The dark secrets of Whole Foods

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March 17 2006 1:34 PM

Is Whole Foods Wholesome?

The dark secrets of the organic-food movement.

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A scene from Whole Foods grocery

It's hard to find fault with Whole Foods, the haute-crunchy supermarket chain that has made a fortune by transforming grocery shopping into a bright and shiny, progressive experience. Indeed, the road to wild profits and cultural cachet has been surprisingly smooth for the supermarket chain. It gets mostly sympathetic coverage in the local and national media and red-carpet treatment from the communities it enters. But does Whole Foods have an Achilles' heel? And more important, does the organic movement itself, whose coattails Whole Foods has ridden to such success, have dark secrets of its own?

Granted, there's plenty that's praiseworthy about Whole Foods. John Mackey, the company's chairman, likes to say, "There's no inherent reason why business cannot be ethical, socially responsible, and profitable." And under the umbrella creed of "sustainability," Whole Foods pays its workers a solid living wage—its lowest earners average $13.15 an hour—with excellent benefits and health care. No executive makes more than 14 times the employee average. (Mackey's salary last year was $342,000.) In January, Whole Foods announced that it had committed to buy a year's supply of power from a wind-power utility in Wyoming.

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But even if Whole Foods has a happy staff and nice windmills, is it really as virtuous as it appears to be? Take the produce section, usually located in the geographic center of the shopping floor and the spiritual heart of a Whole Foods outlet. (Every media profile of the company invariably contains a paragraph of fawning produce porn, near-sonnets about "gleaming melons" and "glistening kumquats.") In the produce section of Whole Foods' flagship New York City store at the Time Warner Center, shoppers browse under a big banner that lists "Reasons To Buy Organic." On the banner, the first heading is "Save Energy." The accompanying text explains how organic farmers, who use natural fertilizers like manure and compost, avoid the energy waste involved in the manufacture of synthetic fertilizers. It's a technical point that probably barely registers with most shoppers but contributes to a vague sense of virtue.

Fair enough. But here's another technical point that Whole Foods fails to mention and that highlights what has gone wrong with the organic-food movement in the last couple of decades. Let's say you live in New York City and want to buy a pound of tomatoes in season. Say you can choose between conventionally grown New Jersey tomatoes or organic ones grown in Chile. Of course, the New Jersey tomatoes will be cheaper. They will also almost certainly be fresher, having traveled a fraction of the distance. But which is the more eco-conscious choice? In terms of energy savings, there's no contest: Just think of the fossil fuels expended getting those organic tomatoes from Chile. Which brings us to the question: Setting aside freshness, price, and energy conservation, should a New Yorker just instinctively choose organic, even if the produce comes from Chile? A tough decision, but you can make a self-interested case for the social and economic benefit of going Jersey, especially if you prefer passing fields of tomatoes to fields of condominiums when you tour the Garden State.

Another heading on the Whole Foods banner says "Help the Small Farmer." "Buying organic," it states, "supports the small, family farmers that make up a large percentage of organic food producers." This is semantic sleight of hand. As one small family farmer in Connecticut told me recently, "Almost all the organic food in this country comes out of California. And five or six big California farms dominate the whole industry." There's a widespread misperception in this country—one that organic growers, no matter how giant, happily encourage—that "organic" means "small family farmer." That hasn't been the case for years, certainly not since 1990, when the Department of Agriculture drew up its official guidelines for organic food. Whole Foods knows this well, and so the line about the "small family farmers that make up a large percentage of organic food producers" is sneaky. There are a lot of small, family-run organic farmers, but their share of the organic crop in this country, and of the produce sold at Whole Foods, is minuscule.

A nearby banner at the Time Warner Center Whole Foods proclaims "Our Commitment to the Local Farmer," but this also doesn't hold up to scrutiny. More likely, the burgeoning local-food movement is making Whole Foods uneasy. After all, a multinational chain can't promote a "buy local" philosophy without being self-defeating. When I visited the Time Warner Whole Foods last fall—high season for native fruits and vegetables on the East Coast—only a token amount of local produce was on display. What Whole Foods does do for local farmers is hang glossy pinups throughout the store, what they call "grower profiles," which depict tousled, friendly looking organic farmers standing in front of their crops. This winter, when I dropped by the store, the only local produce for sale was a shelf of upstate apples, but the grower profiles were still up. There was a picture of a sandy-haired organic leek farmer named Dave, from Whately, Mass., above a shelf of conventionally grown yellow onions from Oregon. Another profile showed a guy named Ray Rex munching on an ear of sweet corn he grew on his generations-old, picturesque organic acres. The photograph was pinned above a display of conventionally grown white onions from Mexico.

These profiles may be heartwarming, but they also artfully mislead customers about what they're paying premium prices for. If Whole Foods marketing didn't revolve so much around explicit (as well as subtly suggestive) appeals to food ethics, it'd be easier to forgive some exaggerations and distortions.

Of course, above and beyond social and environmental ethics, and even taste, people buy organic food because they believe that it's better for them. All things being equal, food grown without pesticides is healthier for you. But American populism chafes against the notion of good health for those who can afford it. Charges of elitism—media wags, in otherwise flattering profiles, have called Whole Foods "Whole Paycheck" and "wholesome, healthy for the wholesome, wealthy"—are the only criticism of Whole Foods that seems to have stuck. Which brings us to the newest kid in the organic-food sandbox: Wal-Mart, the world's biggest grocery retailer, has just begun a major program to expand into organic foods. If buying food grown without chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers has been elevated to a status-conscious lifestyle choice, it could also be transformed into a bare-bones commodity purchase.

When the Department of Agriculture established the guidelines for organic food in 1990, it blew a huge opportunity. The USDA—under heavy agribusiness lobbying—adopted an abstract set of restrictions for organic agriculture and left "local" out of the formula. What passes for organic farming today has strayed far from what the shaggy utopians who got the movement going back in the '60s and '70s had in mind. But if these pioneers dreamed of revolutionizing the nation's food supply, they surely didn't intend for organic to become a luxury item, a high-end lifestyle choice.

It's likely that neither Wal-Mart nor Whole Foods will do much to encourage local agriculture or small farming, but in an odd twist, Wal-Mart, with its simple "More for Less" credo, might do far more to democratize the nation's food supply than Whole Foods. The organic-food movement is in danger of exacerbating the growing gap between rich and poor in this country by contributing to a two-tiered national food supply, with healthy food for the rich. Could Wal-Mart's populist strategy prove to be more "sustainable"than Whole Foods? Stranger things have happened.