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.



Hurrah for your writing. You have a wonderful way and I enjoy reading your posts. Thank you. S
Hurrah for you, your comment made my day. Thanks for reading! -Lee
Being a Vermonter means that I live in one of 14 odd states that does not have a Whole Foods. Instead, we have food cooperatives like Hunger Mountain in Montpelier and City Market in Burlington. Judging from your description, it seems that Whole Foods staff are probably a lot like those people working in the food coops, but with a more deliberate training to ensure they reflect WF values. I am guessing that this investment in its people is a big part of how they differentiate the user experience. I am looking forward to your next post.
You're missing out, but you get the idea. Whole Foods doesn't fill the gap entirely, but they do a lot of good on a large scale. Field trip to Austin!
Perhaps you ought to make a field trip to Vermont to see how we do food co-ops, our mini versions of Whole Foods with a Vermont "accent". Besides, it is probably already getting to warm in Austin for us northerners!
Okay I'm sold. Vermont it is.
[...] yesterday’s post, about Whole Foods’ Local, Organic Values, I wrote about the core values of Whole Foods and how they influence the food sold at the stores. [...]
Lee - We do not have Whole Foods in NH, however I've been to a couple in MA. My impression was that it was mostly an "Organic" grocery store. Not that that is bad (& certainly better than conventional food business), but I found myself, as you were, looking for the local, sustainable goods. Usually chain stores, regardless of their intentions, have buying protocol that tends towards the unfavorable for the small, local producer. "The Onion" (aka City Market in Burlington) does a nice job of incorporating lots of local products. Our local CoOp in Concord, NH does as well... I'll be interested to see the rest of the info you find out about Whole Foods!
Hi Maggie, Thanks so much for your comment! You're right about Whole Foods being mostly organic. I think part of that is because the term "organic" is more widely understand than "local" or "sustainable", and means more to many customers. There's an overall desire to "do good" that comes across in the stores and product selection, but pinning down exactly what that means can be tough. Their desire (need?) to be consistent in terms of product selection and price figures in as well (as do loads of things I haven't though of, I'm sure). Thanks again! -Lee
I've been a big fan of Whole Foods in the past, but lately I've gotten more disillusioned. The point about "Supporting team member happiness" stops cold when they start employing union busting tactics. They try to sell their stores as a progressive place and yet they seem to hate the idea that their employees might want to have a collective voice. Makes me think twice before I go there to shop. See this Mother Jones article for more: One person calls their approach "benevolent paternalism." Funny, but it seems to me that the only ones who have ever benefited from "paternalism" are the paters and not the ones they so benevolently want to "help."
Good point, thanks David! -Lee
I've really enjoyed this series, Lee. Thank you so much for sharing it in today's Fight Back Fridays carnival. I usually skip Whole Foods and go straight to local farmers & ranchers (cheaper that way), but I do go about once every couple of months to stock up on things only they sell. Cheers, KristenM (AKA FoodRenegade)
Thanks Kristen, I appreciate your note. Thanks for hosting the carnival and for including me! -Lee
[...] free diet18. Eco Yogini (Sustainable Lobster)19. Jenny @ Nourished Kitchen: Save Milk in Kansas20. Simple, Good, and Tasty (An Inside Look at Whole Foods)21. Colleen/FoodieTots (local grassfed Easter lamb)22. Carolyn (Eatabeet)23. Kimi @ The Nourishing [...]
[...] had a great tour of Whole Foods, and learned about what local foods are available in Minnesota year-round (not many!), and how the chain views organic, local, and sustainable [...]

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