Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The chain could shed its “whole paycheck” image by being an ally to shoppers on food assistance.
Over the past year or so, Whole Foods has been trying to push back on its “whole paycheck” reputation. As Slate’s Alison Griswold reported last fall, the grocery empire embraced “Values Matter” as its official mantra, a prayer of rebranding. Mindful of the company’s ethics-oriented roots as well as its growing competition, Whole Foods means to appeal to its customers’ hearts and pocketbooks.
On Wednesday, the company announced that it will unveil new stores in 2016 under a “complementary brand” in an effort to court millennial shoppers. The shops will be digitally focused, tech-oriented, and dollar-conscious. Don’t bother guessing what this might look like, because these new grocery stores are literally impossible to conceive of.
“You can’t envision it yet because no one has,” John Mackey, co-CEO, told reporters on an earnings call, according to Slate. “We’re creating it.”
OK. So the jury’s still out on exactly how Whole Foods will convince millennials that values matter, but it certainly looks like they’re wooing them by upping the experience factor—giving customers more bang for the buck. Would that Whole Foods were focused on the tragically unhip ethics question instead!
Here’s one modest proposal: Whole Foods could do much more for customers shopping on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. These aren’t the customers looking for an integrated Apple Watch shopping experience, necessarily, but they are savvy shoppers—and another customer base that the company is courting.
Last year, Whole Foods opened an unlikely store in Detroit, betting that changing the way poor people eat could prove profitable for the company and the city alike. Tracie McMillan wrote a deep dive about what Whole Foods does and doesn’t understand about Detroit. Today, that store appears to be thriving. Whole Foods is planning to move into Englewood, a poor neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, in 2016 to do it again.
Arguably, the Whole Foods store in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., was an early example of how a grocery story can transform a neighborhood (for better or worse). But it would be better for the company—ethically speaking—to focus on improving the health outcomes of poorer people who live in the neighborhoods where Whole Foods lands.
A recent report by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) showed that farmers markets that make healthy foods more affordable by embracing matching-dollars programs for SNAP beneficiaries see lots more SNAP shoppers. This is a good deal for cities in those states that have matching-dollars programs, like California and Michigan.
Essentially, for customers shopping at select farmers markets, $10 will get you $20. That’s the kind of bargain that turns healthy food into affordable healthy food—a deal with the potential to change food culture among the poor. It’s a good deal for cities, too. The actual food assistance is the responsibility of state and federal government, so San Francisco, for example, pays only administrative costs, meaning that when the city spends a little more, it stands to benefit a lot.
A pilot of the Double-Up Grocery Project in Michigan launched in 2013 at three independent Detroit groceries (Honey Bee Market, Metro FoodLand, and Mike’s Fresh Market). A second pilot ran the following year, from August through November 2014, at four other stores (Parkway Foods, Prince Valley Market, Imperial Supermarket, and Mazen Foods) as well as two supermarkets (Family Fare) in West Michigan.
According to the Fair Food Network, the pilot program worked: 90 percent of customers surveyed reported buying more fruits and vegetables, while 60 percent of customers reported buying less junk food.
“There have been a number of pilot projects that have involved exploring expanding healthy food incentive model that is popular at farmers' markets to grocery stores,” says Eli Zigas, author of the SPUR report for San Francico’s experience with the program. “I don't know of any that have involved Whole Foods.”
Lest anyone think that a dollar-matching program via Whole Foods could quickly overwhelm state and federal purses for SNAP assistance: There’s probably no danger of that. As Zigas explains, in San Francisco, only 56 percent of residents who were eligible for SNAP assistance received their benefits in 2013. There’s a lot of people who, for whatever reason, don’t know about or aren’t getting the help that the government has allotted for them. The visibility of Whole Foods might help sign up people for food assistance. Once again, that’s good for cities.
Even stores in gentrifying or fancy neighborhoods can help shoppers who use food assistance. As the SPUR report demonstrates, local grocery store access is not the only factor that shapes consumer behavior, the talk of “food deserts” and “food swamps” notwithstanding. Shoppers are going to shop where their money spends better. Making healthy food more affordable means expanding access to healthy food among the poor.
What a better way for Whole Foods to shed its “whole paycheck” image than to declare, to prove, that there’s no better ally for shoppers on food stamps?