“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” – Virginia Woolf
When I think about my first experiences with health food stores, I think back to the days my aunt would bring five-year-old Eva along with her to the Whole Foods Market in Alexandria, Virgina, a city just outside of D.C. where I spent a good chunk of my childhood. I’d walk with her through the aisles as she looked for supper’s ingredients or hors d’oeuvres for her next get together. Most of the time I’d walk out with fruit leather or a chocolate truffle, wondering whether I’d have to eat the tomatoes and asparagus in her grocery bag. Since then, I’ve been making a few of those Whole Foods purchases myself – including the tomatoes and asparagus – and enjoying the selection, atmosphere, and the company’s commitment to providing whole fresh produce, and sustainable, organic, and local products.
Since its opening in 1980, Whole Foods has made a name for itself in the health living and wellness markets. The company carries more than 2,600 natural and organic products under the Whole Foods Market, 365 Everyday Value, and Whole Catch brands, and has been named by FORTUNE magazine as one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” for 17 consecutive years since the list’s inception.
Though Whole Foods offers many options for the health seeking, organic loving, and holistic living shoppers, these shoppers, with backgrounds ranging from food stamps to 6 figure pay checks, often complain about the totals they see on the cash register at check out. Thus, the not so endearing nickname, “Whole Paycheck”. Because of Whole Foods’ size and popularity, with more than 400 locations throughout the UK, Canada and 42 states in the United States, Whole Foods has established a name for itself in the areas of health and nutrition, but it has also assisted in creating a culture of affluence and an association of wealth around fresh produce and organic products, making healthy food accessibility seems not so accessible to some communities.
This past November, Slate Magazine published an extensive article titled Can Whole Foods Change the Way Poor People Eat?: Challenging elitism, racism, and obesity with a grocery store may sound crazy. Here’s what happened when Whole Foods tried to do it in Detroit. Author Tracie MacMillan probed the motivations behind Whole Foods opening a store in Detroit to serve “all Detroiters” regardless of socioeconomic status. The article demonstrated the company’s active effort to lower prices to improve healthy food access, and provide educational workshops and resources to help those in the community be aware of the benefits of fresh wholesome foods. It also emphasized much of the beneficial work that Whole Foods does, but in doing so, it brought to light some of the most important food access related questions – What price are people willing to pay for better quality food, and at what point are suppliers willing to take a hit on sales in order to more easily provide that better quality food?
In seeking out some of the varying answers to these questions, and with hopes to gain a better understanding of the culture of Whole Foods, I sought out the perspective of a good friend of mine, Mark Forest.
Mark is a 25-year-old from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and attended UNC Wilmington, majoring in Marketing with a minor in Leadership. In addition to being a vegetarian, outdoor-loving, snow-boarding, dog-loving, and all around nice guy, Mark has also worked at 3 different Whole Foods locations over the past 2 years, dealing primarily with customer service. One day after work I gave him a call, and this is what he had to say:
E: Alright Mark, let’s talk about you. How would you describe the kind of life you try to lead? What inspires you?
M: I’d say I try to live a positive one, and try to be as healthy as I can be. I want to put in the work and treat myself as well as I can now, so that when I’m 60 or 70 I’m not stuck in a rough spot. Take my dad – he’s 64 and has had open-heart surgery, but when we go to Colorado, he’s right there skiing along next to me, kicking ass in his old age. Also, from what I’ve seen in the field of physical therapy, there are people younger than my parents – younger than me, who are constrained by the condition of their health. They can’t do many things, and some can’t do much of anything – they’re stuck. So, I’d say I try to lead a healthy, active, and positive life.
In terms of inspiration, it’s just living. You get one go around, one shot at it, and it really is what you make of it. If you want to sit around and do nothing, if you want to travel, if you want to make a bunch of money, the drive is different for everyone. For me, its just to experience different things, and part of being able to do that is being healthy and eating well. I read somewhere that you should treat your body like a machine, which is essentially all that it is. You wouldn’t pour vinegar into a lawn mower and expect it to work well, and with studying the body, you put things into it that are good, that are productive and help it run better, rather than things are detrimental to it. So many companies and products have processed materials, take the Splenda craze. It’s a chemical made in a lab that your body doesn’t know what to do with it! High fructose corn syrup, artificial flavoring, and the 70% of unpronounceable ingredients on any given box of processed food stuff, it’s bad for your body. In my opinion, we’re the main generation that all this is being test on – our parents’ generation had some of it, but they didn’t have the sedentary life style that many youth have now. It’s an absolute recipe for disaster.
E: Yikes. It really is, but there are people like you and companies like Whole Foods who are offering a healthier perspective to those seeking one. So, what do you like about Whole Foods?
M: The people who work there, the people who come in, the whole environment. I’ve worked about 10 other retail jobs, and at Whole Foods the feeling is completely different. It feels more welcoming and friendly both with customers and on staff. Sometimes it definitely gets old, especially around the holidays, but overall people don’t seem as miserable as they do in big-box stores.
E: What would you say is Whole Foods’ mission?
M: They try to go beyond the food. They recently rolled out the Values Matter campaign, emphasizing customer and team member happiness, and local and sustainable growth. They do a lot of donations to local charities, and support local vendors. At the Asheville location, for example, we carry 3 products from vendors to try and help out the little guy. Other programs like Whole Planet that gives micro loans to mostly impoverished women to get their businesses off the ground, and Whole Cities and Whole Kids that go into less fortunate areas or local schools to try and establish healthy eating. So yeah, it’s about going beyond the food and going into community. Going beyond to what matters more while using food as a medium.
E: How would you describe the community that your store location serves? And how accessible is Whole Foods to the surrounding community?
M: It’s pretty diverse. We get people who are pretty affluent to people on food stamps. Basically everyone from the clean cut business man to the guy with the bull ring, tattoos, and dreadlocks. But beyond that spectrum of appearances, we get customers coming in who just want good quality food, or people who are into the holistic, natural, organic mindset.
Personally, I think anyone can shop at Whole Foods, but I’m probably biased because food and health are important to me. Even when I didn’t work at Whole Foods and get a discount, I still shopped there. It may be slightly more expensive for some products but it doesn’t have much or any of the junk that’s in many of products that fill the majority of shelves at other grocers. I don’t think that as a culture or a society, that America is into “whole foods” – the term not the brand – meaning food as close to their natural state as possible. We want cheap. We want fast. You can go get generic brands from another grocer that’s cheaper but has more ingredients that many view as harmful in it. Some meat and produce at Whole Foods is more expensive, but if you buy a piece of fish we can tell you exactly how that fish got there, where it came from down to where it was caught and how it was transported. In terms of produce, an apple may not look waxy without any blemishes, but it hasn’t been sitting in a cooler thousands of miles away.
I realize not everyone can afford to shop there, but for those that healthy eating is a priority it’s a good deal. There are ways to do it within budget, but there are definitely complaints about how expensive things are.
E: How do you feel about the expensive stigma, the “Whole Paycheck” notion?
M: We carry so much product that other places don’t, whether is an artisanal olive oil, chocolate, or whatever – and those products are more expensive because they’re local or harder to get. Those products are also more likely to catch the shopper’s eye and intrigue them into wanting to try whatever it may be. There’s so many products for sale that no one else carries, and consumers often want to buy more different products, which in turn oftentimes ends up being more expensive. When I was working in Colorado, a third party did a price comparison between Whole Foods and 2 other stores. The comparison bought the same 20 generic products, and Whole Foods ended up dead in the middle.
E: That’s probably the most unique and one of the most substantial explanations I’ve personally heard for why totals at the cash register end up so high. What do you think about the Slate article, and Whole Foods wanting to improve healthy food access as well as expand and increase profit?
M: They need to separate the two. Given the mindset I believe America has with cheaper versus healthy, those two need to be completely exclusive. If you want to expand and be more profitable, continue opening locations in places like Lake Norman, North Carolina, which is a notoriously wealthy area, but if you want to go into less fortunate communities and provide healthy food at low cost, you need to do it with the mindset that that is what you are going to be doing, lowering costs, or only carry 365 brand generic and local products.
This may be very idealist, but if a company that big has that much money and is that well informed, they can figure out a way to keep costs low in some places and use the profits to help others. If the common American was willing to pay more for quality, it would make sense to have the profit and health grow alongside each other, but even in Asheville people complain. Everyone and their mother complains about the price. If you do complain and then don’t shop there again, that’s one thing, but something brings them back – the products, the atmosphere, or whatever it is, it makes it worth it the cost. Something keeps them coming back. For me, it’s the environment and the food.
E: What do you think about our nation’s food system?
M: It straight up caters to the nation. Monsanto and other big corporations buy out companies like Annie’s. These little companies may sell to continue to make money, or because they couldn’t survive on their own, but if a company gets bought out in order to produce more organic food, the buying is going to step in at some point somewhere and take advantage of their position of power.
The system also caters to the population. As a society we don’t care about natural food or what is in our food. I’ll never forget, about 5 years ago I ran into a big box store to pick up something small, and while checking out there was a couple behind me with a cart full of soda drinks and boxes of frozen microwaveable meat meals. I don’t eat meat, but boxed meat is even more unappealing. It’s the same thing with the fast food culture of McDonald’s, Burger King, etc. Our nation is in a hurry and it cares about money. It’s not a matter of our people not caring, but rather the government not making minimum wage higher, providing support to farmers, lax regulations, there’s so many factors that are all connected in some way. Look at European countries, where minimum wage is higher and people walk or ride bikes everywhere, and food is more affordable, because there’s more natural suppliers rather than big corporations making food.
E: With all that, what do you think Whole Foods has to offer?
M: Healthy food to people who want it. It’s the biggest company and biggest food source providing natural food to our country. It may come at a cost, but again, I do believe it is affordable if you are an informed shopper, and it may not be for everyone or important enough for everyone to spend that money, but it does provide what’s not readily available due to the state of our nation’s food system.
E: What are you hungry for others to know? What would you tell the highly hypothetical person who could change our nation’s food system at the flip of a switch?
M: I wish there was a way to deal with it all without being so money grubbing. People are greedy. It’s a similar situation with Whole Foods trying to expand but also be a neighborhood shop in poor areas. You can’t make money and help people at the same time. Look at most charities, they’re exactly that, they run on donations. I just wish there was a way that people weren’t so hungry for money. It boils down to a mess of issues. To what people want, what other companies are out there, who needs to stay in business, whatever. The little local guy can’t stay in business because the Man is producing a much bigger product that people go to because it’s cheaper. I wish there was a way to change the whole system. People still have this idealist view that there’s an old farmer on a farm that feeds his cow and milks it, and then when it’s old and can’t serve it’s purpose it gets butchered and eaten. That’s all a fiction and deception. People need to watch more documentaries.
E: Isn’t that the truth. Thank you for all your deep and critical insights. So, I like to end on a fun note – what are your top 3 favorite Whole Foods products?
M: Hmmm… Let me look in my fridge. Alright, the fresh ground nut butters – I love that that’s an option. Anything from the bakery section, the vegan almond cookies are delicious, and most of the locally made products like Buchi komboucha from Asheville and Bobo’s Oat Bars from Boulder.
Mark currently resides in Asheville, North Carolina with his golden retriever. In addition to his gig at Whole Foods, he is also a graphic artist for a firm out of Colorado. In looking to the future, he aims to pursue one of two different options, both of which lead to being in the great outdoors. Over the holidays he’ll be headed to Chapel Hill and Wilmington to spend time with his family and girlfriend, and then will be headed to Colorado to spend time riding the slopes with his family.
*Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article strictly pertain to only Mark and Our Hungry Food, and are in no way related to those of Whole Foods Market, Inc.