Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Whole Foods: Half a Solution?

Last Saturday I tagged along with my fellow Sandhill cmty mate Stan Hildebrand (we've lived together for 28 years now—amazing!) as he was driving to Warrenton for a board meeting of the Missouri Organic Association (MOA). Warrenton is about an hour west of St Louis, which means it's about three hours south of our farm in northeast Missouri. Always wanting to stretch our gasoline dollars as far as possible, we made four deliveries of Sandhill products along the way—sorghum to a grocery store in Quincy, honey to a buying club outside of Hannibal, sorghum to an orchard near Warrenton… and sorghum for the Whole Foods store in St Louis (which we didn't have to do any extra driving for, because there are two people from Whole Foods on the MOA board and they were happy to back haul the sorghum after the mtg).

I dropped Stan off at the mtg spot in Warrenton and drove into St Louis for a rendezvous with Communities magazine's new Business Manager, John Stroup. John just joined the staff a couple months ago and needed an orientation to FIC organizational structure and culture, our editorial policy, and the magazine's history with advertising and distributors—in short, a 90-minute brain dump so that he'd feel more connected with both the people and his work. (Though I was away from home for 13 hours, that 90-minute mtg was worth it—you can only accomplish so much with email and phone calls; occasionally you need to meet face-to-face.)

In the discussion about advertising, John asked if he had license to expand the pool of folks he approached to purchase display ads. I gave him the green light, so long as the product or service was a reasonable value fit with our readership (this assumes that we know what that is, but that's a topic for another time). John tried: "How about Whole Foods?" I sighed and replied: "That's an excellent question."

• • •
In the world of community living, there is a strong correlation between cooperation and sustainability. That is, almost all cmties embrace both as core values. (I'm not saying that everyone means the same thing by this dual commitment, yet it's a useful lens through which to see the issue I want to examine.) Starting with that premise, I want to focus on the complex relationship of Whole Foods—far and away the most successful retailer of natural foods in the US—to cmty and sustainability.

The Case in Favor of Whole Foods
A large part of this company's meteoric rise has been its attention to service and quality. It is a market maker in the field of organic foods, and their success has been a boon to organic farmers everywhere. This directly supports a more sustainable food chain.

As one small example of this, Sandhill has been selling organic sorghum in the St Louis area for 25 years and no one sells more of it than Whole Foods. They have single-handedly boosted the demand for organic products, a phenomenon now so robust that even traditional food chains are installing organic sections.

(When Sandhill announced to our neighbors in 1975 that we'd be farming organically, we might as well have been from Mars. Everybody thought it was strange and amusing. Today, with organic soybeans regularly outselling conventionally grown beans by double, no one is laughing. And we're no loner the only organic farm in the county. Within a single generation the farming world has made a significant step in our direction, and Whole Foods has been no small part of that shift.)

The St Louis store regularly offers vendors the chance to come in and offer taste tests of their product as part of consumer education. Within the last year they paired our sorghum up with a purveyor of home-made biscuits. After several hours of handing out samples of sorghum on hot biscuits, our sorghum starting selling, well, like hot cakes.

In addition, Whole Foods stores have a major commitment to being of service to the communities in which their stores are located. Once a month is Food Outreach Day, and 5% of that day's net sales are donated to a
designated local nonprofit. Several months ago, MOA was that designee—receiving a much-needed $4000 shot in the arm.

Finally, the Whole Foods personnel who serve on the MOA board are doing so with the full support and encouragement of their employer. Impressive.

The Case Against Whole Foods
One of the key elements of sustainability is economics, and there is ample evidence that local businesses are far more helpful to sustainable, resilient economies than national ones (Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, Critchfield's Villages, or any of a number of books by Wendell Berry). For all of its enlightened generosity in support of local communities—which is a real thing—Whole Foods is a multi-national (operating in the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom) and the main flow of profits is to corporate headquarters (Austin TX) and to shareholders, not to the local community.

While Whole Foods has certainly eaten into the market share of traditional grocers, it (and its major corporate competitor, Wild Oats, now merged with Whole Foods) has been the Wal-Mart of the natural foods industry, regularly putting locally owned food co-ops out of business (just as Borders and Barnes & Noble have done with independent bookstores). It is very hard to see this as a plus for sustainability. Whole Foods is providing opportunities for local employment, but this is not at all the same as local ownership.

As an organic vendor—the kind of businesses Whole Foods says they have a strong corporate commitment to supporting—we've struggled with bureaucratic red tape, the kind of which we rarely encounter when selling to locally owned stores. I'm talking about restrictions on when they'll receive products they've ordered (sometimes we're turned away even though the store is open). Last year I was directed by the Customer Service person to walk a quarter mile around to the back of the store to hand two boxes of sorghum to someone in Receiving instead of walking 100 feet through the store to get to the same place. (Where was the commitment to service in that?)

After doing steady business with the Kansas City Whole Foods store for five years, we recently got "deleted" from their system (however that happens) and we've been asked to resubmit a sample of our product for consideration of reinstatement. Grr. The person in charge of approval had never heard of us and we had to start over—something that would never have happened at a locally owned store. Size does make a difference.
• • •
To advertise or not?
So what did I tell John, who was thinking about approaching Whole Foods to advertise in Communities? I told him it was controversial (for the reasons I've outlined above). I also told him I couldn't make the call on my own and that FIC's Editorial Review Board would have to chew it over.

Still, I encouraged him to bring the idea forward and not shy away from it because it was challenging (that's the ERB's job after all, to field the tough questions). Over the years, we've learned that there is a strong relationship between our readership and the people who shop at natural food stores. In that regard, Whole Foods is a great fit. Yet we also believe there is a strong small-is-beautiful sentiment among our readership—people who will greet a Whole Foods ad with as much enthusiasm as opening a jar of kimchi accidentally left out in the sun for three days. So it's not obvious which way to go on this.

I'll let you know what we decide.

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