Whole Food Fight

Just when I was about to praise fiddleheads, farmers markets, and the joy of true freshness, along comes John Mackey.

Mackey is the chief executive officer of Whole Foods. The more appropriate title should be Hole in the Wallet Foods. For years, it charged premium prices for produce, meats, seafood, and poultry, not to mention chocolate and chips, on the assumption that they were delivering groceries more fresh and ecocorrect than traditional supermarkets.

My personal experience, with three Hole in the Wallets alone servicing the People's Republic of Cambridge, is that they deliver decent produce decently enough to ignore the smoke rising from my credit card.

No more. Mackey is trying to turn Whole Foods into the Wal-Mart of ecogroceries. He was unmasked this week as using a pseudonym to post messages for seven years on the Internet trashing the market value and competency of Wild Oats Markets. It happens that his company, which raked in $5.6 billion of sales last year, is trying to buy Wild Oats for $565 million.

The Federal Trade Commission is opposed to the purchase, saying it would wipe out competition in that sector of the grocery industry. The FTC says Mackey boasted to the Whole Foods board that buying Wild Oats "means eliminating this threat forever, or almost forever."

Just as annoying is the response of Whole Foods. Thus far it is coddling the loopy ethical lapse of its CEO. Mackey has already posted a lame defense of his behavior on the corporate website, blaming the FTC for trying to "embarrass both me and Whole Foods." The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story earlier this week, reported yesterday, "So far, there appear to be few other consequences. A big Whole Foods investor said it was sticking by Mackey and, as of midafternoon, the Whole Foods board hadn't met to discuss the matter."

Well, as the Whole Foods board sits in la-la land thinking that their shiitakes don't stink, I offer myself as the first consequence. I am staging a one-man boycott.

I will spend the rest of the summer procuring my vegetables from places other than Whole Foods, most preferably my local farmers market or co-op. If there is ever a time to tell Hole in the Wallet to plug the leak in its credibility, this is it. Besides, not even it can compete with the explosive taste of locally grown strawberries and raspberries that are bordeaux in color, blueberries and corn on the cob that actually have juice inside, and tomatoes, oh, tomatoes!

I grow my own tomatoes, but the farmers market ones, being more professionally grown, come earlier than mine. Anyone who has tasted a locally grown tomato versus even the best offerings of Hole in the Wallet know that the taste is like comparing a fruit bomb to an uncooked potato.

Better still, if you do not like the term "boycott," consider yourself part of a movement. Americans have grown tired of the uncooked potato taste of so many fruits grown around the world for our supermarkets, just to give us the disappointing illusion of having a peach or blueberry all year long. Americans are supporting farmers markets to the degree that the number of them has grown from 1,755 in 1994 to 4,385, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

A study this year by researchers at Colorado State University found that 30 percent of Americans now prefer to buy fresh produce from farmers markets or direct from producers. Dawn Thilmany, the lead author of the study, told the Fort Collins Coloradoan, "I think everyone knew that farmers markets are popular because we see them around, but the good news is, it's kind of mainstream."

The study found -- bearing out why Whole Foods has been so successful -- that shoppers who go to farmers markets or otherwise purchase "direct" are willing to pay 7 percent to 23 percent more for fruits and vegetables that are locally grown, organic, or nutritionally superior. In a press release, Thilmany said the growing popularity suggests that consumers are developing "a strong connection to local food systems," inspiring small farmers to "explore unique varieties and cultivars of fruits and vegetables."

With Mackey mouthing off, there is no better time to strengthen local connections and sever our ties with Whole Foods until we hear that Mackey is disciplined or fired. He might be close to a monopoly on the freshest commercial grown food. It will never be as sweet as the strawberry from a farmer's market.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@globe.com.

(c) 2007 The Boston Globe

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