Whole Foods faces criticism from advocates of buying local
My hometown is approximately the same size as Santa Cruz, but oh so different. Upper-middle class suburbia stretched over the land at an ominous, steady rate, altering the face of the town I grew up in to an almost unfamiliar landscape. McMansions were built over the canyons, the flower fields gave way to haughty strip malls, and the mom-and-pop shops were replaced with chain stores. My favorite coffee shop, an eccentric hangout called Miracles, is gone, but no need to worry—there are seven Starbucks!
Needless to say, Santa Cruz has done a remarkable—if not unparalleled—job at keeping the chains at bay. Raising fists at big box stores and national chains is practically the official Cruzan pastime, and definitely a stronghold in traditional local values. But some have inevitably sneaked past enemy lines over time, and there is no more interesting place to watch the ensuing controversy play out than in the grocery industry. Locally, the arrival of two new Whole Foods has split natural and organic shoppers into two groups: those who absolutely love the store, and those who will never set foot in it.
On Sept. 15, the Santa Cruz chapter of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF) held their monthly meeting on the matter. It was organized by their corporation committee, which is bent on curbing corporate power and banning corporate personhood. Advertised as an opportunity to “learn how the David and Goliath legend plays out in Santa Cruz as local grocery stores function in the shadow of mega-chains,” it teetered on the edge of becoming a Whole Foods-bashing session, but was also an opportunity to revere the benefits of supporting local stores.
“The money we make stays in the community,” says Gary Bascou, co-owner of Staff of Life (SOL) and a panelist for the evening. “We aren’t sending it off to headquarters somewhere.” Bascou is a charter member of Think Local First, the organization that is spearheading Santa Cruz’s “go local” movement. He says that SOL buys local whenever possible, and “keeps the high majority of products local and organic.”
“Community is our middle name,” agrees Scott Roseman, founder of New Leaf Community Markets and another of the event’s panelists. He says that New Leaf donates 10 percent of its profits to the community, actively contributes to local nonprofits and arts, and supports local food producers and farms. While New Leaf considers “local” to mean anything within the county, Whole Foods says it is anything within a seven hour drive, according to their website.
“Whole Foods is saying they’re buying local,” says Bascou, “but we—Staff of Life, New Leaf, etc—have been doing local since the beginning, and don’t feel the need to hang a bunch of banners to make a big deal about it. It’s just the way we do business.”
At a sit-down breakfast with local community members and press back in March, Dan Wolfe, team leader for the Santa Cruz Whole Foods, said that the store “purchases $100,000 a day from this community” between the procurement center in Watsonville and a slew of local producers. He said the store even has its own “local forager,” an employee whose job it is to seek out “new, cool local products.”
While Roseman and Bascou mentioned that their businesses have felt some impact from the opening of Whole Foods and the humongous Safeway remodel on Mission Street (Roseman simply says, “Of course it is challenging to compete with the big guys”), they offered no hard numbers to demonstrate the blows. However, if expansion is any indication of prosperity, the Westside New Leaf moved into a roomy, impressive new location earlier this year and SOL has plans to relocate to a larger space just a few blocks down Soquel Avenue. The owners are optimistic about the ability of local grocers—from New Leaf and SOL to Shopper’s Corner and the small but beloved Food Bin and Herb Room—to keep a hold on their niche.
“I’m happy when people tell me they’re shopping at any of the other local stores,” says Roseman. “If you’re not shopping at New Leaf, I hope you’re shopping at one of those guys.”
Whole Foods is no stranger to controversy—its very nature as a giant health food chain seems an oxymoron to many within its potential market. The latest debate came when Whole Foods CEO John Mackey published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal opposing President Barack Obama’s plan for health care reform, leading to the bolstering of nationwide anti-Whole Food groups, such as the Facebook group “Boycott Whole Foods,” which had over 34,000 members at the time of print. The local group of the same name had only 50 members. Several groups along the lines of “Boycott the Boycott of Whole Foods” cropped up, as well, and the omnivore himself, Michael Pollan, publicly explained why he will continue to shop there. His Aug. 28 blog on newmajority.com read, “Whole Foods is not perfect, however if they were to disappear, the cause of improving Americans’ health by building an alternative food system, based on more fresh food, pastured and humanely raised meats and sustainable agriculture, would suffer.”