Whole Foods offers big market to Ottawa area growers

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/glynlowe/ Some rights reserved.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/glynlowe/ Some rights reserved.

Ask any grower and they'll tell you that producing food is one challenge – selling it is another. Sure, there's a boom going for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) distribution models and the farmer's market scene feels stronger all the time. But there's still a need to support local suppliers by way of steady sales in brick and mortar, year-round vendors. That's why Ottawa-area producers are pleased to hear a new Whole Foods store is looking to "buy local".

According to the company's website, there are only eight Whole Food stores in Canada, all in B.C. or the greater Toronto area. The Ottawa outlet will be part of an extensive redevelopment at Lansdowne Park, where a historic site is being remade with a new sports stadium and shops. (This is in the area of Bank Street and the Rideau Canal, beside a trendy neighborhood called the Glebe – a good demographic of food-oriented customers.)

As usual, the arrival of a really big chain brings a mix of reactions – excitement about expanded shopping and concern about the impact on smaller stores and restaurants. With an opening reportedly slated for sometime in 2014, the call has gone out for local suppliers. As reported this week by CBC news, many see this as a way to stabilize local production:

Savour Ottawa, a group representing about 90 Ottawa-area farmers, said a spot on Whole Foods shelves would help local companies expand their reach.

"Farmers need to know there's a market for them, and not just a farmer's market — a secure, ongoing market," said Savour Ottawa's Jantine Van Kregten.

"By having more people in the marketplace looking for those local goods, that raises demand and that allows farmers to make an investment and improve and expand their offerings."

Whole Foods is a major player that draws praise and criticism. At times the chain battles an unhelpful nickname: "Whole Paycheck". (The question of what food should cost is also a problem for small growers, in a culture that expects to pay as little as possible at the grocery store.)

Slate Magazine put the chain under a microscope back in 2006, when Field Maloney asked "Is Whole Foods Wholesome?" The article had kind things to say on things like the company's purpose and wage structure. But the whole business of selling "eat local/buy organic" has problems too, ones that are not at all confined to Whole Foods. Here's an example:

Another heading on the Whole Foods banner says "Help the Small Farmer." "Buying organic," it states, "supports the small, family farmers that make up a large percentage of organic food producers." This is semantic sleight of hand. As one small family farmer in Connecticut told me recently, "Almost all the organic food in this country comes out of California. And five or six big California farms dominate the whole industry." There's a widespread misperception in this country—one that organic growers, no matter how giant, happily encourage—that "organic" means "small family farmer." That hasn't been the case for years, certainly not since 1990, when the Department of Agriculture drew up its official guidelines for organic food. Whole Foods knows this well, and so the line about the "small family farmers that make up a large percentage of organic food producers" is sneaky. There are a lot of small, family-run organic farmers, but their share of the organic crop in this country, and of the produce sold at Whole Foods, is minuscule.

But California is a continent and a country away from Ottawa. For part of the year, at least, buying local from Ontario and Quebec growers could be a pretty big part of this new store's product line.

Whole Foods has many locations across the U.S. (and is even in the U.K.) although few are located in rural areas like Northern New York. There isn't even one in Vermont. When I did a "closest store" search for Canton, New York, the suggestions came back Hadley, Massachusetts, or Markham, Ontario! (Once the Ottawa store opens, that will be the closest one to Northern New York.)

While Whole Foods has gotten many mentions in this post, the topic goes far beyond any one company. In my view at least, the "better food for better health" movement needs it all. Home gardens. CSAs. Farmers markets. Distribution centers. And real storefronts – big and small  – that operate all year round.

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