Saturday, April 28, 2007

Is Whole Foods part of the Local Food Movement?

A Query from my friend in London:
Moving on to your local food posts - you probably don't know where I mean, but there was a large departmental store called "Barkers" on High Street Kensington, that I used to pass as I walked from IC to the M&S on the High Street (right by the underground exit). The store closed & I waited to see what was going to come in its place (I think the building was locally listed as they haven't torn it down). Anyway, they are advertising a "Wholefood market" opening "summer 2007". My mind is boggling with the following thoughts:-
1) This is a very large store. How can they fill it all with what they state is going to be there?
2) If they do, will it make enough money to stay in business?
3) And this is where it ties in with your posts - Where is the "locally grown food" going to come from in Kensington??????? Even with your 100 mile radius.......

My very long reply, with a few added ideas:
The new market you have noticed in Kensington will be a branch of the Whole Foods chain -- the one in Ann Arbor is one of my main shopping sites. See
for a little info. Though this chain (which began in Austin TX and has proliferated througout the US by opening stores and by buying out smaller regional chains) is pretty committed to organically grown produce and organic producers of packaged food, they aren't at all part of the local food movement. I don't even know why there is a Locally Grown sign in the picture on the above website. I am particularly fond of the meat and fish at the Ann Arbor store, which do follow standards of organic and responsible production -- though definitely are not local or even necessarily from the US. For local produce (in summer, of course) I still go to the Farmers' Market.

If Whole Foods take the same approach in the UK as they do in Ann Arbor and Austin, I think you will like the extensive prepared food and deli section. There is a kitchen and a very large number of freshly prepared salads, grilled meat, and other ready-to-eat dinners. Recently they added sushi and several other options here. In Whole Foods in Austin, which we visited as a tourist thing when friends were showing us around, the prepared food area was immense.

This is very much a for-profit chain of grocery stores, and many of its "alternative" claims are a little shaky, I think. Still, they make efforts to encourage organic growers. They have some rules for the packaged foods as to additives and growing/processing methodology. It's probably the only way the old organic movement could be scaled up to a really large size. And they have standards of hygiene that were unfortunately missing in the 1970s in small organic markets of my acquaintance!

Above all, it's a pleasant place to shop because they are selective about their employees and train them to give good service -- unlike the other chain stores, whose employees are surly on a good day. I shop there because it's a good experience as well as because I like the foods. (I have to go elsewhere for diet soda because they have a principled objection to nutrasweet or other artificial sweetners.)

Everyone agrees with one fact: Whole Foods is EXPENSIVE. Some call it "whole paycheck." As there are only two of us, it's not a major issue.

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