Whole Lotta Nuthin'

Got very excited about this headline on this morning: "The Dark Side of Whole Foods." Nothing against Whole Foods--used to shop there all the time, till Central Market stormed in. Still, sounded good. Well, turns out there ain't much to the story about the Austin-based chain, which has three Dallas locations. The writer, Field Maloney, opens his essay by wondering if "the organic movement itself, whose coattails Whole Foods has ridden to such success, [has] dark secrets of its own?" But the best the writer can come up with is the example of the New York City flagship selling organic Chilean tomatoes rather than conventionally grown tomatoes from New Jersey.

"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."

Field, if that is your real name, people who shop at Whole Foods know they can get cheaper tomatoes at the corner grocery; they probably buy them there most days. But most folks who shop at Whole Foods just don't want Jersey tomatoes. People in Jersey probably don't want 'em, either. So, what else ya got? Something about Whole Foods killing the small grocer? That's it?

Hate to say it, but I am pretty sure I read all of this two years ago, in an interview with enviro-economist Paul Hawken, in which he said:

"Whole Foods dismantles local food webs and doesn't foster what the organic movement is about. The organic and natural-food movement that I helped kick off in the late '60s was the beginning of recreating regional food webs. Local stores started all around the country and they began to source locally, and whatever they couldn't get locally they got regionally, and whatever they couldn't get regionally they got nationally. In terms of produce and bakery goods and other food items, there was a huge diversity of suppliers in the United States because there was a huge diversity of stores. Whole Foods went in and bought out the bigger, more successful stores and then rebranded them and did centralized purchasing for produce, which now comes from Chile and New Zealand and places like that. In the process, many local organic producers went out of business. Massive scale and centralization of power and capital is the antithesis of what we had in mind when we started the natural and organic-food business in the U.S."

I love Slate, really; Whole Foods, too. I just like my news, like my produce, to be a little fresher. --Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky