I was stocking up on fruits and veggies in my local Whole Foods grocery store the other day. As I poked and prodded through the bins piled high with colorful produce, I found ripe apricots. Fifty years ago, I guess that wouldn’t have been a big deal. But today’s supermarket fruits are usually rock hard, free of scent, and tasteless; the result of being picked before they ripen and then being transported long distances over days to weeks to reach your store.
These ripe apricots had a wonderful juicy squish to them (that’s right, I squeeze the fruit before I buy it). And, they smelled like apricots. Having just written about the benefits of “buying locally,” I looked to see where they had been grown. They were from a farm in San Pablo, California, less than 20 miles from the San Rafael store where I was shopping.
As I looked around the produce section, I also found locally grown, ripe Santa Rosa Plums and a variety of local herbs and veggies. At check out, I noted that the Whole Food bags were promoting locally grown produce. Wow! This is going to be good.
Although my Marin County, California community supports 4 or 5 farmer’s markets, they are only present at certain locations for limited hours on certain days of the week. Now, I am going to have access to produce, grown on small, local farms, all day, every day.
A story in today’s San Francisco Chronicle explains the story behind this story. The Whole Foods grocery chain is now a big business with 184 stores across the country. As a leader in marketing organic products, they have now grown so big that it makes good business sense to buy only from large companies, such as Earthbound Farm and Cal-Organics/Grimmway, described in the article as “super-mechanized, monocropping national agriculture giants.” And, indeed, in an effort to keep prices down and remain competitive as mega-marketers, like Wal-Mart, they have begun selling organic produce. Whole Foods has been buying a lot of its produce from the big guys, but now, however, they are going to increase their efforts to “buy small” as well.
Under increasing public pressure from prominent “Eat Local” advocates, like bestselling author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), to support local food producers, Whole Foods has recently responded by announcing a series of initiatives to support local farming. Here are some of the things they are proposing:
- All of their stores will be required to buy “out the back-door” from at least four individual farmers.
- Some stores will set up Sunday farmer’s markets in their parking lots.
- Whole Foods will give $10 million a year in low-interest loans to help small, local farmers and producers of grass-fed and humanely raised meat, poultry, and dairy animals.
- Whole Foods will raise its standards of humane care for the animals who supply meat, eggs, and dairy to the stores. According to the Chronicle, Whole Foods has hired an “animal compassionate field buyer to work with producers to ensure they meet the standards.” Lest you roll your eyes and say, “Only in wacky Northern California,” let me remind you that Whole Foods corporate headquarters are in Austin, Texas.
It is up to us, the consumers
It will be up to us, the consumers, as well as advocates like Michael Pollan, to follow this closely and be sure Whole Foods follows through on these promises. Drop by your local Whole Foods store and ask them when they are going to have their first farmer’s market. Ask them for more local produce. Help create a demand for really fresh produce. If you don’t have a Whole Foods in your community, pay a visit to your local grocery chain stores. Show the managers this article and ask them to start buying local produce. Recruit your friends to do the same.
Once you get used to eating fruits and vegetables with good old-fashioned taste and smell, you won’t ever go back to eating the cardboard items that the industry has been passing off as produce. This is definitely going to be good.