The JP Whole Foods: A Whole Mess of Requests

Just in case you haven’t had enough of the brouhaha surrounding the Hi-Lo/Whole Foods debate that’s been festering in Jamaica Plain, let’s get up to speed on the latest. Last week, the 15-person ad-hoc committee of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council that has been meeting on the Whole Foods issue released a 69-page report (69 pages!) that seeks to “move beyond the divisive debate and begin a new conversation.” Phew. In it, the committee conceived many, many ways that Whole Foods can better ingratiate themselves within the neighborhood. And since we know you’re probably not going to take the time to read it, I did it for you.

For the most part, the report is a thoughtful, well-researched take, one that openly acknowledges that “Jamaica Plain has been undergoing a period of gentrification since the 1980s” and that “Whole Foods did not cause this gentrification, in fact Whole Foods is most likely responding to this gentrification.” Their contention is that Whole Foods will hasten gentrification, while nothing that “one of the unfortunate ironies of Whole Foods’ proposed move to Hyde Square is that while it will restore the proximity of healthier foods, including fresh produce, to all residents, it will not improve access to healthy foods for the many low-income households.” When comparing prices for fruit, vegetables, meat, and other staples, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation found that Whole Foods items cost 39% more than the prices at Hi-Lo (the nearby Stop & Shop’s prices were 12% higher than Hi-Lo’s).

To address these concerns, the ad-hoc committee put together an extensive list of “community benefit” requests, which are thankfully broken down into six categories: “affordable healthy and culturally-appropriate food; gentrification; local and livable employment; small businesses; traffic and parking; and alternative uses of 415 Centre Street.” Some are largely reasonable and echo many of the concerns that have been raised in the past few months, such as their call for Whole Foods to employ and train the former staff of Hi-Lo, to maintain a commitment to fair labor practices, and to continue to carry culturally-appropriate foods. And encouraging the store to work with the community to support local businesses and promote healthy eating practices falls largely within the realm of what Whole Foods defines as its values. There are also some more far-reaching but admirable suggestions, such as their request that the grocery store attempt to employ a workforce that is consists at least 75% JP residents and reflects the demographic makeup of the neighborhood.

But this is a supermarket, not a SUPERmarket. So perhaps the expectation that Whole Foods should create a fund to combat displacement and foreclosure of current residents and to offer bonuses to employees who are first-time homebuyers in the surrounding neighborhoods oversteps the bounds a bit for a grocery store.

And the notion that they should also help fund a program that would help people buy healthy foods at other locally-owned establishments kind of runs counter to, you know, their business plan. Try as they may, the JPNC cannot use the arrival of Whole Foods to address all of the neighborhoods ills. Or as the Herald so tactfully put it: “[B]asically, any social need that one could possibly identify, this one Whole Foods branch is expected to tackle.” That’s asking a lot of a grocery store.


Marquee image iStockphoto / Jessicaphoto