The Frontal Cortex

The Whole Foods Wars

It’s the latest bourgeois battle: a bunch of angry supermarket shoppers, led by Michael Pollan, are criticizing Whole Foods for not living up to their organic values. While the stores are filled with billboards extolling the virtues of small farms and local produce, Whole Foods gets most of its provisions from big agribusiness, albeit with an organic label. From the Times:

While many shoppers find the new stores exhilarating places to shop, the company also faces critics who feel it has strayed from its original vision. In angry postings on blogs, they charge that the store is not living up to its core values — in particular, protecting the environment and supporting organic agriculture and local farmers. In interviews, some of the customers who describe themselves as committed to these values say they have become disillusioned and taken their business elsewhere.

Back when I lived in NYC, I spent a good portion of my disposable income at Whole Foods. I would brave the endless lines and splurge on broccoli for $3.99 a pound, or overpriced Brie de Meux, or ludicriously expensive heirloom tomatoes. I would want to shop at the local farmers market/greenmarket, but I couldn’t always arrange my schedule around the hours of a produce stand. Whole Foods was my happy compromise.

When I first contemplated moving to New Hampshire, I’m embarrassed to admit that one of my big worries was the lack of Whole Foods. Where would I get my silly kitchen staples? Would my local supermarket sell hanger steak? Or organic Muir Glen canned tomatoes? How I would survive without King Arthur flour, or Horizon plain yogurt?

Needless to say, I’m still here. And life without Whole Foods is a distinct improvement. I’ll give you two reasons:

1) Whole Foods really does require your whole paycheck. I don’t mind paying a premium for lovely lettuce or some good olive oil, but why charge me twice as much for broccoli? Must conventional avocados be $1.99 each? While I appreciate the “365” generic house brand, even those prices are often higher than comparable products in “normal” supermarkets. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the ubiquitousness of specialized food products in suburban America. Wal-Mart sells organic milk. My local middlebrow supermarket sells wild salmon and plugra butter.

2) Whole Foods provided me with the illusion of going to a farmer’s market, but it was really just an illusion. Amid all the signs praising local farmers, I usually forgot to notice that my asparagus was from Chile and my apple was from China. There was nothing local about it. At the time, I didn’t really care. Whole Foods provided me with the veneer of sustainability and responsible consumerism, so I preferred to not ask too many questions.

However, once I started going to a supermarket that didn’t have pictures of friendly farmers everywhere, I suddenly started worrying about where my food came from. Since I live amid apple orchards, I stopped buying Gala apples from New Zealand and brussel sprouts from California. Instead, I became determined to actually buy produce from local farms. I still supplement this seasonal produce with distinctly unseasonal ingredients* (how many turnips can one person eat?), but, in general, my food shopping is much more local without Whole Foods in my life.

And I don’t think I’m the only one who would benefit from a little less Whole Foods. The problem, as I see it, is that Whole Foods lets us live with a clear conscience without actually earning a clear conscience. We assume we are buying local produce when we aren’t. We assume that organic is a synonym for sustainability but it isn’t. We assume that those high prices are supporting small farms but they aren’t. It’s all a carefully engineered corporate facade, and I worry that it keeps people from eating in a way that would make a difference.

Given a choice between Whole Foods and the typical supermarket, I’ll still take Whole Foods. (For starters, Whole Foods has been very active in improving the treatment of cows and chickens.) But that isn’t the choice that most of us face anymore. For most people, Whole Foods also competes with their local farmers market. And Whole Foods always wins, because it’s easier. But easy doesn’t make it right.

*This includes: Muir Glen canned tomatoes, frozen peas, frozen green garbanzo beans (from Trader Joes), frozen lima beans, the occasional artichoke and asparagus from the southern hemisphere, and a sometimes splurge on tender little green beans.


  1. #1 jeffk
    February 28, 2007

    What about your local co-op, if you have one? Here in Minneapolis there’s always one within about a mile. The prices are high, but you know they’re no higher than they need to be, as nobody is making a profit (and if you’re a member, you’ll get any extra returned to you at the end of the year). A few rare co-ops still exist where a few hours of volunteering a month will lower the prices almost to conventional grocery store levels – and most co-ops use local suppliers whenever possible.

  2. #2 Michele
    February 28, 2007

    You are right – Whole Foods is easier than making a trek to the farmer’s market. When I was working downtown, there was a farmer’s market every Thursday in the atrium of my building. I would buy my weekly produce there. It was cheaper and better than what I was getting at Whole Foods. Once I stopped working, I went back to Whole Foods because I am too lazy to make the trek downtown.

    I live in a fancy neighborhood where there is an upscale market. They have greatly expanded their organic produce selection but their prices are even higher than Whole Foods so I avoid them.

    It is not easy to buy local produce but it really is not all that difficult either. For me, it is just laziness. Yes, I do worry about where my food is coming from but apparantly not enough to get off my lazy butt and seek it out.

  3. #3 Jonah
    February 28, 2007

    Thanks for your comments. I sympathize with your situation, Michele, since that was my situation until I stopped living within range of Whole Foods. My feeling is that lots of people have the best intentions and a desire for the best produce- that’s why they pay the Whole Foods premium – but are held back by “laziness” and a false sense of doing the right thing. (i.e., “I buy organic food at Whole Foods so I’m helping save the earth.”)

    And yes, co-ops are a great alternative, if they exist. My town has a local co-op, but it doesn’t sell produce, so I’m not a member. If I were a better person, I’d join…

  4. #4 Ben
    February 28, 2007

    For the record, I know Whole Foods is a total rip off but I go there for certain things, usually fish. Living in land locked Colorado I find that they do a good job of having fresh (as possible) fish. Anyways, I really only wanted to share this link with you, and be sure to thank Shelley for pointing me to this entry to begin with!

  5. #5 Steven
    February 28, 2007

    Good post. I’m a trader joes man myself. Much cheaper than whole foods and better prepared products. the only time i go to whole foods is for fish and european cheeses.

  6. #6 The Science Pundit
    March 1, 2007

    Given the choice between buying organic or buying local, I always choose to buy local. (though often I can do both)

  7. #7 Crusty Dem
    March 2, 2007

    You can save money and buy local:

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