Gentrification, Whole Foods, and Food Deserts

Whole Foods expansion into food deserts may do more than good because of gentrification but there are other ways for Whole Foods to help besides lowering prices on

When the organic, natural and eco-minded grocery chain Whole Foods broke ground for a store in an impoverished neighborhood in Chicago, the benefits to the local community were clear.

The supermarket hired 40 of its 100 employees from the neighborhood. It provided a venue for more than 40 local vendors to sell their goods. The arrival of the grocer, which many refer to as the “whole paycheck store” due to its high prices, had some immediate upsides. Yet there is more to the story.

It seems rather unexpected that a grocery chain that’s been labeled as a place where one goes to spend their entire earnings would enter into a low-income neighborhood. Englewood, Chicago has the highest percentage of households living in poverty in the state. It ranks fifth in economic hardship out of Chicago’s 77 community areas. With those statistics, adding a store where a carton of milk goes for $6.49 just doesn’t make sense.

But, according to the chain, the goal of entering such a community was to indeed benefit it. In fact, prices at this particular location were slashed for over 30 staple items. What does the merger of Amazon and Whole Foods and the arrival of Whole Foods stores in low-income areas mean for the availability of organic, healthy foods for these communities?

According to Chicago community-impact consultant Mari Gallagher, the addition could offer many improvements.

“Whole Foods going into different communities of color is a game change. A Whole Foods coming into Englewood sends a different signal to the community and to the marketplace about what is possible. It might attract other grocery stores, it might attract entrepreneurs growing their own stuff and trying to get it placed in Whole Foods,” Gallagher said.

Englewood, like many of the other impoverished neighborhoods Whole Foods has made their way into (Detroit, New Orleans and Newark included), is considered a food desert. Food deserts are parts of the country vacant of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful foods. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers. The availability of junk food far passes Englewood’s options for nutritious choices. So it would seem obvious that Whole Foods entering into a food desert would be a good thing. Those communities desperately need healthy food options, of which Whole Foods can supply. And, while Whole Foods’ goal may have been to shift that archetype, and while Gallagher may be right in her thinking, there is a flip side to the equation that needs to be evaluated.

When Whole Foods opened a location in an African-American Detroit community an inundation of white residents popped up in the area. The real estate site Zillow has noted that whenever a Whole Foods or similar grocery chains enter such neighborhoods, property values also rise.

With this increase in higher income residents also comes the arrival of pricier stores that are frequently seen in middle to upper-class residential areas. The low-income residents and the stores they can afford to shop in are  pushed out. This becomes a worry for people living in food deserts. Instead of providing them with a store where they can go to buy organic foods, the owners of brick-and-mortar grocery stores in the area are instead run out of business. Despite Whole Foods cutting their prices, these stores are often still the only affordable option for those living in such regions… so losing them can be detrimental.

Congressional Black Caucus member U.S. Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) says “While Whole Foods may have a limited presence in many of our districts, further consolidation may force grocers who have a stronger brick-and-mortar presence in our communities to respond to this merger. As a result, it is possible these grocers will consolidate further and close stores that offer any, or the only, option to low-income communities.”

This issue looms even larger after Whole Foods was acquired by Amazon in a $13.7 billion deal this year. We’ve already seen Amazon start to take over in other industries such as fashion and home improvement. And it only continues to break rules and break into new markets in the grocery store and food delivery worlds.

This is a point of contention because ordering food online simply isn’t something that people living in impoverished areas are accustomed to. Having an Amazon Prime account is not a norm in these areas, as it’s out of such people’s price range, so why would they suddenly start ordering their meals online? They wouldn’t. This means that Whole Foods and Amazon joining such neighborhoods only further prevents people in the area from getting the nutritious foods they so badly need.

Studies show that people in food deserts are more likely to die from and become early sufferers of diabetes, hypertension and other diet-related conditions. They’re also more likely to be obese. It’s evident that organic, natural and healthy options need to become more readily available to those living in these food deserts. But, as of now, it does not seem as though Whole Foods is the solution to that.

An article published by the Chicago Tribune interviewed residents of Englewood on their thoughts to the matter. Many agreed Whole Foods isn’t doing as much good as maybe they had hoped in the community.

“When I go in here, I don’t see the same people from the neighborhood. I see a lot of teachers and cops and people cruising through here trying to gentrify the area,” said Greg Goodman, 33, a teacher at the nearby Lindblom Math and Science Academy.

Prices are also the main reason why residents aren’t frequenting their local Whole Foods.

“I’ve been in there a couple times, but I try to stick to my budget. I have kids,” said Donte Jackson, 29, a prep cook at a barbecue restaurant and father of three young children.

Even though the desire for healthier food is there, the money to buy it is not.

“If Whole Foods could come up with more affordable prices, they would reap the benefit. I promise you that,” said Vince O’Neal, 42.

While it’s believable that Whole Foods’ intentions in entering such communities may have been good, perhaps the Amazon-owned company should take a step back and reconsider all they can do. Whole Foods already accepts electronic benefit transfer cards and food stamps, as do many other grocers. This is great, but if Whole Foods hopes to improve low-income communities, more can be done.

At many farmers markets, when a person uses their EBT card to purchase fruits or vegetables, whatever they spend will be matched by the Market Match program. This means that if a person spends $10 on buying healthy foods, then they will in return receive a matched $10 to spend on even more fruits or vegetables.

According to the Market Match website, in 2014, 61% of customers surveyed reported that Market Match was a very important consideration in their decision to spend their benefits at the farmers’ market instead of elsewhere. 79% reported that their consumption of fruits and vegetables increased as a result of the program.

Perhaps this sort of model is something Whole Foods could look into in order to incentivize a healthier lifestyle in poor communities.

Another way Whole Foods could approach gentrifying areas would be to implement their alternative model, Whole Foods 365, instead of developing their usual model in such neighborhoods. Whole Foods 365 was created by Whole Foods in 1997 when the grocer launched their 365 Everyday Value line. Products in this line deliver quality foods at competitive prices. As a result, it’s easier for people, even those with low-incomes, to eat better.

Right now, there are 5 of these more affordable versions of Whole Foods around the United States. The line can be found in Akron, OH, Cedar Park, TX, Lake Oswego, OR and in both Santa Monica and Silver Lake in California. An additional 18 stores are coming in the future for states including Virginia, New Jersey, and New York.

In Dallas, a city where inequality between working class and the often white, upper-class residents is rapidly expanding, one group is calling for a grocery store to be built in the area, but with certain clauses in place.

In a statement prepared by the Partnership for Working Families, it reads: “Communities United for a Greater Dallas calls on the City to use its redevelopment authority to bring a high quality, full-service grocery store to South Dallas. To maximize impact, the grocery store should also create high-quality jobs for residents of the area. The best redevelopment impact would accrue by using these strategies:

  • The City should use its tax credit, lending, and subsidy tools to ensure the construction and viability of a high-quality grocery store in South Dallas.
  • The City should require all parties in the store construction agree to a Project Labor Agreement that establishes good wages and benefits for construction workers.
  • Construction should include a targeted hiring program that helps aspiring construction workers get access to a portion of the jobs created by the project.
  • The grocery store should pay living wages and offer workers a voice on the job.
  • Workers in South Dallas should have preferential access to jobs created through the development project.”

When entering into such cities, these types of practices above could also be explored by Whole Foods. This provides even more methods for how the grocer can actually play a part in helping low-income communities and neighborhoods that are labeled as food deserts.

If more Whole Foods 365 stores were started, or if programs and methods such as the aforementioned are utilized, especially in impoverished neighborhoods, it can be assumed that the benefits Whole Foods could bring would be greater than just employing 40 local residents. With affordable health food being offered to poor communities, the entire area will gradually improve. Residents will start to be able to add organic, natural foods to their diets at a price that fits their budgets. As a result, the quality of life and life expectancy of these people will improve.

Say Whole Foods truly has a goal to better these struggling neighborhoods, then it is up to them to do everything possible to do so. Lowering prices of a few items isn’t enough. Programs that incentivize healthy eating should be considered, and expanding their already cheaper model of the store should become more of a priority.

We contacted Whole Food to comment on this article but they did not respond.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash