by James Simpkins
James Simpkins will be a contributor on this site every Wednesday. A former chef and Le Cordon Bleu culinary instructor, he is a PhD student at UCONN putting his culinary know-how to work studying American food culture. He will be writing about anything and everything related to food in the Farmington River Valley. Having grown up in Ohio, he has been living for the past two years in the Canton area.
I have a new studio apartment in West Hartford that my wife and I affectionately call “The Cave”. It’s a television-free, renovated attic dedicated to reading books, writing, and eating meals—mostly from Whole Foods in West Hartford Center, a five minute walk down the road. This got me thinking: Would Whole Foods Market be considered green?
There are seven Whole Foods in Connecticut, impacting a large number of folks here in The Nutmeg State. So I thought it would be worth a look-see. But first, I must confess: I worked for Whole Foods for fifteen months, leaving last summer, and didn’t like it very much. They told me in that special, pallid, human resources style they didn’t like me either. I think shopping there is a completely separate experience than being an employee. But, I can’t say my insider’s perspective doesn’t come into play. You’ll see why.
The Bad News:
Whole Foods’ is a bottom-line feeder.
First and foremost, Whole Foods Market, Inc. (WFM) is a publicly traded company whose primary responsibility is to its shareholders (although WFM lists profitability a modest fourth in their list of six core values). In a multitude of ways, this complicates things.
Basically, when the stock market is the judge of your business, the company‘s top priority becomes the bottom line more than anything else. WFM can wax rhetoric all they want, but when they went public in 1992, the company’s mission as they had defined it took second fiddle to the money.
As a brief aside, their sixth “Core Value”, Creating Ongoing Win-Win Partnerships With Our Suppliers, was added after I left. It is interesting to note after a Connecticut gelato maker found out that his goods had been supplanted by another vendor when he showed up for a sample day at the Bishop’s Corner store. No phone call. Nothing. I suppose the value wasn’t in place yet, eh?
Whole Foods isn’t exactly local.
They are headquartered in Austin, Texas. Closer to home, they don’t snatch up many Connecticut crops either. While they do push “local” products, there are limits placed on each store to ensure that only a certain percentage of produce (I think it’s 5%) come from local growers. Contracts with suppliers (the ones with “ongoing, win-win, relationships”) are put first. Though I understand contractual obligations, it makes “local” support seem like an afterthought and diminishes any real impact their buying power might have. But if it’s local, we’ll take it.
Whole Foods throws a LOT of food away.
So much food is wasted! They won’t even disclose the amount. (It’s considered “proprietary information”.) I ran the Prepared Foods department. In that area alone, we allotted 2% of our total purchasing budget to waste--and threw away about double that. While I suspect most WFMs donate to food banks, it’s not required or even emphasized. I worked there for months before I realized that was an option! By the way, next time you walk by the seafood department, picture it 8% emptier---that’s how much they throw out.
The Good News:
WFM has stopped the use of plastic grocery bags in their stores.
As if that wasn’t excellent enough, WFM also rewards customers with a nickel for every bag they bring in! The first supermarket chain to do so, they have spearheaded the nationwide effort to limit the 1,000,000,000 plastic bags that are thrown away every year in this country. Reducing the number of times I have to see these plastic parasites hanging from trees or floating by me in the river, the better. Kudos to WFM for this one—long overdue and it comes with instant benefits!
WFM recycles. Everything.
During your next visit, look closely around the front of the store. There are bins for batteries, cell phones, plastic grocery bags (clearly from those other stores), as well as the traditional glass, plastic and aluminum containers. While it might take you a little while to get in the habit of saving these items for recycling, I offer my testimony of the wonderful feeling of knowing those 27 AA batteries that you’ve got laying around the house aren’t leaking into my neighbor’s blueberry bushes.
SECRET INSIDER RECYCLING TIP: During later morning hours, take your cardboard around back and be really nice to the person in the receiving dock. See if they won’t take your cardboard boxes for you. Just make sure they are flattened and free of wads of tape. Every Whole Foods has one of these great machines that create blocks of cardboard that they sell to companies that reconstitute and reuse the stuff.
WFM is a major sponsor of organic foods.
In fact, they were the first and remain the only certified organic supermarket on the planet. Say what you will about the politics in organics, the food feels better to eat than conventional produce and you don’t have to worry that they’ve sprayed another bottle of God-only-knows-what all over your salad greens. Over the last fifteen years, WFM’s interest and a resounding consumer response have even commercial behemoths like Wal-Mart shopping in the organic aisle. We let them think they are important because they get to say they are this or that, and we reap the benefits by having natural, safe food available to eat. Not a bad gig, eh?
Regardless of my personal history with Whole Foods, I’m not convinced the company should be hanged by the toenails. While I think you really have to find a deep hole in the sand to believe WFM is somehow more evolved than any other profit-driven company. The products they are peddling are noticeably better than other grocery store chains.
So. Is Whole Foods Market green? They’re no Amazon Rain Forest green. Frankly, I’d give them a Seasick Green at best. But some green is better than no green at all.
Stay tuned for next week’s column!
Photo courtesy of Whole Foods Market. Image shows flagship store in Austin, TX.