agriculture, environment, sustainability

Whole Foods Market, will you please come to Australia?


Sustainable Agriculture Service Australia

While tourists were forming queues to visit the major attractions in New York, I had unashamedly made three trips to one supermarket to read food labels, photograph displays, feel and eat my way through it and walked away with a sense of astonishment every time.

Whole Foods Market [which now belongs to Amazon] restored my faith in retail supermarkets by abiding to its ethos of selling products that are sustainably sourced and responsibly produced – or what they call, sustainable agriculture.

By this definition, this wouldn’t be a supermarket that has one dollar milk or bread deals. It isn’t a supermarket that has Tim Tams or large bags of chips on sale at every corner. Or a supermarket where you will find food that has been produced with no clear country of origin.

Whole Foods Market is the opposite of everything we have in Australia’s supermarkets – with the exception of About Life which has done an incredible job and have been rewarded with their expansion in Australia. There are many reasons why I am in love with Whole Foods Market but I will talk about my top five:

Healthy eating

Healthy eating is what drives customers to Whole Foods. We’re not talking about the price denominator approach that Australian food retailers take – “ground beef for x dollars, now that’s a bargain”. We don’t need celebrity chefs to recommend what we should make for dinner – although that friendly reminder about what is in season is useful. Whole Foods Market educates shoppers on their food choices – why eating this is good for my body and what you need to get a healthy meal going. I see posters in-store everywhere that talks about the relationship between my body and the food that I eat. It makes me more aware as a consumer about the choices I make and why they are good for me.

Educating me about food

Fruit and veg have a rating system that tells me how it has been responsibly grown. They have a Good, Better or Best rating system that makes me aware if food has been produced with minimal impact on the environment – from farming practices, the use of renewable energy, waste minimisation to welfare.

It has seafood that is Marine Stewardship Certified, wild-caught or farmed to specific standards that does not use antibiotics or has added preservatives. Meat that is antibiotic, growth hormone free and welfare rated.

Every label and standard is clearly displayed and explained simply so I know what I am putting into my body and I can vote with my wallet.

Know where your food comes from locally

Instead of seeing a label on my food where it has been centrally packed and processed, Whole Foods Market shows me where and who has grown my produce.

Beyond rewarding local producers, it extends my relationship with a producer who is a real person/community — not a central processing plant. This makes me more aware about seasons and exposes my tastebuds to unique characteristics for any local produce.

They care about their producers

Whole Foods Market works with producers to meet their sustainability requirements and runs a loans program to help them expand and grow their business. I love how they have recognised their symbiotic relationship within the supply chain and acknowledged how retailers and producers need to work hand-in-hand to feed consumers. I love how they see producers as part of their community.

Quality, not quantity

From fresh to pre-cooked food, every prepared food aisle was laden with beautiful, clean and fresh food I could put a meal together with. I could weigh and buy the exact quantity I needed. Whether it was just one piece of grilled salmon or a small cup of soup or salad, Whole Foods Market wasn’t about bulk — the heavier/bigger it is, the cheaper it becomes. This cuts back on food waste and to me, this is possibly one of the best takeaways.

If there was one thing I could wish for in 2015, it would be for Whole Foods Market to come to Australia because we desperately need you.

Postscript 8 April 2018: With Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods Market, we are about to lose the essence of what this business was about. Having to impose promotional and restocking costs will only drive out small scale and niche producers. Taking these niche brands out and prioritising fast moving/large brands suffocates the marketplace and reduces choices for consumers. It also places a burden on startups who can’t afford fees to get their product to markets where they appeal to niche consumers. At the same time, we need to consider the power that grocery retailers like Whole Foods Market have in educating and creating awareness amongst consumers for niche products such as organic wines. While it can be positive, moves to introduce brands that counter the ethos of Whole Foods Market such as Coca-Cola and possibly alienate loyal consumers. It would be interesting to see if Amazon decides to enter the grocery wars in Australia and what lessons it could take from the acquisition of Whole Foods Market to this country.

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