Justice Communicator Column 2: Whole Foods, access and food justice
• Sun, Aug 07, 2011
By Gregg Newsom
It is convenient to this column’s current focus on access that health food giant Whole Foods Market, Inc. recently announced its plan to open a location in Detroit at Mack and John R in 2013. “Whole Paychecks,” as many call it, is well known for their exorbitant prices and for increasing disparity in urban communities. Whole Foods’ intention to join our local food system offers an opportunity to discuss the importance of food access within the larger frame of food justice and take a closer look at their business practices and policies.
The movement toward a just and equitable food system in Detroit has a rich, diverse history and the current expression of food justice is held by many individuals and organizations. One of them, The Food Justice Task Force was seeded two years ago as part of a community response to outside interest in the city’s growing urban agriculture movement. Rather than defer to outside interests, the partners organized and began building relationships and strategies to co-create a just food system in Detroit.
Some argue Detroit, as a regional hub for food distribution with large land parcels for potential farming use, represents a large playing field where differing models of agriculture and development can be explored and evaluated. While the field may be large, with a proposed $4.2 million in tax credits, pricing that makes their food inaccessible to most Detroiters and their role in gentrification, Whole Foods is already playing unfair and unjust.
In cities around the United States, the coordinates where Whole Foods break ground are now signposts of gentrification. The chain peddles foods and products that are considered staples among the so-called “creative class.” Rather than lift up and value longtime Detroiters as resources, the mayor’s office would prefer to import people they perceive as innovators and saviors.
Instead of attempting to mindfully navigate the inevitable challenges and opportunities that arise as Detroit’s demographics shift, many Midtown developers and business owners have read gentrification as an unavoidable natural process at best or, at its most dubious, as a mandate and means to increase property values and move low income residents out of desirable areas.
In addition to supporting gentrification, Whole Foods promotes healthy, green lifestyles. Their shelves and cases are stocked with foods and products framed as solutions to health issues and raise awareness of and support global causes. The reality is they promote a profit driven, homogenized and predominately white image of heath and wellness and stock “feel good” home products that are environmentally friendly in name only.
Admittedly, the grocery stocks some examples of socially conscious products that walk the talk, but many of their packaged foods contain refined sugars, highly processed oils and unregulated additives used to maintain flavor and color. Of course, this phenomenon is not exclusive to Whole Foods, but their name and branding give people the impression that anything they purchase in the store is healthy. So, in addition to pricing their food and vision of health out of the reach of certain people, they mislead their actual customers with that same food and vision of wellness.
In 2009, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey spoke out against national health care in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece. Mackey’s recommendation is that rather than providing national health care, Americans should simply eat at Whole Food. He writes, “Recent scientific and medical evidence shows that a diet consisting of foods that are plant-based, nutrient dense and low-fat will help prevent and often reverse most degenerative diseases that kill us and are expensive to treat.” While proposing a healthy diet as a means of preventative or alternative self-care, Whole Foods’ prices render that care inaccessible.
Even with the above examples of manipulation of food and health access by Whole Foods, the perceived, media-driven “plight” of Detroit makes it challenging to question any proposal with potential to generate revenue, create jobs and increase food options. Detroit’s food system, like the landscape of the city, is changing rapidly at both the grassroots and the corporate level. The principles of food justice, particularly as they pertain to community access to fresh, nutritious, affordable and culturally-rooted food are fundamental in growing a truly sustainable food system in Detroit.
Gregg Newsom is the communications coordinator for the Detroit Food Justice Task Force, a consortium of Black and people of color led organizations and supporters that share a commitment to creating a healthy, sustainable, affordable food security plan for Detroit. For more information, visit www.detroitfoodjustice.org.