Jana Partners, the activist investor that holds an 8.2 percent stake in Whole Foods Market, has turned up the heat on the nation’s leading natural grocery chain nicknamed "Whole Paycheck" for its high-priced organic and natural food selections. Sliding sales coupled with Jana’s continued efforts to bring in new board members like executives from Harris Teeter, Gap Inc., Barclays, and Kellogg, paints a pretty clear picture of the not-so-distant future for Whole Foods Market. Rumors are Albertsons, Kroger, or even Amazon may step in to buy the chain, though nothing's been confirmed yet. As Sam Cooke once crooned, a change gonna come. Except, in what seems to be the latest trend for our country, this change is a huge, and potentially devastating, step back.
The retailer with more than 400 locations has achieved the near impossible – a healthy “whole” foods focused grocery store from Texas, no less, has helped to reshape our food system. No, not reshape. It redefined it. Almond milk would not likely be on the shelves at Walmart today were it not for Whole Foods. Neither would cage-free eggs, I’m guessing. The line between the organic movement and Whole Foods Market’s ascent is so blurred it’s impossible to see it at all anymore.
The first time I set food in a Whole Foods store, nearly 20 years ago, was life-changing. It was, no kidding, emotional. I’d ventured out to the Natural Products Expo in sunny southern California for my job as a grocery buyer for a little health food store in Virginia Beach. As part of my visit to the trade show, I signed up for a “store tour” – which is just what it sounds like. A big bus takes a bunch of us not-from-around-heres out to visit the local California stores leading the way in clean food. The last stop on the tour was a nearby Whole Foods Market. I’d heard of the chain, of course, but this was nearly twenty years ago. The Internet was barely more than a device for sending boring hey-what’s-up emails. There were no Instagram images of supermodels sipping kombucha in Whole Foods parking lots. I didn't know what to expect.
When I stepped inside, my heart sank. Or it rose up nearly straight out of me. Probably a bit of both. It was this place. This place I could have only ever dreamed about. How could it be real? Everywhere I looked were the brands I knew and loved – the organic and natural foods that, at least where I was from, never made it into traditional supermarkets. Yet this store looked like a “real” supermarket. The high ceilings and neon track lighting as opposed to the dingy low overhead flickering lights of my local health food store. There were casestacks of rice milk to the ceiling. There was a deli serving grilled tofu. I saw brown rice and brown paper towels. But more than what there was in this gargantuan health food store, I was amazed at what there wasn’t: no Clorox bleach. No AquaFresh toothpaste. There were no Lunchables or Oreos or Doritos. There were no two-liters of Diet Coke.
My career would shift and I'd get to travel the country over the next decade visiting Whole Foods after Whole Foods and no matter how many I'd visited, the thrill of stepping into a "new" Whole Foods location always made me tingle. I loved seeing the difference in the stores as well as the sameness. I loved to watch the customers and see what they bought. I loved the local focus, be it produce or other artisanal offerings. Each Whole Foods store has personality; they reflect their communities. But they do more than that, too. They ask them to go beyond their comfort zones. To push the edge. To try roasted brussels sprouts or kefir water. To learn what Fair Trade means. Why non-GMO and Animal Welfare standards matter. Why voting with our dollar does often mean spending more than we could, but even still, less than we should. What other business has encouraged us to let down our guards like that?
I loved (and still do) the small mom-and-pop health food stores. The hippie co-op that smelled like a mix of dusty granola bins and Dr. Bronner’s soap was my first foray into this world. That dingy, dusty, slanted health food co-op on the east end of my hometown taught me, a struggling but committed vegan, how to eat healthy food. And that eating healthy and good food weren’t mutually exclusive.
Over time, it was (and still is) the foodstuffs on conventional supermarket shelves that looked so weird and out of place. Almond milk and sprouted grain bean burritos aren’t dystopian future foods -- it’s the nutritionally void ersatz junk we still call food that are the real foreigners. The stuff that’s also systematically destroying Indonesian rainforests, depleting the ozone layer from all the factory-farmed animal methane emissions. It’s the quaint-sounding foods you’d think were made in someone’s kitchen just out back that are, in reality, propped up by corporate behemoths who only care about bottom lines.
Whole Foods, though, changed that. Co-founder and CEO John Mackey touted a new way of doing business in his 2012 book “Conscious Capitalism.” He made us, or at least, me, believe we could swing out into a new, just, and healthy world and never look back.
That’s what we need, right? Obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer – they’re claiming more lives every year than they should. Whole Foods made it easy to opt for healthier foods that tasted good. Sure, there are unhealthy sugary foods that line the Whole Foods Market stores, and some contentious practices, but they pale in comparison to what’s been on supermarket shelves over the last half-century.
Whole Foods also made it easier to choose better for the planet. That’s a new concept to a lot of us. But most of us aren’t out there intentionally buying products we hope will destroy the planet. Most of us would choose the more sustainable or regenerative options if they were readily available and price competitive. If we knew they existed.
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It’s not a perfect system, of course. But Whole Foods made making those choices possible. The chain flipped the script on every aisle. It normalized what had always been marginalized. Even if it took our whole paycheck, we can look back on it now, decades into the Whole Foods culture and see the changes that have happened. As Christine Muhlke wrote for the New York Times recently, “the hippies have won.” Not only are we swilling back home-brewed kombucha that no so long ago "your art teacher might have made in her basement,” eating kale chips, and quinoa burgers, but we’re driving eco cars, homesteading or living in tiny homes. We wear Birkenstocks.
And even though there’s a Sprouts, three Trader Joe’s, and numerous conventional supermarket chains closer to where I live than Whole Foods, I keep making the trek. I know I can get most of what I need at the local supermarkets that now sell organic and vegan options. But, honestly, I love the insular experience of shopping at Whole Foods. I know it’s silly, but I view it a little like avoiding making eye contact with the desperate guy at the bar (sorry, dude). I don't want to have to look past the poison every single time I go shopping. Even though many of the natural brands sold at Whole Foods are owned by companies also selling junky food (General Mills, Kellogg, Coca-Cola, etc), I like blocking out their mainstream offerings from my shopping experience. For that, I’m willing to drive further, and yes, even to pay more. Because the world I want to live in is doing better. It’s making the best decisions possible, every single time. It’s a future where businesses really do give a shit. A future where triple bottom lines or one-for-one ethos are the norm. Where it doesn't cost more to get certified for being organic or humane or fair to the people growing or producing the food, but it costs more to be doing the opposite. A future where producers adding excess sugars, sodium, artificial ingredients, etc, have to blatantly label their products as the offenders they are. I want to shop in a store where I don’t ever have to acknowledge that products like Pepsi are still being legally sold on the shelves when, quite possibly, they've taken or shortened more lives than tobacco.
These are the truths I know, should the human race survive long enough to look back on them, will one day come to light, come to be recognized as fact, not the fiction pushed on us by marketers and lobby groups that we willfully justify and support by eating the crappy food they sell us. Or the many pills we take every day instead of just changing our diet. Folks, we fucked up our food system in ways almost unimaginable. From the pesticides we drown our fruits and veggies in to the billions of animals we enslave, torture, and then slaughter, to the addictive levels of sugar and salt we bathe it all in before feeding it to our kids. This is not okay. This is not food. It’s insanity.
Whole Foods Market lifted the veil. And while it bore the brunt of jokes and name-calling, it really is the only sane thing to happen to our food system in a long, long time, even if it’s now indentured to the market Mackey claimed to be able to transcend. It’s pointing us in the right direction, even as the tide of profits and shareholders is pulling it under and away from us forever.
We need Whole Foods more than it needs us. At least, I know I do. I need to shop some place where being a vegan doesn’t feel like a dirty word – like having a disability no one wants to acknowledge. I need to shop in a store that favors organic and local farmers, or tells a damn good story about the ones in another country that grew my bananas. I need to be able to assume that every single roll of toilet paper or tub of laundry detergent is creating the least possible impact on the planet. That we allow others to exist is mind-boggling. That we aren’t all losing our minds over the toxicity and waste we create and perpetuate is criminal. That isn’t really us, is it?
I want to shop at a store that’s thinking about my daughter’s future. And her children. And their children. And the kids down the street right now. Thinking about what foods we'll all be able to eat if the planet keeps warming. What foods we should never eat because all they ever offered were sugar rushes and crashes and life-limiting diseases. What other market has taken such steps to consider these things day in and day out? Really, can you think of another chain that's done so much for our consciousness in such little time? Google hasn't done it. Apple hasn't. If you're eating healthier, feeding your family healthier, giving more thought to your impact on the planet, somewhere in that evolution, Whole Foods played a part, even if you've never set foot in one.
Supermarkets got their start as a way to condense the usual shopping routines. Less than one hundred years ago, we would go to bakeries, green markets, grocers (who typically just scooped out commodities from bins), and butchers or dairies, etc. Supermarkets aimed to shorten that shopping cycle. It soon became less about the convenience, though, and more about beating the competition on price. We see how that turned out: cheap and unhealthy food making us so sick simple foods like bread have become the enemy.
Whole Foods changed all of that. At least, it sure as hell tried to. Can we really imagine a world without it? A world where only a watered-down version of this store exists?
1999 was the year I stepped into my first Whole Foods Market. I remember it like one might remember a first Broadway musical, or stepping inside a real-life palace. The Natural Products Expo that year took up a humble convention center hall or two. Several thousand attendees were there. It was pretty chill. This last expo in March took up the entire convention center plus two hotels and scores of offsite events. There were more than 80,000 attendees all swarming around the latest and greatest organic and natural offerings. Whole Foods did that. It grew this industry and opened us to the possibilities that we now take for granted. It's an invaluable soldier in the war against the industrialization and corporatizing of our food system. It's a way-finder pointing us home, back on the path to reclaiming our food, our health, and our planet. Maybe that is worth a whole paycheck after all.
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