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Foodie Rant: Whole Foods and Local Produce

By Anthony Todd in Food on Sep 17, 2009 3:40PM

I’ve defended Whole Foods for years against cries of “Whole Paycheck” on the basis of quality, variety and their commitment to the environment. I still believe that they do good work, but the number of “buy local” banners popping up all over their stores led me to wonder: how much local produce does Whole Foods actually carry? Not enough, by our standards.

The South Loop Whole Foods has chalkboards above the produce section, advertising the number of organic and local products that store has available for purchase. On Wednesday night, the number of organic products the store offered was 145 (there’s no sign for the number of conventional products). The number of local products was 27. The number might not seem that small, but when you look at the actual produce, the story looks a little different. Very few of the summer and fall products that are filling farmer’s markets to overflowing have made it into the store. I didn’t find any local cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, melons, onions, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, peppers or peaches available for purchase, and I didn’t spot any local herbs.

The items that were available seemed kind of random, and each was sourced from a single farm with a large sign with a happy picture of the farmer, discussing growing practices. I was happy to see that green beans, beets and collard greens were available from Wisconsin and Michigan, but that “27” also included more obscure items like parsley root or more expensive items like heirloom tomatoes. Of the 27, at least 8 were labeled simply “Midwest grown,” with no mention of state or farmer, which is a somewhat ambiguous label, considering how proudly Whole Foods trumpets specific local producers. The South Loop Whole Foods is also sponsoring the 61st street Farmer’s Market, and I applaud them for helping out that under-utilized market on the South Side. But to see signs for the market posted on bins of Canada-grown tomatoes and California grown strawberries seemed incongruous, somehow.

I’m a regular customer of Whole Foods, and I loudly support their efforts to source from local producers. Unfortunately, not having more of the bountiful produce of fall in the store seems to hurt their claim to locavore credibility, especially with the Green City Market’s locavore challenge just around the corner. We’ve been bitter for years that conventional, non-organic produce is dramatically overpriced at Whole Foods, compared to their competitors. But we’ve chalked it up to the expenses they incur “doing things the right way.” I realize that it takes a lot of effort and money to source from local producers, but if Whole Foods really wanted to set themselves apart from other stores, it would be worth the expense. I’d rather see fewer dollars spent on banners and more spent on bringing all the great food that Chicago farmer’s markets have to offer to their shoppers.