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


From Recipe for America by 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.

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.

I eagerly ate as many samples as I could, then took a few extra berries to garnish the strawberry gelato in the display case. I also bought a few pints of the berries once they became available for sale in the store, ignoring the high price tag because I wanted the store to recognize that there was in fact a demand for local food.

Despite my efforts, the strawberries disappeared as quickly as they had come, and I soon ran into that food activist, who was now grumbling about the situation. While the store had paid to advertise the strawberries in an Earth Day brochure, the produce manager had now decided not to order any more of the local berries.

I was friendly with the produce manager, so I asked him what happened. He told me it was a simple business decision -- he could not get the berries for a low enough price to sell them at an amount that people would pay. In addition, the berries the store received were so ripe that they barely lasted to the end of the day. While those berries would be in high demand at a farmers market, where consumers buy their produce over the course of a few hours, they were unsuited to the normal, industrialized food distribution chain.

Another true believer was Dennis, my manager in the bakery department. Although he first struck me as laid-back guy with a sense of humor, he had a serious side to him that included a strong belief in sustainable food.

As a result, within our bakery, both the coffee bar and the hearth breads (the breads baked in the store) were 100 percent organic. An all-organic coffee bar is rare for Whole Foods since it requires extra sinks so the dishes reserved for organics can be washed separately, but Dennis made it happen by augmenting our regular sinks with a bucket of sanitizer reserved for organics.

Dennis wanted to do a lot more -- his dream was an all-organic bakery -- but when he went head to head with regional management, he lost. Ultimately, feeling the stress of trying to improve the bakery with his hands tied by management, Dennis stepped down as manager.

Even after Dennis left, the bakery continued to add locally produced items to its inventory. Instead of serving gelato from Los Angeles, we began serving gelato from Coronado, just off the coast of San Diego. We also bought tea from a local business, Café Moto, and some of our bread from Julian, a town about an hour away.

Several times a week, a man from Chewy's, a local rugelach business, stopped by to fill up the bins with rugelach. When he arrived, the cake decorators, Vicky and Josefina, were already at the end of their shifts, because they worked through the wee hours of the morning meticulously decorating the cakes and fruit tarts. Most of the cakes came from Sugar Plum Fairy in Gardena, 116 miles away, and Perfectly Sweet in Alhambra, 119 miles away.

Although these companies are relatively local to San Diego -- and even closer to the Los Angeles Whole Foods -- since, as we saw with Stehly Farms, much of Whole Foods distribution is organized regionally, this meant that the Phoenix stores, 350 miles away, also received the same cakes.

An even less-local supplier was Galaxy Desserts, which was located near San Francisco, about 500 miles away. I have enjoyed their lava cakes in San Diego -- and at a Whole Foods in Dallas, where I also found Chewy's rugelach. Conversely, I recently saw sticky toffee pudding that I had originally encountered at an Austin, Texas, farmers market for sale in the San Diego Whole Foods.

Overall, while Whole Foods plays up its relationship to local suppliers, the "local" products you buy are often from national companies that sell to Whole Foods stores all over the country. While this doesn't negate the fact that your local purchases reduce the amount of fuel used to bring the food to you, it does take away from the idea that you're supporting a small, local business.

While Whole Foods has responded to the locavore movement to some extent, its response is driven in many ways more by marketing than by a true philosophical bent.

A Rind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Another inescapable observation from my work at Whole Foods was the amount of food the store wasted. To be fair, wasted really isn't the right word, because the San Diego Whole Foods had a fantastic composting program, and all of the food we threw out was reincarnated in bags of Whole Foods compost bearing the slogan, "Because a rind is a terrible thing to waste."

Whole Foods should absolutely be commended for its commitment to the environment -- and its very good business sense -- for turning its waste into profitable compost. In my opinion, every other grocery chain should follow suit.

That said, the energy and packaging material required to produce and ship food is wasted when that food goes right into the compost bin. Each night, our bakery filled several shopping carts with spoilage -- food that had reached its sell-by date, most of which was still perfectly fine to eat.

Pastries and hearth breads, for example, were baked and sold on the same day, and any leftovers were considered spoilage. While a shelter picked up the hearth breads, it was the only item that escaped the compost bin. We were told that we couldn't give food away for "liability" reasons and that we could also not take food home because management was afraid we would create extra spoilage to guarantee ourselves free food.

Whenever I could, I would sneak out a bag of day-old pastries and give them to the homeless people in Balboa Park. I would also keep an eye out for products with an expiration date a few days away -- while they were still "fresh," I'd give them out as free samples so we wouldn't have to compost them later in the week.

The alternative to the volume of wasted food is, of course, ordering less food. However, buying the right amount of food is a fine line to walk, and often (especially in the case of newly introduced products) there is no way to predict sales. In addition, our bakery didn't carry foods that contained artificial preservatives, so our products' shelf lives were shorter than those in conventional supermarkets.

And, whenever we ran out of a particular item, customers became absolutely indignant. Time and time again, I would put on a heavy jacket and dig through box after box in the walk-in freezer to look for a particular item someone wanted, because Whole Foods customers expect to get what they want, when they want it. They might care about environmental causes, but unless they've worked in a grocery store, they probably have no idea how much waste their demand for all foods to be available at all times creates.

The flip side is that the customers at Whole Foods pay high prices, which perhaps gives them license to be demanding. (My recent Whole Foods purchase of coffee, three mini chocolate bars, a six-pack of beer and a ready-to-eat package of falafel ran me nearly $30.) A more savvy customer might carefully select only the Every Day Value items, which are more affordable, but the on the whole, the budget conscious aren't Whole Foods' customer base. (I was frequently asked if I'd heard the joke about the "Whole Paycheck." Oh yes, I've heard it.)

But what I finally realized while working at Whole Foods was that it's not that high-quality organic food is a luxury reserved for the elite -- it's that insisting on buying that type of food through unsustainable, conventional channels like supermarkets is such a luxury.

The Overall Verdict

My time at Whole Foods taught me that the same quality (and in many cases better) food can be obtained a little less conveniently and certainly for less money by purchasing directly from local farmers, shopping at farmers markets, joining a CSA, or even growing your own garden.

You might have to adjust your schedule to shop during market hours, and you won't be able to find all foods during all seasons, but you'll also have more control over how your food was produced, who your food dollars support, and how much fuel was used to bring the food to you.

Unlike when you shop at a grocery store, you won't be sending your money to far-off middlemen, executives or shareholders. When you buy from local farmers, your money will enrich the community you live in.

Despite its problems, Whole Foods still deserves a place on your shopping list when more-sustainable options are unavailable, like during the winter months if your local farms and gardens are under several inches of snow.

And shopping at Whole Foods is certainly infinitely preferable to buying from conventional grocery stores that, while selling food for less money, charge an even higher price than Whole Foods by operating their stores on nonrenewable energy (Whole Foods uses wind power) and profiting from foods that unleash much harsher effects on the environment and on customers' health.

Overall, when more sustainable options aren't available and I have no choice but to go to the grocery store, I prefer paying the higher prices at Whole Foods instead of paying in increased pollution somewhere else.

Click here to buy a copy of Recipe for America.

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