My Second Letter to Whole Foods

Dear John,

Belated thanks for your June 28th letter. I was delighted to hear of the new initiatives you outlined in it, and even more delighted in the weeks since to see so much evidence–as I’ve visited your stores and heard from both your suppliers and employees–that the company appears serious about pursuing these initiatives. So I’m writing primarily to applaud the steps you’ve taken.

One of the unintended by-products of making our exchange public is that I have heard from a great many people in and out of Whole Foods and have learned a lot more about your business as a result. I’ve learned of the various structural impediments to backdoor sales that developed over the last few years, as well as of your current efforts to remove some of those impediments. I hear from farmers–and not just in the Bay Area–that they sense a new tone of welcome from your buyers and, from people in the American grass-fed beef community that Whole Food has made a concerted effort to reach out and support the important work they’re trying to do. Even Joel Salatin, perhaps one of your most diehard critics, has been approached by a Whole Foods buyer in Charlottesville. I marvel at the market power of your company, and am more convinced than ever that Whole Foods is in a position to help a wide range of farmers and ranchers, not just the largest ones. I can tell you from all the reports I’m hearing that there is a great deal of “cautious enthusiasm”–as one correspondent put it–in response to your initiatives. I trust you’re receiving similar reactions. I daresay you have changed the tone of many people’s feelings toward Whole Foods, and given many farmers (as well as consumers) new hope.

People I talk to have also been particularly impressed by the fact that you chose to engage with a critic as you did, pointing out how unusual that sort of dialog has become in these partisan times. One correspondent wrote to say, “After six years of Bush ‘stay-on-message’-unthinking assertion of truth, it’s really inspiring to read the kind of exchange Madison would recognize.” A bit over-the-top, but you have demonstrated a commitment to a higher form of discourse than public relations, and for that I’m not the only one who is grateful.

Much of your letter dealt with the issue of scale, and you rightly point out that in my book I sometimes left the impression “big” was necessarily bad, “local” necessarily good, and “industrial” generally evil. I take your point. Though I do think I did try to complicate that prejudice–and it does need to be complicated–in my treatment of Earthbound Farms. Today, I think the most important scale issue is not that “big is bad” but, since big is here to stay, exactly how such entities can engage with small and local ones–indeed, I think this is one of the most momentous questions that confront us, both economically and socially. If Whole Foods’ renewed commitment to supporting local agriculture succeeds–that is, if it proves profitable for all concerned and endures–you will have achieved something much larger than helping a handful of small farmers. Rather, you will have disproved the widespread assumption that big corporations can only deal profitably with other big corporations, and in the process can’t help but crush small and local producers and economies.

This is a crucially important issue. Many people (myself included) have taken it as an article of faith that the only relationship companies like Wal-Mart or Sysco can have with small suppliers–or small towns–is extractive and destructive. Much the same is assumed to be true of the globalized economy–that by its nature it will homogenize all forms of local diversity and damage local economies and the communities that depend on them. This certainly has been the historical trend–witness Wal-Mart’s impact on downtowns and small food producers. Transaction costs have made it difficult for big companies to deal with small firms, and a food economy based on cheap commodities drives all players to get as big as possible, forcing them to depend on volume and cost-cutting to make up for shrinking margins.

Much depends on whether that commodity logic can be successfully challenged–the survival of not just local farms, but local flavors, economies and biodiversity hangs in the balance. There is some reason to hope that technology–computer technology in particular–may make it possible for big companies to do business with small artisanal firms at a profit to both. I’m told that Sysco is working to develop such a model, experimenting with a computer interface that would allow a chef anywhere in the country to order, say, a single wheel of cheese from a small dairy in Vermont, and have it delivered as part of their Sysco order in a couple of days. Slow Food has proposed a new model of global trade, that they call “virtuous globalization”–using the power of international markets to actually promote local flavors and products. So a producer of an heirloom bread wheat in Piedmont who can’t charge a sufficient premium in his local market could contract with William-Sonoma to sell his flour here; customers halfway around the world wind up preserving a cultivar the local market couldn’t. This is what I gather you have in mind when you write about the ethical importance of trade. But it’s important to distinguish between kinds of trade, and in each case look both at who benefits from it and whether it promotes local communities and values or undermines them.

As a company, Whole Foods is particularly well-positioned to participate in this sort of big-small economy, especially because of the know-how and relationships of your buyers. I agree with you that local can become a provincial value, and that developing models of “fair trade” is important. In the end it comes down to cases, and will take a commitment to learning more about your suppliers and the impact of your purchasing than most companies are willing to learn. Information and transparency are the keys, it seems to me–you’re selling a lot more than food, aren’t you? As I wrote in my book, you’re selling stories, too.

You’re right to say that different consumers will want to use their food dollars to support different values, but of course they need accurate and extensive information, at the point of purchase, to do that. I’m wondering if you’ve had a chance to look into experiments in Europe to add a second barcode to products containing large amounts of information about how and where the product was produced. Apparently the consumer can run the product under a scanner at a kiosk and see pictures of the farm or processing plant where the food was produced, and scroll through pages of text disclosing everything from–in the case of meat–the breed, feed, age and slaughter date of the animal in question. In the case of far-flung products, such a system could include information about the local community as well–so consumers could figure out whether buying, say, produce from Central America was supporting a local community or a multi-national company like Dole. This will be more information than most consumers probably want, but the very fact of the transparency could send a powerful message. The stories told in your store would gain in credibility and power. I would guess, too, that some such system would not be something most of your competitors would ever dare to match. It’s hard to imagine Wal-Mart ever doing something like this.

In closing, I’d like to extend an invitation. Several people here in Berkeley have suggested to me that they’d love to see you and I discuss these questions in a public forum. As you know, interest in these issues is particularly intense here. Would you consider coming to Berkeley for an on-stage conversation with me? I know that a very large audience would be interested in attending such an event, and the Graduate School of Journalism would be happy to organize and host it (and if you wanted to do a reciprocal event in Austin I would be happy to come.)

I hope you will consider the offer, and look forward to hearing from you. Thanks again for your thoughtful and constructive response to my book and last letter, and best of luck in the work Whole Foods is doing to address these important issues.


Michael Pollan