Whole Foods Up Close: Local, Organic Values (Part 1 of 3)


About a month ago, I went to the Minneapolis Whole Foods Market looking for local meat. I’ve been a Minnesotan long enough to know that our produce choices are severely limited in the winter months, but I figured there’d be plenty of local pork and beef to bring home. Turns out I was wrong - there was almost none. I left Whole Foods confused and surprised, and I left them a note. The next day, Renee Howard sent me an email.

Renee has a pretty cool job, at least part-time. Besides helping Whole Foods on the front lines when needed, Renee is a part-time concierge for the Minneapolis store. This means that when customers have big questions - looking for gluten free foods, shopping on a budget, trying to navigate the organic selection, conducting a tour for an elementary school - Renee gets the call. Renee let me know that Whole Foods carries LOADS of local products, even in the Twin Cities. Most of these products are food, such as Upper Crust, Organic Valley milk and cheese, and B.T. McElrath chocolates (made in Minneapolis but not grown here, obviously). But when I asked Renee about the meat specifically, she wasn’t sure. She offered to find out, and also to give me a tour. I jumped at the chance.

Renee gave my friend Jen and I a fantastic, hour-plus tour. Her enthusiasm for the company is contagious, and - once again - I left the store with loads of delicious food that I feel good about. Whole Foods is an purpose-driven company with a great group of team members (their words). Their selection and store experience is so good that it's easy to forget how big they are. On the surface, the Whole Foods mission is clear. From the Values page on the Whole Foods website:

Early on, we adopted a set of core values to guide our purpose:

whole-foods-8-organicWhole Foods walks the talk in these areas, as evidenced by the company's terrific record of supporting cultures around the world (among other things). The Whole Planet Foundation, for example, provides micro-credits to help farmers in developing nations build sustainable businesses that can serve their communities. As far as big companies go, there's no question in my mind that Whole Foods is community motivated and inspired, and does loads of good work. Organic food is obviously a huge focus for Whole Foods. It's what its customers expect and desire, and it's howwhole-foods-7-locally-grown Whole Foods built its reputation.

And yet Whole Foods balances its purpose with a healthy dose of pragmatism, reasoning (reasonably) that Minnesotans can't live on turnips alone, and that even the most conscientious shopper can be budget-bound. So the food selection is rounded out with less expensive, less seasonal foods. Even still, Whole Foods stays very true to its core values: all of the meat is grass-fed, cage-free. Everything you can buy in a Whole Foods store meets the farming, social, and health standards set forth by the company.

More and more these days, it seems that sourcing is important to customers as well. When it comes to local, sustainable food, Whole Foods turns out to be pretty hard to pin down. In some cases (and places), there's just not enough local food to go around. The day I toured the store, for example, only 5 products in the produce section were grown locally, as opposed to 217 products that were grown organically (hurray for transparency!). In other cases, the desire to provide local foods is tempered by the need to run Whole Foods like a big business, a fact I'll cover in tomorrow's post.

Tomorrow: Where's the (Local) Beef? (Part 2 of 3) Check out Food Renegade's Fight Back Fridays.