Whole Foods Can O’Worms

Thursday, March 16, 2006

can o' wholefood worms“The food we put into our mouths today travels an average of thirteen hundred miles from where it is produced, changing hands at least six times along the way.” Coming Home to Eat, Garry Paul Nabham.

It was with an ironic and heavy heart this Wednesday that I attended the city’s sponsored brainstorming session on marketing Eugene as the World’s Greatest City for the Arts and Outdoors. Invited as a member of the City of Eugene’s art community, I felt myself instead being compelled to address Eugene’s recent issue of giving Whole Foods the approval to develop itself in Eugene’s downtown.

Sure it may sound ironic at first, for a city of Eugene’s liberal leanings to bawlk at this store coming to our city. However, that is precisely why we cast a suspicious eye towards a large Texas based mega corporation, who is wanting to plunder our area’s grocery budgets. Whole Foods is not the shining becon of health it wants to seem. In additon to consistency coming out as non-Union friendly, the Human Rights Campaign recently released a 2004 report also pointed out this smudge on Whole Foods name: a 54% rating in its Corporate Equality Index (heck- even Kraft scored a great 100% on these issues!).

What follows here is largely the text of a rant email sent to my local City Council members after their vote to give Whole Foods developers $8 Million in develoment money to build a parking garage / grocery store combo. Mind you, our fine city doesn’t even have $8 Million, but they assume the library funds won’t mind being borrowed from.

The recent development idea of WholeFoods has marched itself into Eugene’s downtown make-up with hardly a City Council nod of recognition to our own regional gems in the Farmer’s Market. Our local farmers are a testament to Lane County’s standing of having the world’s greatest outdoors. Lets build these jewels a crown, an indoor, year-round farmer’s market, a move that proved very financially successful for Olympia, Washington:

“In one single year the farmers’ market in Olympia, Wash., went from $100,000 in sales to $2.3 million by building a permanent structure for their [farmers] market,” EW cover story, 2004/08/19

Such a development would match the City’s desire to showcase its outdoors and exhibit itself as engaging in environmentally sustainable practices (of which the public gave the City an abysmal 3 out of 5 rating in the 2004 Community Snapshot). 53% of respondents of the Snapshot surveys rate that the City’s engagement in environmentally sustainable practices is very important to the public.

The 2004 Community Snapshot also reports 86% of the respondents believe the City government “should take an active roll in helping local businesses create and retain jobs” (p8). This sentiment to support local business rises above the issues of helping outside companies come to Eugene and above the giving away of tax incentives.

Will WF stock local food products for a reduced stocking fee? Will WF abundantly stock our local produce? Will the omni-presence of WF squash our Saturday and Tuesday farmers market?

Only time and the perpetually mum WholeFoods Corporation will tell.

My City Council has saddened me in its perpetual lack of respect to our local businesses, and local agriculture producers in the Farmer’s Market.

$8 Million in funding for a parking garage and I sit here contemplating ltd’s news to cut the 8pm run of my bus route due to lack of funds.

Round up of response to the Whole Foods development as seen in the Eugene Weekly:

13 Comments

posted March 16th, 2006 at 6:56 pm

That is just lame. We’re trying to restart our farmer’s market and it’s all such an uphill struggle, our farms have been decimated by the lack of support that even finding products is tough. Having a thriving local farm economy is something very special. You’d think that Eugene’s city council would be on the side of the Eugene residents, not the Texas corporation.

  • I have a little book I picked up at Powell’s on my last book binge called The Little Food Book, by Craig Sams. It’s published by The Disinformation Company and has turned into my Little Red Book of revolution. I recommend you seek it out in a bookstore and take a peek. Its formated to be browsable with short bursts of intensive information. The reason I’m recommending it’s inspiring and depressing at the same time. It calls out the change that still needs to happen and gives great bites to back it up when one is at a loss for words.

    Eugene has several small markets through out the week. They are not just produce stands, but also include bread stands of local bakeries, booths for nurseries, a local butcher who sells out of his refrigerated truck, local artisans who make chocolates.

    A farmers market is do-able, and any size is a success. Even if your market is a mix of food vendors at lunch in a business district with only a handful of produce stands- the presence will be noted.

    Best of luck with your Wahkiakum farmer’s market- I hope your planning meeting went well?

    –McAuliflower

posted March 16th, 2006 at 8:30 pm

You know I’m gonna link to this on my blog, dawl.

I will refrain from mentioning that you don’t like tomatoes, as that might incite a mob.

: D

  • If any get pitched, I promise to throw them back :)

    –McAuliflower

- Tana
posted March 18th, 2006 at 2:42 pm

Thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll go check it out. The current plan for the farmer’s market is to start by holding it in conjunction with other events…which could be interesting since it may mean it moves around and is intermittent. With any luck, it’ll get people wanting more.

We’re also putting together a group to connect farmers with value-add producers, markets, and so on. May even do things like build a shared commercial kitchen once we’re established.

It’s an exciting time to be here, it may be the start of something truly wonderful. There’s a lot of new blood in the area and a lot of us newbies are serious food people. I’ve got friends who just built their B&B and are now trying to figure out if they can really build the cheese cave…how cool would that be? Another guy down the valley has been doing sausages lately–he does everything from piglet to plate.

And the homemade fruit wines and other beverages are amazing. I’ve even got a friend whose got his first few gallons of pinot becoming wine right now.

posted March 18th, 2006 at 5:02 pm

I have been thinking about this post a lot since I first read it. Whole Foods in your area is certainly a double-edge sword.

On one hand, it offers options for smart food buying decisions that are often hard to find. On the other hand, the blind allegiance that I see some people have to WF — that the food they buy there *must* be healthy and ethically grown/made. Once some people walk into WF, they turn on blinders and don’t question foods that they would typically question in a supermarket.

I can certainly see your frustration with the city spending money they don’t have to create a space for WF. I would be frustrated with that as well.

Whole Foods is the closest supermarket to us, and because of that I find myself in there about once a week for one thing or another. It’s very rare that I buy produce there. I am the one who is often standing in the WF produce section shaking my head. Why do they have bell peppers from Chile when I just saw some at the Farmers’ Market? I like that WF offers provenance and organic / conventional information about every item in the produce section, but often wish that they would adopt a more obvious system of labelling – kind of like the awesome labelling system at New Seasons in Portland.

Farmers I have spoken with have said that WF is fairly loyal once a farmer is on their purchase list. That always softens me a bit toward their practices. Unlike Trader Joe’s for instance, WF pays a decent price to the farmer and doesn’t drop them from their purchasing list once someone can offer a lower price.

If I were in Eugene, I would work on the Whole Foods store itself once it is in operation … maybe some sort of grassroots effort to get them to carry specific local brands.

  • Thanks for the comment Jen.
    Its odd thinking about how my thinking on WF has shifted this last 6 months. I admit the attraction to them, like a crow to a bright shiny object. Entering a WF, all is ordered and bright and arranged just so. It makes me feel OCD happy.

    And honestly, I wouldn’t mind a WF moving to Eugene if it were in a different location. As one who has interests in downtown Eugene rebuilding its core- its interesting watching my opinions fall into more “ifs, and or buts”.

    –McAuliflower

posted March 19th, 2006 at 10:38 pm

I used to work for WFM and it is a good company. At least, I’ve had a good experience and other Team Members have as well. Although it isn’t union, they are one of the top companies to work for. After so many service hours, all benefits are paid for, you get monthly and yearly bonuses if you make your departmental budget. as far as Farmers Markets are concerned, it hasn’t been a problem. I visit my local market every year as many people do, so I don’t think that makes much of a difference.

  • Thanks for the feedback M.

    –McAuliflower

- M
posted March 26th, 2006 at 7:56 am

Here in Portland one of the controversial development plans has been the Public Market, comparable to what Vancouver, BC, have with Granville and what Seattle has with Pike.

The reason it’s controversial is because public markets are not farmers markets and tend to a) be more tourist oriented, b) source their products from all over so they can provide whatever the tourists want year round, and c) be owned and run by interests removed from the farmers, etc.

But personally, I think these public markets add awareness of goods and competition. It’s like a Wal-Mart moving next to a Target or vice-versa — or the concept of a mall. They bring an awareness of what’s out there while competing to be the best supplier of those goods.

People could easily say that Whole Foods or New Seasons or Market of Choice or a public market hurt the local farmer by separating the consumer from the farmer and not always sourcing locally. But they also educate the consumer and create a demand for better quality goods.

I think Whole Foods will do the same in Eugene. It will make Market of Choice be better and it will build interest in farmers’ goods, higher quality produce, meats, fish, etc.

It may also improve revenue in a city, frankly, that is so overrun with anti-development interests that Springfield is looking like a better place to live and work nowadays. With more revenue and a larger demand for farmers’ goods perhaps Eugene will build the facilities Mcauliflower wants. A Whole Foods and a permanent market are certainly not mutually exclusive.

  • Thanks for the feedback- I like your point about “bringing an awareness”. Also, Portland’s tourist angle is something Eugene hardly has to deal with, but its interesting to think about when tourist interests are counter to local interests.

    Regarding building a structure base for our downtown farmers market, the city is waiting for a developer with the money already sorted out to present the plans to the city. I’d like to be able to convince the city to not wait for a developer to drive the process and funding, but for the city to do that themselves and then solicit bids on the project.

    –McAuliflower

posted March 26th, 2006 at 1:01 pm

The question is: why would any developer want to choose Eugene for anything? They haven’t exactly been nice to those who have chosen the city. They haven’t even been pleasant to those who have helped support the economy of the community for years, like Sacred Heart. Eugene sees development as a privilege of the developers rather than an opportunity for the community, its people, its workers, and its economy. I grew up in the Eugene area and have friends and family there still. I have a lot of resentment towards such a regressive “progressive” society. I’m much happier in Portland where there’s at least an attempt at balance.

  • Okkk… I’m not going to get into the issues around the Sacred Heart development here. Clearly you have some issues regarding Eugene development in general. But that’s ok because as you put it, you’re in Portland.

    –McAuliflower

posted March 26th, 2006 at 4:27 pm

It may also improve revenue in a city, frankly, that is so overrun with anti-development interests that Springfield is looking like a better place to live and work nowadays.

They haven’t even been pleasant to those who have helped support the economy of the community for years, like Sacred Heart.

I’m dissapointed.

I’m afraid that whatever sources of information you depend on now are a wee bit slanted. I dare say you are merely repeating talking points generated by public relations departments at this point.

posted March 31st, 2006 at 4:15 pm

Nope, just someone who grew up in the Eugene area and partially chose Portland, despite having family and friends in Eugene, because of the anti-development (ie, jobs, affordable housing, etc) slant of Lane County, but especially Eugene.

posted March 31st, 2006 at 8:08 pm

What you decry as an “anti-development” slant is characterized by a policy of giving away tens of millions of dollars in country club charity cases.

You are entitled to your opinion that there is an anti-development slant here, but that won’t make it true no matter how often you repeat it.

Po-tay-to/Po-tah-to

posted April 5th, 2006 at 3:43 pm

the original post about WF moving to eugene makes some good arguments. mainly, that the city will give 8 million to let us build there. but being a WF team member here in the heart of texas gives me a different perspective. here in austin WF plays a major role in our economy and grocery choices. but austin also has a booming coop, several local farmers markets and other organic/natural competing grocery stores. we sale local produce(maybe not enough in my opinion) but we still support them and we are very loyal to our farmers. so just because WF is moving in, doesnot mean the end of your local produce/markets. here they all coexist peacefully and even support each other. thanks for letting me give my two cents.

- krisG.
posted August 12th, 2006 at 8:04 am

Howdee,

I just stumbled across this post while doing other stuff, and overall I think this is typical of Whole Foods’ “lateral shift” expansion plan. Ie. they move into an area that already supports sustainble agriculture (local & organic & fair made) and has viable options, take customers away from these independent & cooperative options, and create a great deal of wealth for itself while making minimal progress for the sustainable movement as a whole. This is how they built their empire, and it is unfortunate that they feel the need to continue it.

There is a great deal of benefit to seeing a leaner, more humble Whole Foods lead the way into non-traditional markets –places like Oklahoma City, for example, where indies and co-ops never took root and supermarkets are still the predominant outlet for consumers. I hope that we who care about the state of sustainability, agroecology and the true organic community can persuade them to explore this kind of vertical expansion rather than the pure money grab of siphoning from what is already spent on natural foods.

I thought you & your readers might like to join me in exploring these issues in greater detail. I am wrapping up a five-part series called “The Whole Foods Problem: Friend or Foe of the Organic Community?” posted on the Organic Means Organic website. Our answer is that they are a lot of both….

Cheers & best of luck with the Farmers’ Market in Eugene. If it works, we will promote it along with all the other non-box-store, natural food options in Eugene.

J.Pierre Reville
ORGANIC MEANS ORGANIC
http://www.omeanso.org

posted August 22nd, 2006 at 9:48 am

Whole Foods Market does support local products. Each department has a “buyer” position and they are expected to not only order from large purveyors, but to seek out and order local products. Dave’s Killer bread and Arcana soaps are two examples that were found by store level buyers at the Farmers market in Portland. Each store has the option to carry many items unique to that store and this enables small producers to compete with national brands without having to become national themselves. I would like to ask those who claim Whole Foods Market will put local companies out of business to provide examples from other cities where this occured. The Portland area seems to be doing fine.

- Melissa van Bebber

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