Sunday, October 14, 2007

Boutique bait-and-switch

The opening of Whole Foods Market in Portland was met with a great deal of hoopla. For “boutique” consumers, the arrival of the world’s largest natural foods chain was a welcome addition to the area’s grocery mix. For others, Whole Foods’ choice of Portland and the opening of a 56,000 square foot operation in the Bayside neighborhood was viewed with trepidation. Those who have followed the Whole Foods story from a distance were not enamored by some of the things they were hearing, particularly their methods of dealing with local producers.

While organic foods may, or may not be beneficial from a health standpoint, the means of production and the expanding criteria of what’s considered organic is viewed with concern. Trucking organic lettuce 3,000 miles from Oregon or California doesn’t seem like a very sustainable agricultural process, particularly when local farmers offer more and more options, even during Maine’s winter.

Based in Austin, Texas, Whole Foods is a huge multi-national corporation. They own close to 200 markets and their total sales topped $5.6 billion in 2006. Over the past four years, they have pursued a very aggressive expansion policy, adding 60 locations over that period. While their choice to locate in Portland was spun as a victory for consumers, they also bought and shut down the Whole Grocer, Portland’s true locally-owned supermarket and a place where local producers were welcomed and lauded.

Stacy Mitchell, Maine’s maven of all things local and sustainable, has written a very solid article in the fall print edition of The Bollard, Portland’s (and arguably Maine’s) last bastion of journalism, detailing the practices of Whole Foods—how they treat local producers (rather shabbily, really, making them jump through multiple corporate hoops and utilizing practices that make it very difficult to compete with WholeFoods’ own private label products). I encourage you to read Mitchell’s article, particularly if you think that Whole Foods is a positive edition to your grocery-shopping experience.

Mitchell has written extensively about the damage that Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers unleash on local economies. Whole Foods, on the other hand, is often viewed favorably by those who might never set foot in a Wal-Mart or Target. She makes a strong case that like big-box retailers, Whole Foods also squeezes independent retailers, small-scale farmers and local producers.

I’m willing to give the Portland store some time to show their hand. Maybe they will change some of their policies and allow more local autonomy on what the Portland location can carry. As Mitchell writes in her article, it’s up to “consumers here (in Portland) to keep Whole Foods on its toes.”

Because Whole Foods is no different than any other corporate entity, they are cognizant of their bottom line. By voting with our pocket books, we can force them to be much more accountable to our local supply chain, which is our only hope for true agricultural and economic sustainability.

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