BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
by Meg White
After Whole Foods CEO John Mackey wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week slamming “ObamaCare,” progressive foodies across the nation have registered their shock and devastation.
It seems everyone from Daily Kos to Facebook has their own “Boycott Whole Foods” petition going. While much of the outrage is certainly rooted in the massive failure of healthcare reform PR in general, the betrayal of the jolly green grocer stings significantly more than the invective hurled by the town hall protesters.
Still, what did you people expect? Whole Food is a corporation, which means by definition it is a member of corporate America. Mackey describes himself as a Libertarian and his thoughts on employer-supplied health insurance may not be quite as altruistic as expressed in his op-ed. From a recent profile of the company at Socialist Worker magazine:
Using a carrot and very large stick, Mackey managed to “convince” Whole Foods workers across the country to vote in 2004 to dramatically downgrade their own health care benefits by switching to a so-called “consumer-driven” health plan — corporate double-speak for the high deductible-low coverage savings account plans preferred by profit-driven enterprises. As Mackey advised other executives in the same 2004 speech, “[I]f you want to set up a consumer-driven health plan, I strongly urge you not to put it as one option in a cafeteria plan, but to make it the only option.”
The author concludes by saying Whole Foods is the “second largest anti-union retailer in the U.S., beaten only by Wal-Mart. Most of Whole Foods’ loyal clientele certainly would — and should — shudder at the comparison.”
Whether or not it is second to Wal-Mart in its treatment of unions I can’t say, but it is the 10th largest food and drug store in the U.S. When you’re “the world’s leading natural and organic grocer,” there are going to be some trade-offs.
Therefore, while whether or not one should “shudder at the comparison” is more of a personal choice, conjuring up shock over a big-time CEO’s willingness to throw universal healthcare under the bus to boost profits is as futile as it is naive.
As I see it, if a public option does survive there is a chance that large companies will have to pay more for health insurance as their sweet deals with the industry may not be quite as sweet as they once were. There’s no way Whole Foods is going to get the small business exemption your local co-op may qualify for. Furthermore, the op-ed itself was really more of a huge ad in a major newspaper touting the health benefits of eating at Whole Foods than a slam on healthcare reform.
So let’s put away the outrage for the moment and look at where the organic/healthy/whole foods movement(s) that allowed Whole Foods to flourish has landed, just decades after being born as a hippie fad.
Recently re-reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and then tackling the compendium of essays in the companion book for Food Inc., I was once again reminded of the many various assertions in the argument over what and how we feed ourselves. The argument is not just between Monsanto and Alice Waters, however; those who used to philosophically dine side-by-side are now at loggerheads over how to proceed.
In his book Pollan deftly balances the arguments made by the likes of Joel Salatin (owner of Polyface Farm) and Gary Hirshberg (CEO of Stonyfield, the world’s leading organic yogurt producer), each of whom have essays published in the Food, Inc. book. Salatin sneers at corporate organics with nearly as much derision as he reserves for the federal government, whose food safety inspection rules are heavily weighted to favor factory farms over small sustainable ones such as his. Hirshberg makes the argument that even though the organic movement had to make some compromises in order to go mainstream, it’s better for everyone that those who shop at Wal-Mart are exposed to Stonyfield and that the USDA has some (albeit more relaxed than many wanted) standards for certifying organic food.
Of course, the nuanced argument one gets in such books is not currently available in the scream-fest that has become this debate. While Whole Foods’ regular customers are expressing their anger via #boycottwholefoods tweets, conservative Twitterers are flooding the market with pro-Whole Foods updates, complete with profile pictures that proclaim “I am the angry mob.” I don’t know about you, but grocery shopping is unnerving enough; I have no desire to shop alongside an angry mob.
Thankfully I don’t have to alter my habits to impose a boycott. Though there is a Whole Foods just over a half mile from my house, I rarely go. Whenever I do, I find that as many times as I rejoice over the availability of seitan, I’m also snickering at the availability of yuppiness like vegetarian cat food.
You’re more likely to find me in the aisles of Trader Joe’s. I know Joe’s has its fair share of problems too, and sometimes I wonder what they have to pull to keep their prices for organic foods so low. But I’m a poor writer with student loan bills to pay and a marked distaste for pretension. So I choose what seems to me to be the lesser evil.
But not all self-nourishment necessitates such bellyaching over personal responsibility. This Thursday I made the effort to get up early to go to the farmer’s market in downtown Chicago before work. I find the experience of handing my money over to a farmer (or, sometimes his bleary-eyed teenage kids) to be so reaffirming of my faith in humanity’s capability to nourish itself that it’s worth throwing down a 20-spot for some decent produce and an honest smile. I admit that as a person who doesn’t have kids, doesn’t eat meat and does have health insurance, my willingness to spend a bit more assuaging my sense of food guilt at a farmer’s market is enhanced.
I personally feel lucky to have the option of choosing the farmer’s market or Trader Joe’s over Whole Foods or even less palatable “big box” grocery stores. And at my last place, I had an honest-to-goodness neighborhood food co-op between the El train stop and my apartment. So I’m better off than some rural and suburban readers who may not have as many choices as an urbanite such as myself.
Don’t be too quick to resort to self pity, though. Have you checked out your community’s options for food co-ops, community-supported agriculture groups, farmer’s markets or even direct farm purchasing? You may be surprised at what’s right under your nose.
And there’s always the potential grocery store right in your own backyard or community garden. There’s nothing more trustworthy or fulfilling than food you made with your own hard work (and some sunshine), even if it’s more trouble than stopping by the store. After all, my tomato plants may not want to go to fruit, but they’re certainly not going to pen an anti-healthcare reform op-ed.
In fact, I’d be much more shocked if I saw such sentiments being expressed by small-share farmers and co-op owners than I was when reading Markey’s Wall Street Journal piece. People naturally advocate for “solutions” which will benefit them, and healthcare reform is unlikely to benefit the Libertarian CEO of Whole Foods more than the farmer who sold me the juicy peach I ate for breakfast this morning.
So progressives: Quit blustering and tweeting and go to the farmer’s market this weekend. Your aching belly will thank you.
BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS