Local in Boston III: Whole Foods?

2 Feb

I am going to go ahead and say that I am in support of the Whole Foods model, but I don’t shop there. (It’s like Cap-and-trade..) The key reason is this: the agriculture they support there is sustainable, and the demand they capture is mainstream. Thank you, Whole Foods, for supplying fresh and sustainable produce to Boston and the surrounding areas. I just wish I could afford it..

more: Whole Foods!

I was dismayed to enter the store and find almost nothing local. The title of my post therefore couldn’t capture it’s local name without a question mark. There was some Cambridge Apple cider, but even apples which they could easily obtain locally, (or mint) came from Washington, (or Peru..) Thanks JJGonson for the mention! A few aspects though afford clarifying, so here is the company profile this week from a #profood aspiring professional.

1. Distance Organics

Whole Foods specializes in a niche of varieties that are produced “sustainably” (with sustainability in quotes), because it comes from all over the world. This means that I can get a Costa Rican Pineapple in the winter which, in fact, is not a big problem. The big secret here is that it more matters on how it was produced than the transportation, in this case by boats. In terms of food miles, this Pineapple may have more, but in emissions it’s comparable (if it weren’t trucked through the wholefoods distribution center in Austin first!) to something conventional, local. 80% of emissions are actually on-farm. For an educational and well-done study on the Carbon footprint of local versus organic, visit Worldwatch Institute, in short it’s the Life Cycle Analysis that needs to happen.

Fig 2. For now, don’t be afraid to buy Organic if it’s something you want, unless..:

2. Large farm Organics
This is the bigger problem. The Dole organic bananas are still farmed in a monoculture, still use the labor model of exploitation from colonial days, take a huge amount of land and resources, even if they don’t spray some chemicals. These plantations are not helpful to the environment (birds won’t land there), or to the people in any way really.. jobs alone is not sustainable. Having a market does not mean sustainable. Whole Foods needs to watch out for this in their own model, in general anyone whose company has an “Environmental sustainability” profile tacked onto what they already do is not doing it right. Big organics is a big problem, and will distort the vocabulary of good organics or organic integrity more so than sending them over a distance. Fortunately, if you still want Bananas Fair Trade is a good way to go, Equal Exchange just got into these in MA! http://www.equalexchange.coop/bananas

Fig. 3: Check out this new Whole Trade guarantee label. Wish I coulda got an interview to see how this program works. I will look into it.

3. Waste in the industrial food chain
This analysis is the most important one that supermarket chains have to come to accord with. I observed distinct attempts to go “green” with waste, (like my compostable coffee bag?) but it’s a culture thing that keeps waste out of the system. Whole Foods dumpsters and donation programs are notorious jackpots for gleaning programs, which help it some. However, you cannot do mainstream commercial products without creating a large amount of waste. I was stunned to learn that almost 50% of our country’s harvest is wasted. Indeed, some Anthropologist measured food waste in dumpsters for ten years. FYI, convenience stores come out the worst.

Is it possible to produce and distribute food without waste? Perhaps, but that requires a separate actor called food gleaners, who take and redistribute food where it is needed. Whole foods is a notorious target for donation groups because they waste SO much. What goes in must come out, and Whole Foods must adhere to strict regulations for shelf-life of produce and breads. There is so much bread every day wasted, and all this produce they ship in? Much of it is wasted. I took a card of the produce manager there for future donations, and go by every Friday with the BU Student Food Rescue group to donate to local food banks and organizations like Food not Bombs that will use it to serve to the public.

4. People in charge
The Whole Foods company culture is probably the most jarring aspect for the locavores I know. Whole Foods is primarily a food retail company, driven by the trade of green products to mainstream America. I know it hurts, but they have to make money. The way they choose to do this is by increasing demand, heavily marketing-oriented, and keep strong top-down management. “Somehow,” it just doesn’t seem “organic” to me and some of the people I know in comparison to, say, Trader Joes. Hm, thoughts on this?

5. People that love it. (The WL Analysis)
“Moms prefer Whole Foods.” Such is a quote I saw in my research for this article, and it’s probably true. Their model allows for the most variety, the “green” products you need (where else can you find toothpaste, chocolate, paper towels, and eighteen types of eco-friendly hommus?) at a fair (to them) price. It’s not really so much a college student store, I realized, but it has it’s niche. True eco-heads, look elsewhere?

There’s something, though, about the power of these “WLs” as Paul Farmer lovingly calls the Whole Foods niche, White Liberals to change the world. The extra income does transmit some to the farmers and to the environmental benefit of what they’re doing. The green packaging will be more likely to be recycled, which helps keep local landfills at capacity. Most importantly, the White Liberal market is unabashedly mainstream so it represents a huge growth niche. Good for you, Whole Foods for finding that niche.

Just be sure to keep in mind your vision in sustainability in all the marketing!

Check out Whole Foods online:
Facebook Page
Twitter @WholeFoods

Stores in and around Brighton, MA Map:

Continuing in Local in Boston series: Mapping Local food around you!
with the Sustainable Business Network of Boston and New Entry Sustainable Farm Project

Your writer, and Student,
Eddie Miller
Sustainable Business Profile (new!)


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