Saturday, December 02, 2006

A Tale of Two Cabbages

I've been meaning for some time now to write about the vilification of Whole Foods, and how thoroughly I reject that vilification. The Omnivore's Dilemma is a very valuable book that explores food issues well in some areas, however I took great issue with Michael Pollan's characterization of Whole Foods and it's role in the Industrial Organic world. (As an aside, I don't necessarily have a problem with Industrial Organic, but that's not the point right now.) Pollan cited the lack of local organic produce, and chose extremes like out-of-season organic asparagus from South America to illustrate his point. As it turns out, Pollan didn't even bother to contact Whole Foods about his book. Pollan claims that he was trying to take a purely consumer perspective, and didn't want to get too journalistic about it. If this is so, then it was terribly shortsighted. (See Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's letter to Pollan, and follow their exchange, here.)

Pollan had obviously never been to my Whole Foods. If he had, he might have been impressed. Generally there are at least a few dozen varieties of local organic produce being offered. The number of local selections is advertised daily, and it's often more--I've seen it as high as the 70s. When we worked on a small organic farm southwest of Milwaukee, we learned that the CSA sold excess produce to the Whole Foods. We were very impressed, since they are a relatively small operation. Our Whole Foods carries a number of items from Tipi Produce, a farm just about 20 miles away, and I've seen one of the farm owners at the WFM dock, unloading their truck himself. Apparently not all Whole Foods are this good about stocking local produce, and I suppose it depends on the availability in their area. My personal feeling is that every local item they stock is a huge boon to that local organic farm, and rather than blighting Whole Foods for not having more, we should praise them for what they do have. To me, even the Iowa zucchini or Washington pear is better than the conventional alternative at Pick n' Save--and do we think Pick 'n' Save is going to have local choices? I can assure you, they do not.

Today was a shining example in favor of Whole Foods. Our Farmer's Market goes indoors for the winter. While there's still an impressive selection of veggies available, most of the booths are now crafts or meats. Even my favorite feta artisan was missing today--a sad day indeed. Our favorite booth still had a great variety of root crops, but no cabbage. I have a cabbage dish planned, and so searched thrrough all of the booths, and finally came back to the only one I had found. The box of cabbages was labeled: "$1 each". I asked the farmer if they used sprays. "Sprays? Yeah I use sprays. 'Course these have been in storage for a long time, and I haven't sprayed since September." I'm not sure what that was supposed to mean. Had he harvested before he sprayed? I don't think so. Did he think the pesticides had worn off with time? I grimaced, then handed him a dollar and selected a cabbage (see the cabbage on the right above). I still hadn't decided if I'd actually use it. Next we went to Whole Foods for our remaining groceries. I selected a locally grown organic pumpkin, passed up some local organic white mushrooms for crimini, and picked up a pound of organic Wisconsin cranberries. As I searched for (and found) local organic leeks, I spotted some gorgeous cabbages. I searched for their sign above, and lo and behold, they were local and organic (see cabbage on the left). Understand, I found a better choice at Whole Foods Market than I did at our incredible Farmer's Market. Besides the produce, I found locally (in-town) produced veggie burgers and baba ghanouj, milk (Organic Valley, but still-produced within an hour or two drive) and local yogurt, whose maker was handing out samples right there at WFM. Upon returning home, I saw that our favorite farm stand at the Farmer's Market sells to WFM too. (In fact, click the link to see the guy who sold Beo his 25# of sunchokes this Spring!) I think I had a better local haul at Whole Foods then at our farmer's market, which I consider one of the best in the world. Perhaps my Whole Foods is one of the best in the world too, and I've simply lucked out. Either way, it's part of the Whole Foods company, and it deserves to be recognized for the wonderful role it is playing in making small organic farms sustainable in Wisconsin.


Beo said...

I have also seen small local brewers building displays (and handing out samples!) at our WFM. They even have a cooler of raviloi from a guy in town.

Does WFM sell and support Industrial Organic and is local organic better? Heck yes. Would my mother or sister or 75% of America ever buy organic anything if WFM didn't exist? Heck no.

WFM makes the world a better place. I say we stop eating our own in a flawed quest for perfection and start taking steps to sustainability.

And that is one nice cabbage!

Anonymous said...

For whatever it's worth, I didn't take any of Pollan's book as vilification of Whole Foods, any more that it vilified the corn plant. It's not WFM's fault that there are a few things that are broken in the world of Certified Organic, the same way it's not Zea mays' fault that industrial farming is a train wreck.

I took away from it a few things I already suspected: that Certified Organic is part marketing, that "big organic" has issues, and that you can you can work the system a bit. But what did we expect from the Federal government at this point in time?

It raises the issue of whether buying local or organic is better, if you can't do both. "It depends." What if one is an hour's drive away? What if one is heavy on the chemicals? What if one is heavily processed or out of season? Just pieces of the afforementioned Dilemma, I guess.

I live too far from a Whole Foods for it to be of any practical use to me, so I didn't have any strong opinions going in. I didn't come away from the book with any negative feelings about Whole Foods, though in looking back, I can see where people could.

It actually made me wish there was one closer to me. Our farm markets have things like "Indiana melons", "Kentucky sorghum," and "Ohio River Tomatoes," when all of those geographic locations are a good two hours away, and all of those products could, and presumably are, produced much closer. And I've never seen "organic" or "naturally raised" mentioned at any of them. We also don't have any nearby that continue to operate through the winter. None of my options are perfect, nor even all that good. Let he who is without sin cast the first rotten tomato.

Great post. I hope it finds it's way into the eyeballs of others who read the book.