Whole Foods’ CEO says that there isn’t an access problem to healthy foods — he just admitted to being part of the problem.
Whole Foods’ CEO and founder, John Mackey, recently did an interview with the New York Times in which he was asked a question on what should be done to offer healthier options for the people who can’t afford or don’t have access to Whole Foods. He responded that people need educating about food because, according to him, even with access to healthy options they make the wrong choices.
I don’t think there’s an access problem. I think there’s a market demand problem. People have got to become wiser about their food choices. And if people want different foods, the market will provide it.
Whole Foods has opened up stores in inner cities. We’ve opened up stores in poor areas. And we see the choices. It’s less about access and more about people making poor choices, mostly due to ignorance. It’s like a being an alcoholic. People are just not conscious of the fact that they have food addictions and need to do anything about it. — John Mackey
Most people, myself included, would agree that education is important, and equipping people with the knowledge they need about their food is a necessary step in improving community health. However, Mackey’s response highlights how out of touch he is with what ‘access’ actually involves.
Access to healthy food is more complex than having a supermarket in a neighborhood. Determining access requires consideration of the many moving parts that allow or prevent people from getting to, choosing and buying their food.
Unfortunately, there are many neighborhoods where the needs and resources of the local people have not been regarded. As a result, communities do not have access to healthy food for various reasons and the issue of food insecurity is prevalent despite having food markets and grocery stores being nearby.
The issue of food insecurity
The Food and Agriculture Organization defines food insecurity as “a situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life. It may be caused by the unavailability of food, insufficient purchasing power, inappropriate distribution, or inadequate use of food at the household level. ” By this definition, food security is not just about having access to food but being able to consistently purchase enough safe, healthy and nutritious food.
Across much of North America and Europe, communities are facing food insecurity due to neighborhoods lacking healthy food providers (ie food deserts), or being inundated with fast-food options that are not good for the body (ie food swamps). Although distinct from each other, food deserts and food swamps often overlap as communities without access to supermarkets or large grocery stores instead become highly dense with fast food outlets and convenience stores.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an estimated 39 million people live in food deserts; living more than a mile away from a supermarket in urban areas or over 10 miles in rural areas. Food deserts are usually in low-income areas, and in 2009 over 11 million people living in food deserts had households with incomes at or below 200 percent the poverty line. In the US, people of color and indigenous people disproportionately live in food deserts and are particularly at risk of not being able to access healthful foods.
Although one factor, food security is not just influenced by proximity to a food provider, but also depends on what products are offered. High-income communities not only have more access to fresh produce, but according to Lauren Ornelas, the founder and director of the Food Empowerment Project, they even have 14 times more access to frozen vegetables. On the other hand, low-income communities are more likely to have ready-made and unhealthy foods such as pizza and ice cream in their freezer sections.
Food deserts are one cause of food insecurity, but are not what John Mackey was referring to in his interview. He referenced the inner cities and poor areas where Whole Foods had opened stores but the locals had still made “poor choices”. As I mentioned before, access is not just about bringing the food options closer to the consumer, but making sure that they are options that they actually want, need and can afford.
Food insecurity won’t be solved just by placing Whole Foods-like stores in poor areas. This instead creates an illusion that the community has healthy food options on their doorstep, when in reality most people have to go past the store and travel further to find food options that actually work for them. A chain like Whole Foods, which is known for being somewhat exclusive, more expensive than other options and even had an overpricing scandal in 2015, will not be an inviting environment for low-income shoppers to get their weekly groceries. This illusion that people have food options that are not actually available to them is known as a food mirage.
The illusion of access
In a food mirage, a community has grocery stores and healthy food sources within proximity, however due to high prices the residents still have to find alternative options to obtain affordable food. Food mirages are becoming an increasing problem in areas that are experiencing gentrification — the process in which a low-income neighborhood has an influx of investment from more affluent residents and businesses, often displacing the original families and businesses who can no longer afford to stay.
As evidenced by a study from the University of Winnipeg, it is important to consider more than just physical access when assessing food security. It argues that there is no relationship between proximity to a supermarket and having the capacity to purchase healthy food: “Proximity to a supermarket alone is not substantive enough to discern if an individual is able to purchase and consume healthy food since different socio‐economic groups are able to navigate and overcome spatial barriers differently.” Like many issues, gentrification and food security are socially, racially and culturally complex, and expensive groceries stores create several barriers that can make them socially exclude poor, local residents.
Stories like that of Deborah Gilfillan, a Brooklyn local who takes the bus past at least three stores (including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods) to go grocery shopping, are not uncommon. Transportation to the grocery store, even one that is a few blocks away, can be a huge barrier for residents. Not being able to access a car, having a disability, illness or injury which make walking or taking public transport a challenge, and even living too far away from a bus stop can all be big deciding factors in where a person is able to source their food. Having reliant public transport to and from shops that offer healthy food options, without having to take multiple buses, is a luxury that is not offered to some.
High-end grocery stores are also missing the mark on being sensitive to the culture of the communities in their surrounding neighborhood. In Deborah’s case, despite the stores closest to her have healthy options, they did not carry the types of foods that she eats, and what they did have was too expensive: “You can go in there and buy 10 different lettuces,” she explains “[but] we grew up on pork. A lot of them don’t have it.”
As the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute highlights, “much of the gentrification literature has focused on residential displacement, but those able to remain in a gentrified neighborhood often face higher rents— and higher food prices.” With gentrification, longstanding residents are already facing increased rent prices which means having less of the household income available for food. With the influx of new residents, local businesses (new and existing) often change their products to market to the new and usually more affluent customers. Although it appears that the longstanding residents have benefitted from gaining more healthy food options, it has in fact come at the cost of higher prices, or the cost of time and travel to shop somewhere else.
No profit without investment
John Mackey concluded his answer to the question on offering healthier options for the people who can’t access Whole Foods, by saying that we need to do better at educating people.
We have not done a good job of educating people about what healthy food is. I tend to think it’s going to come about through education and through people becoming more aware and conscious about eating healthier, and then the market will respond to that. — John Mackey
As much as I agree that there is a lot of room for improvement in the way that the general public understand health and nutrition, it would be a disservice to boil down an obesity epidemic and resulting health concerns to people being ignorant and lacking self control. There are many factors that play into a person’s decision on what they will eat: if they have the money, if they can get to the store, if they have the time to buy and prepare the food, how many people they need to feed, etc. Building high-end stores with expensive products that are not culturally inclusive limits people’s options to access healthy food even further.
If Whole Foods and similar high-end healthy food providers are interested in bringing food security to poor communities, they need to actually invest in the communities. If they truly believe ignorance is the issue, stores can offer programming to educate locals on health and nutrition, but they also need lobby to ensure that public transport to and from their stores is consistent and frequent, have products that are priced appropriately for what longstanding residents can afford, provide foods and ingredients that the local people actually need rather than $6 asparagus water, and hire locally.
Education has and always will be important in tackling any issue, but it needs to stop being used as a scapegoat for omitting responsibility and putting the blame on those who have many more barriers to overcome — especially if the ones pointing the fingers are adding to their hurdles. Being able to consistently have a healthy, nutritious meal should not be a luxury afforded only to those in the right neighborhood with enough disposable income. It is time to make food insecurity a thing of the past and for corporations to invest back into the communities that they are trying to profit off of.