Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Former Whole Foods Employee's View of Whole Foods by: Jill Richardson

"...I've been asked by several people to weigh in on Whole Foods (or WFM for short... the M stands for Market). I worked there for 5 months in 2007 & I wrote a chapter about it in my book, Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken & What We Can Do To Fix It. So here's my take on it..."

A Former Whole Foods Employee's View of Whole Foods
by: Jill Richardson

Sat Aug 15, 2009 at 11:57:30 AM PDT

DailyKos has been buzzing about a piece in the Wall Street Journal by the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey. Here's what I have to say about it. I've been asked by several people to weigh in on Whole Foods (or WFM for short... the M stands for Market). I worked there for 5 months in 2007 and I wrote a chapter about it in my book, Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do To Fix It. So here's my take on it...

First things first about Whole Foods: The CEO, John Mackey, is a nut. He's a Libertarian, he's anti-union, and he stupidly went on financial blogs - anonymously - to praise WFM (and he got caught doing it). When you visit Austin, where WFM is headquartered, you hear good and bad about Mackey. I don't know which of the many things I heard about him during my 2 trips to Austin are true, so I have repeated none of them.
So is it a shock he just came out with an idiotic and harmful statement about health care? No. Is it an outrage? Yeah. Does it necessitate a boycott of WFM? I don't know. For one thing, Mackey takes an annual salary of $1 from the store. On the other hand, he probably has a ton of the store's stock. WFM has had a tough year because of the economy, and no boycott is going to change that. Nor do I think a boycott will change Mackey's mind. It might just get him to keep his ideas out of the national press in the future. And maybe that's a worthy goal.

This latest outrage aside, WFM has both good and bad about it. It depends on what you compare it to. Compared to a regular grocery store or a Sam's Club, the food they sell is great. Compared to a natural foods co-op, a farmers' market, or your own garden, they suck.

My day to day experiences at WFM had very little to do with John Mackey and a whole lot to do with the staff of my store. And I like the staff. There are some lifelong career employees - several have been there for years - and many others are musicians and artists who are just there as a day job. They are creative, kind, and open-minded. Some are into sustainability and some are just there to earn a living and don't care about sustainability at all.

Despite our lack of a union, I think most of us felt we were treated pretty fairly by the store and by the company. The minimum wage the store paid anywhere (this was in 2007) was $10/hr, you get health care paid for after you're there for 6 mos, and employees can get bonuses called gainsharing (although I never saw a penny of it). When we had a problem with the store over a ban on facial piercings, the employees held a meeting with management and worked out a compromise. Would it have been better if we were unionized? I don't know. I've never had an opportunity to join a union, even though I absolutely support them and their ability to lobby in DC for more fair labor laws.

Another part of my day to day life there were the customers. They were a diverse group. I can't tell you how many freaking times somebody came up to me at the bakery and asked if the gelato or cakes were healthy. I told them no and suggested they get some berries as a healthy dessert instead. For some reason, an awful lot of people really want to believe that WFM sells healthy food. Junk is still junk, even if it's all natural junk. But the customers were always hopeful that maybe, for some reason, all natural gelato is good for them. And WFM doesn't do a lot to discourage them from thinking that.

How about the food? Is it sustainable? It depends. Packaged crap and junk is still packaged crap and junk even if it's organic. Maybe it's slightly better than the non-organic junk sold in regular grocery stores. I still wouldn't recommend eating it.

The meat in WFM was exposed by The Omnivore's Dilemma as being organic factory farmed. You're paying a high price for a product that is not the ideal of sustainable meat. But you are getting SOMETHING for the price premium you pay. The meat IS better than the standard stuff you get in grocery stores, it's just not as good as you'd want it to be. If it's the best you can get, maybe you think it's worth it.

The produce is sometimes local and often (but not always) organic. The prices are high. Lately WFM has been selling veggies from one of my favorite farmers and selling them at fair prices. If I'm in a pinch because I didn't buy enough at the farmers' market and I can't get to my natural foods co-op, I'll buy my farmer's veggies at WFM. (I live walking distance from WFM but several miles drive from the co-op.)

That said, WFM is not the pinnacle of sustainability. It will ALWAYS be better to grow your own or to buy from a farmer you know. If you can't do that, it will be better to buy from a natural foods co-op - that's a point I wish I made in my book but I forgot to include it. I'm 99% happy with the book but that's my #1 critique of it.

The most surprising thing to me about working in a grocery store was the amount of waste. This is not unique to WFM. I'm sure all grocery stores waste a lot of food. It's impossible to buy the exact amount of food that people will buy, particularly for perishable stuff. Customers get REALLY PISSED if they show up to buy something and the store is out of it. So the store tries to keep everything in stock, waiting around 24/7 in case somebody wants to buy it. If nobody buys it, it gets thrown out.

WFM deserves some praise for their composting program. Most grocery stores throw away their waste. WFM composts theirs (at least in my region - perhaps not everywhere) and sells the compost to gardeners. That is something that ALL grocery stores should do, in my opinion. However, it'd be better not to waste the food in the first place.

All in all, I realized while working there that WFM is part of the industrialized food supply chain, even if they are selling "sustainable" products. To be truly sustainable, we must obtain our food through channels other than grocery stores, and many of them will be a bit less convenient.

Gardening is hard work! Shopping at a farmers' market is fun and easy but it means you have to save your shopping for a specified time of the week when the market is happening and you can't just run out and grab something on a whim. I don't think we'll leave grocery stores entirely behind, but co-ops are still better than for-profit corporate chains because they give the member-owners some say in how the business is run.

What does all of this mean about John Mackey's latest health care BS? Not a whole lot. I probably won't end up boycotting Whole Foods, to be honest. I don't have a whole lot of money so it's not like I spend a lot there now anyway. I get most of my stuff from the farmers market and most of the rest of it from the co-op. If I was to pick a chain to boycott for political reasons, I'd probably start with Home Depot. In fact, I DO boycott Home Depot. Whole Foods image at least depends on some degree of sustainability, whereas Home Depot has a wingnutty CEO and nothing redeeming about it. And Home Depot spent $370k in lobbying just in the first quarter of this year alone. Whole Foods spent a tiny fraction of that, and - unlike Home Depot - all they really lobby on are their own mergers and acquisitions.

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