The Politics of Whole Foods

whole foods tomatoes

How do you live in New York City on $12 an hour or less? How can you buy organic food on even a middle-class income here? How can you afford meat that doesn’t come from E. coli- laden feedlots where the animals have no room to lie down or move? How can you eat food that’s good for you and the planet without taking on (even more) debt?

These are the burning questions for anyone thinking about the politics of food in New York right now. (Here’s one more: how will the organic revolution help the 1.4 million New Yorkers who currently depend on soup kitchens and food banks?) All of these questions come into play in the politics of Whole Foods, a “green mission” corporation so contradictory I had to write about it twice.

Last time, if you’ll remember, we were considering Whole Foods’ flagship store in Brooklyn, made of tastefully reclaimed bricks and wood but sitting on the banks of the Gowanus Canal, which seethes with PCBs, mercury, and pathogens. Activists had opposed the store’s siting on the grounds that it would fail to absorb dangerously polluted runoff from the channel, which floods regularly. They also said that the megastore would gentrify the neighborhood (leading to luxury condos that will make the canal even more flood-prone), and substitute low-paying Whole Foods jobs for the high-paying manufacturing jobs the neighborhood was previously zoned for.

The last two predictions have already happened. (On the first point, environmental science suggests that the wetlands restoration locals were calling for would have provided much better protection for Brooklyn residents.) Still, Whole Foods is there now, and I myself, sadly, have bought barbecued organic turkey legs there. I’ve even enjoyed the beautiful roofdeck/restaurant/bar, a half-indoor, half-outdoor space where sufficiently well-groomed-looking people can sit for hours and take in the view even if they haven’t purchased anything. The question for part two of this column is, is Whole Foods – not just this store, but the entire corporation and its 412 stores around the country – good for the world or bad, beyond my personal convenience and enjoyment?

First, let’s talk about its major claim to fame – making organic food more available. Food activist and fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz, who is probably the most prominent LGBT voice in the food movement, says, “Whole Foods has gotten big through a strategy of swallowing up all the small local and regional natural food stores. Sourcing supposedly ‘organic’ produce and meat at the scale they’re doing it results in food that has much lower nutritional value and that is produced and distributed at a great cost to the environment.” For example, says the former ACT UP/New York member, “If you’re trying to raise pastured animals, there’s a limit to what scale you can do it at. If you have 5000 cows, you can’t actually give them access to pasture.” So your “grass-fed” burgers and “free-range” eggs may not be exactly that, depending on where you buy them. No matter what nice labels products are given, says Katz, “environmentally sound practices are far easier to do on a small scale.” Notably, Whole Foods’ product sourcing results in meat and produce being trucked for many hundreds or thousands of miles, leading to a far higher carbon output than farmers markets or food co-ops.

Katz’s first concern is echoed by nutrition scientist Marion Nestle, one of the doyennes of food activism in America: “Big Organic [the big agribusinesses that have become major players in organic farming] always tries to add more pesticides to what is allowed under the ‘Certified Organic’ label.” Fruit and vegetables can, in fact, be certified organic but still contain some pesticides, Nestle says, and Big Organic is always pushing to allow more and more harmful chemicals to be allowed under the designation. Still, she says, “There was no place to get that kind of food in my neighborhood until Whole Foods came to New York. They have high quality food for people who can afford it.”

That category most definitely does not apply to Whole Foods’ workers. Ryan Faulkner, who worked at the store in San Francisco for two years and was an activist in the IWW’s union drive there in 2014, says that neither he nor his fellow employees could ever afford to shop there, despite their 20% employee discount. “As a cashier, I was making $12 an hour – the checks were like jokes.” Even after Faulkner went on to work receiving in the regional distribution center, his wages only went up to $15.23. It wasn’t possible for employees to live on those wages inside the city limits, and many commuted two hours or more from outside the city to work. The other major grievance was computer-driven scheduling, which changed all workers’ schedules wildly week to week, “which made it impossible if you were going to school, or if you had kids,” Faulkner says. “The people with kids would just get in impossible situations. They would never know if they could pick their kids up.” In fact, Rhiannon Broschat, a Chicago employee, was fired for staying home with her child when schools were closed because of the polar vortex last year, and Trish Kahle, another Chicago worker, was fired when she was injured in a bicycle accident but couldn’t bring in a doctor’s note to account for her absences because she couldn’t afford a visit to the doctor.

Worse, workers were pressured to work so much overtime and for so many days on end that, Faulkner says, accidents in the warehouse were common. “The least you ever worked was 12 hour days, and it was frequently 16. I saw one guy cut off a couple of his toes in the machinery. There was so much blood on the floor, but they just gave him a little award for working every day straight for a month.” As in many companies today, Whole Foods has preferred to have fewer employees working many more hours than to have to hire more staffers, which would result in higher costs overall. “They would threaten your job if you didn’t work 16 hours, and they put a lot of pressure on you to come in on your days off. I once passed out in the freezer from exhaustion.” If the chickens the store sold were treated in this way, Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey would likely protest. Whole Foods did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

If you’re wondering why Trish Kahle couldn’t see a doctor, take a good look at Whole Foods’ employee health insurance, where the individual deductible, Faulkner said, was $4500 after the Affordable Care Act went into effect. (Employees at other locations have cited deductibles ranging from $3500 to $5000.) As a result, according to Faulkner and other workers, very few employees opt to use the coverage. (Whole Foods does offer health savings accounts to workers, and those who been at the company 10 years or more can opt for a better insurance plan with a lower deductible.)

In June, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs announced that Whole Foods had been routinely overcharging its customers at all locations in the city. “New Yorkers who shop at Whole Foods have a good chance of being overcharged,” the Department of Consumer Affairs’ Abigail Lootens told GCN. In DCA’s investigation, 80 different types of prepackaged goods (from baked goods to nuts to meat, cheese, and seafood) were found to have packages with wildly overstated weights. The lowest was an $.80 overcharge for a package of pecan panko, and the highest was an overcharge of $14.84 for a pack of coconut shrimp.

Journalist Tracie McMillan, who has covered the economics of Whole Foods extensively for Slate and the Food and Environment Reporting Network, says the systematic overcharging may be a result of “Whole Foods as a company having a culture of, ‘They’ll pay it! It’s fine!’ ” But as economist Richard Wolff suggests, many of us are taking on further debt – for things exactly like overpriced coconut shrimp – in order to keep up with a lifestyle we imagine “normal” people can pay for.

Longtime New York State environmental activist Laura Haight says, “The bottom line is, Whole Foods is a big business. They don’t care about us.”

This is a companion piece to “Desire in Whole Foods,” and appeared in slightly different form in Gay City News, October 1, 2015.

Desire in Whole Foods

whole foods berry pie

I wanted to not be moved. I wanted to have no feelings. But there, it had happened: Whole Foods Brooklyn excited me. “Take the orange juice taste test,” sang a man in the fruit and vegetables section, proffering tiny free samples of special Whole Foods orange juice. “What are the different categories?” I asked, imagining satsuma, Jaffa, blood, bitter Sevilla – worlds of “heirloom” orange juices Whole Foods had squeezed and gotten ready for me to sample and compare, one by one. But the choices were only organic and nonorganic. I liked the nonorganic better, which bothered me. Still, it was free OJ, and handed me by the most cheery little man.

Not far from the cups of juice was a large glass globe full of reddish-yellow grapes free to all comers, like the guy who used to kneel with his mouth open in the basement of the Mineshaft. A woman grabbed one grape and pricked it between her teeth, then another. I didn’t actually like that kind of grape, but the giant glass globe offering them to everyone strangely touched me. (You mean I can have as many as I want? Right now? Without paying for them?) All sorts of people stepped up to the glass globe and reached inside for the promise of sweetness like a pill. Because I didn’t take a grape, I now needed some other sort of free food immediately; I proceeded to the southwest side of the store, the side with the bakery, where free samples of chickpea crostini, pear chutney with crackers, tiny delicious chocolate-and-cream cakes had offered on my first visit.

No such luck. My initial visit, soon after the store’s opening late in 2013, had been full of gratis cheese, soups, even two sampling stations for free Sixpoint beer! I went to both of the latter, one of them twice; I managed to get a nice buzz on and have my appetite slaked without spending a cent. Of course, all this largess had made me want to spend, and soon.

In the gem-colored juicing section, with beautiful plastic bottles and dixie-cup samples colored all the colors of the rainbow, there were free samples of a purple blend called Immunity Blast with beet, carrot, ginger, turmeric, cayenne, and spirulina. It tasted deep and spicy yet refreshing, like a beer. I don’t even believe in juicing. Yet I sucked it down. On another visit, Karen and I had downed cup after cup of mango juice and tangy Green Maca Blend samples, in an orgy of something-for-nothing fressing. Immediately after that, we’d spent about $75.

I found myself going crazy with desire in the meat section, with its seven kinds of “humane” fresh sausages laid out for purchase, garlic and herb chicken, sweet Italian pork, “Buffalo” and chorizo, all gleaming. There was a rack of lamb with its beautiful little bones looking like legs thrust in the air, a large, thick, grassfed steak far more succulent-looking than the kinds Karen and I always get, bone-in short ribs! I wanted everything, walking around the city-block-long store in a kind of hypnotic glaze: Cute dishtowels from Etsy, with grapes on them! Men’s cologne from Herban Cowboy! Macarons! It was clear that a master designer had been at work here, in fact an entire team of master food stylists, fruit-layout artists, coffee-bar sculptors, label-designers, and aisle-molders, because I have never wanted to buy and consume things as much as I did at Whole Foods Gowanus.

(In fact, the store employs four full-time visual artists, food stylists, and marketers, as well as several freelance firms and art directors who work at the regional level.)

Whole Foods has described its 56,000 square foot Gowanus store as a national flagship, and coming upon it from surreally quiet Third Avenue one afternoon last week, it was easy to see why. The company has constructed this market to rise on the banks of the fetid Gowanus canal like a palace of pro-environmentalism, a garden of morally righteous and sensually fulfilling delights. Next to the green-tinged canal, named a Superfund site in 2010 by the EPA and found by scientists to contain PCBs, cholera, dysentery, and even gonorrhea, Whole Foods has built beautiful paths with wooden benches, umbrella-covered tables, and gorgeous plantings of black-eyed susans, red-and-yellow lilies, and marigolds. There is a canister with Whole Foods- supplied dog-poop bags, although I wouldn’t let my dog eat anything onto which the Gowanus had overflowed in a storm. (The waters of the Gowanus have also been found to be radioactive.) On the Whole Foods side of the bank, there was also a large black barbecue smoker, looking like something out of a restored Colonial village. Even on a 90-degree day, that smoker was going, and the big, 18th-century-looking oven and its smell were an immediately effective visual and olfactory advertisement. Though I hadn’t on other visits, when I’d entered from the Third Street side, now I badly wanted to eat animal flesh cooked in that big artisanal thing.

Wouldn’t you know it, most of the meats served in the store’s rooftop restaurant and prepared foods section are made in that outdoor publicity symbol. The verdict: the actual meat in “Carolina gold BBQ” pork ribs was good, though its sauce was cloyingly sweet. Something surprising and welcome happened when I tried to suck the marrow from a small pig bone: the bone was soft and delicious enough that I actually ate it along with the candylike marrow, which nutritionists say is perfectly safe to do as long as there are no sharp pieces and nothing hard enough to choke on. A smoked chicken salad sandwich on buttered, griddled bread was exactly what I wanted to eat on a rooftop bar in the summer with a beer (though Karen, who ordered it, found it much too mayonnaise-y and buttery). On another visit, pulled turkey meat and Kansas City chicken legs from the prepared foods table had a lovely, smoky flavor, but were dry.

Vegetables prepared in the smoker, however, were hideous. So-called smoked ratatouille from the prepared foods table (green and yellow squash and eggplant, mostly) both looked and tasted muddled, even muddy, and the only reason to confront more of its squishy texture was obedience to Michael Pollan. The entire hot side of the prepared foods section, in fact, looked unappetizing and overheated, with meats, rice dishes and vegetables all appearing entirely in colors of brown and yellow, along with an occasional dark green. (It looked like a lot of the food I used to eat growing up in the 70s in Brooklyn.)

At the side of the steam table, on framed photos along the walls, on inventively painted posters throughout the store, was one message: how much Whole Foods had done for Brooklyn and the world by creating this store.

Next time: Part Two: Whole Foods’ environmental claims, “Brooklynitude,” and the politics of a beautiful rooftop bar and community space.


Whole Foods Gowanus, 214 3rd Street, Brooklyn. The grocery and its restrooms are wheelchair-accessible.

This piece appeared in slightly different form in Gay City News, August 6, 2015.

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