainable, or was it just a high-priced version of the same food one could find in a conventional supermarket?

Right off the bat, Whole Foods made an impressive effort to train its new staff members on how to properly handle organic food. I, along with the rest of the new hires, had to complete an eight-week training course with team trainers before going before team and store managers to be quizzed on the information we had learned. In addition, we had to complete computer-based training on various topics (earning a free organic-cotton T-shirt in the process).

Even after our training was done, we had to submit to regular reviews by management from other stores in the region to prove that we were familiar with the correct procedures within our departments.

How well these procedures were followed by employees in the bakery varied widely. I, following the rules closely, occasionally had to decline customers' requests to slice their non-organic bread in our bread-slicing machine, as it was designated for organic use only. Likewise, certain spoons and pitchers were reserved exclusively for organics, which we had to wash in separate sinks from the dishes used for conventional food.

While this might make it seem as if we were going to great lengths over minutia, to a customer who came to Whole Foods specifically because the store offered organics, accidentally mixing his organic latte with a few drops of conventional dish water would be a violation of his trust (and the law).

Overall, the bakery team leader and I were the most concerned about organics among the staff. Others, while less concerned about organic philosophy, were nevertheless competent and conscientious in doing their jobs. And there were the few employees who didn't care at all.

To Whole Foods' credit, these employees were eventually fired, but I would speculate that a few organic customers had their dishes washed in the conventional sinks during those employees' time at the store.

Whole Food and the Locavore Movement

During my time behind the bakery counter, I came to learn that the Whole Foods customer base is not the eco-conscious yoga-addicted crowd one might infer by walking through a store. Many customers were interested in organics, and a large percentage also cared about their health. But did they care about buying local? No doubt some did, but it wasn't an issue I heard brought up more than a few times among the customers I served.

The store itself actively sought local products, even inviting local farmers to gather in the parking lot and share their products with customers. In addition, the store proudly displayed orange "local" signs (local being defined as "within San Diego County") wherever it could, with oranges, avocados, blackberries, strawberries, gelato and rugelach cookies just a few of the items that earned such signs. Other signs profiled a number of local businesses and farms that supplied the store.