Never one to miss an opportunity to proselytize, local-sustainable evangelist Alice Waters took to Twitter over the weekend to pen the note below, signed "with hopefulness," asking Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to please not just see the acquisition of Whole Foods as a business opportunity, but to understand that he could hold the future of American agriculture in his hands. She has now gone on to give a few interviews elaborating on these hopes.
Waters wants Whole Foods to return to its original model of buying from local, organic farmers, and for Bezos to (somehow) re-impose that model on the chain's 460 stores nationwide. As she tells the Washington Post, "I always had great hopes for [Whole Foods] in the beginning, at least when it was small and in Texas. The idea of buying from local people, and a commitment to the organic farmers and ranchers was very, very important to me. But as it grew, it compromised. I really hope it can be reinvented."
She adds, with disgust, "I’ve been to Whole Foods markets in New York at Union Square, and they have sunflowers at Christmas."
The San Francisco Chronicle's Jonathan Kauffman subsequently reached out to Waters and got some further clarifying quotes. Speaking in her usual idealistic style, Waters says, "Who knows what kind of place those supermarkets could become? They could become indoor farmers’ markets, conceivably."
And she adds that scaling, as Whole Foods has done, and sourcing organic produce from other countries, is encouraging the efficiencies created within a broken industrial food system. "Scaling, I think, disrupts the creative thinking,” she tells the Chronicle. "It’s not always that you have to have the same thing. It’s like you could really buy lettuce from 10 farms, which is what we do at Chez Panisse. They’re different but they’re all good. It’s this idea of uniformity and availability, 24-7, that are really fast-food ideas. We have to appreciate the charming irregularities, which is what brings us into a relationship with nature."
Speculation has been made that Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods presages an effort to further automate food delivery and potentially reduce the number of people working in the actual stores. You can imagine how Waters feels about that. "The idea of mechanization, really, I think, goes against a food culture of humanity that’s been around since the beginning of civilization," she tells the WaPo. "It’s the closeness to nature that’s ultimately going to heal us, and our preservation of it. And our recognition that that’s where our food comes from."
The biggest trouble with Waters's philosophy has always been that it leads to discussions of elitism and accessibility sure she wants everyone to be able to eat healthy, local, organic meat and vegetables, but at what cost? People already think Whole Foods is too expensive. Let her start talking, and already we're charging $28 for a chicken. "Why is it $28 for an organic chicken? Because it takes this long, and this much land, this much organic grain, this much pasture. You know, help people understand that food can be affordable, but it can never be cheap."
Bezos has yet to respond publicly to Waters's plea, and it seems about as likely that Whole Foods will suddenly become a chain of farmers' markets each with its own local supply chain and displays of charmingly blemished apples as it is that Chez Panisse is going to become a strip-mall chain. But who knows! Maybe Bezos isn't just in it for the money.