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A Former Whole Foods Employee's View of Whole Foods

by: Jill Richardson

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


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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...

Jill Richardson :: A Former Whole Foods Employee's View of Whole Foods
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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loved the post Jill.. (4.00 / 5)
I think u are right on the money about how this is not going to change his mind.
Like u I shop at Farmers markets and a local food coop. I'd rather give them my money...

grocery store waste. (4.00 / 4)
All supermarkets in my area have large salad bars and hot food bars. At the end of the day, an employee usually can be seen transferring the stainless steel pans from the chiller table or steam table to a wheeled rack, for transportation to a back room, and then who knows?

Last week I happened into a SuperFresh (formerly A&P) store at the end of the salad bar day (they don't go 24 hours), and saw an employee dumping the salads from the serving trays directly into a large wheeled plastic garbage drum with a plastic bag liner.

Ladies and gentlemen, I don't go to bed hungry, but there are people in Baltimore who do. WTF?


I've always wondered about that, too... (4.00 / 4)
I think that's got to do with liability / legal issues?

[ Parent ]
Seems to me that, at least, (4.00 / 4)
the food could be portioned into baggies for store employess to take home. Cut-up fresh fruit, greens, Jello salads, tuna salad and chicken salad, picled beets, on and on. Some of what's being dumped (not Jello) is the best quality food the store has to offer.

Dumping the food must be the least sensible choice. But then, I don't set corporate policy.


[ Parent ]
they are often afraid the employees (4.00 / 3)
will make extra waste so they get extra free food. So for that reason they ban the employees from taking the food.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Thank you for sharing the knowldege. (4.00 / 2)
That makes corporate sense.

[ Parent ]
I don't see how (4.00 / 5)
they could sell it to you and 5 minutes later it's garbage. What they need to do is contact a food kitchen/shelter or something. We give all of our left over distribution from the CSA to a pastor who takes it to a food pantry/kitchen. Aren't there groups out there that do collect from restaurants etc?

[ Parent ]
In my neck of the woods (4.00 / 3)
a lot of stores that bake their own bread send it to the food shelters via the gleaners groups. My friend across the street is in the Mormon church and they're very involved with the gleaners and the food banks. If the food banks don't use the bread up after a certian ammount of time, it goes into the dumpster, or people involved with the food bank take it home and feed it to the chickens, pigs, cows, etc. Same goes for a lot of produce. One day I got a call from my freind asking me if I'd like some tomatoes. She had 4 or 5 flats of huge tomatoes. Some were gone completely, but a lot of them I was able to peel and freeze. I know other stores in the area let pig farmers take the produce for their animals.

The produce stand down the road used to let me take all the trimmings and bad produce. Then the owner's friend, who has a pig farm, lost his day job and his pigs were about a month out from slaughter, so all the trimmings I was taking for my compost pile went to the hogs. They wound up eating a lot of fruit, melons, and vegetables. I should have asked him who had the hogs, I'll bet after eating all that for a month before slaughter, they were probably fairly lean if they were bacon hogs, and I'll be the meat was sweet. I knew a woman who swore by feeding apples and beer to her pigs for a couple weeks before slaughter. Each pig got one beer, preferably a dark beer, and all the apples it could eat.

So not all the produce goes to waste. I think that perhaps if the produce and other foods don't go to outfits like the gleaners, then there would be a liability issue.

Normal people scare me. But not as much as I scare them.....


[ Parent ]
I don't know if Baltimore has collectors, (4.00 / 2)
or how extensive the effort is. We certainly have food pantry/kitchens, and as Joanne indicates, people in many churches are very active in the system.

I just returned from another visit to that same SuperFresh. I was there just in time to see another barrel of salad goods being wheeled directly to the trash room. Not everything from the salad bar was dumped - synthetic bacon-like bits, croutons, chow mein noodles, canned pears/peaches, those things were saved, presumably for use tomorrow.


[ Parent ]
Agreed... (4.00 / 2)
I think that's odd, too.

But "the law is a ass" sometimes...

:)

I know some states / localities are trying to change those laws, and some may have succeeded.  But the concern is understandable, I'd say...


[ Parent ]
Their not-really-union take on gathering employee inputs (4.00 / 4)
may be skirting or traipsing past the legal limits, if this DKos poster's professor is right:

Finally, each year employees vote on the new benefits package, what kind of health plan, what kind of personal days and how many, retirement and stock options etc...  If you are savvy in the employment/legal fields you will realize that this is very similar to an in-house or owner sponsored union, which is a violation of the NLRB, but I have not done enough of the research to determine if this is a true violation, though I will say my labor law professor about had a heart attack when I told her.  It's one of the things I liked about working there, but it is also the main reason why WF employees think unions are meaningless and just take your money for dues.

NLRB = National Labor Relations Board


whoa fascinating! (4.00 / 3)
and unions ARE good for more than collecting dues - they are the ONLY people going to bat for workers in DC to make sure the laws are fair to us.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
in the last 3 years (4.00 / 5)
WF has transformed itself into a private label haven for 365 Day their own private label .

Why carry a local sourced product even a brand name when you can pit suppliers and producers against each other in a vicious price war just like Wlalmart does with their suppliers.

This way you can forever keep pushing the price down of your food and you or WF gets to keep the margin off the top and maximize their profits.

Its a prime example of what WF is all about. MAximinzing shareholder wealth at the expense of their suppliers.

LEts say you make jelly and jam. You are lucky to get the contract to supply organic jam for the 365 Day label. Great, the first year is profitable and you are humming along. Then WF wants you to requote the business. You get little pieces of info that lead you to beleive that they are also asking for quotes from other suppliers.  Do you lower your price in fear of losing the contract? Do you expect any loyalty from WF and that they will stick with you with a small price increase? OF course not silly. This descision is all about the money and the bean counters will for sure with go with the lowest cost. Afterall WF was planning a price increase anyhow and they would like to keep the margin off the top. Why give that to a supplier - that would be foolish.


for once we agree (4.00 / 3)
and their 365 stuff - at least some of it comes from China.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
just curious to know (4.00 / 1)
how many of the 'local' farmers you buy from have unions on the farm and how many of them cover their employees health insurance and other benefits?  

Now that would be a slap in the face (0.00 / 0)
to have your kids unionize on you!

[ Parent ]
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