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What Do You Think of Whole Foods?

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The question is seldom innocent. By that I mean they want a debate. Whenever someone leads the field, the myth-shattering can’t be far behind. In England, I was delighted when the Financial Times ran a knocking piece on farmers’ markets in the column “Sacred Cow.” The Brits love to knock success. With that piece, I knew that farmers’ markets — which had grown from zero to 400 in about five years — had arrived.

Whole Foods is getting the same treatment. On Slate recently, Whole Foods was derided as “haute-crunchy” and its signs charged with “artfully misleading” us.

The short answer is: I approve of almost everything about Whole Foods but have almost no reason to shop there. Why? I buy most of my food from the New York City Greenmarket one block from the new (gorgeous) Whole Foods. Raw milk I buy from from the Real Milk Club. I buy exotic foods (coconut oil) and regional American ones (wild Alaskan salmon, stone-ground grits) by mail, directly from producers whenever possible.

When I’m looking for raw milk European and American cheese or my favorite not-for-everyday chocolate (that would be Pralus, which, at $7 per 100 g bar, is unaffordable at the rate I eat chocolate), I walk to Murray’s Cheese in Greenwich Village. I like independent shops and Murray’s sells local food too.

If I seldom shop at Whole Foods, why do I approve of it? WF greatly expands the volume, scale, and availability of real food. I believe in expanding the market for organic, slow, local, and traditional, food — the more the merrier.

Even “industrial organic” as it’s now derisively known, is a giant step forward. USDA organic standards ban synthetic fertilizer, antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, genetically engineered ingredients, and irradiation – good news for animals, farmers, eaters, and the planet.

WF has higher standards of production than other supermarkets and indeed many farmers’ markets. WF stopped selling hydrogenated vegetable oils before the FDA even labeled them. WH doesn’t sell meat with hormones and antibiotics. I’ve been in the chicken houses of farmers who sell at farmers’ markets where the stench of ammonia — from years of built-up chicken manure, nearing the ceiling — was unbearable. The chickens lived in the dark and never went outside. I never bought those eggs again.

It’s fashionable to discuss the “dark secrets” of WF (Slate’s words), but farmers’ markets need to do better. At my Real Food and Local Food markets (in London and the US) grazing animals must have access to pasture. We ban hormones, antibiotics, high fructose corn syrup, MSG, trans fats, and artificial colors and flavors.

WF does a great job at selling real food — and yes, that’s a compliment. For years, I’ve joked that after I leave a WF I feel smarter. That’s how good they are at presenting salesmanship as information. And in fact, there is a lot of good information there. Over years of selling at farmers’ markets, we learned how to write information-packed, compelling, and accurate signs to sell more nutritious, local food with superior flavor. Half the farmers I know have good stories to tell about their food, but don’t bother. ¬†Michael Pollan, in town the other day to talk about his riveting book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, said that WF is the “epic” storyteller. He’s right. WF tells the good stories farmers should.

So, do I have any concerns about Whole Foods? Yes.

Learn to read labels. Labels are no more misleading at WF than anywhere else. The details are in my book, but here’s one to remember. Milk and beef (from ruminants, who eat grass) should be grass-fed. Pork, poultry, and eggs (from omnivores, who eat anything) should be pastured. All these animals should be outside regularly. “Natural” and “free-range” are all but meaningless and a “vegetarian” hen never went outdoors. If she had, she might’ve eaten a bug or two — as any happy, protein-loving chicken would.

Heartwarming farmer stories should be posted where the farmer’s food is sold or they shouldn’t be posted at all. In WF, I’ve often studied the farmer pictures and personal narratives and looked in vain for the food in question. I do think it’s misleading to plaster the place with what Michael Pollan calls “Virgilian pastoral” when the food itself — surely the essential ingredient in any “farm story” — is nowhere to be found.

For local food, don’t look to WF. Though once a pioneer in store-by-store local sourcing, WF got bigger (a good thing for organic food, in my view) and centralized. WF abandoned its policy of letting farmers drive up to the loading dock to drop off a load of peaches. I buy local food because it tastes better. If you care about flavor, go to the farmers’ market or buy a farm share.

Don’t buy organic junk food. My mother taught me that you find the real food on the edges of the supermarket: produce, meat, poultry, dairy, eggs. The middle of the store is laden with white flour, white sugar, and other highly processed, high profit-margin, low-quality foods. At WF, the white flour, white sugar, and corn, canola, and soy bean oil in the cookies, cakes, crackers, and breakfast cereal may be organic, but they’re still junk food.

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