Whole Foods Partnering with Urban Farming Project to Improve Food Security in Chicago Neighborhood

Staff Writer
From foodtank.com, by Clare Algozin
Whole Foods Partnering with Urban Farming Project to Improve Food Security in Chicago Neighborhood

In 2013, Whole Foods Market announced that it would be opening a store in the Englewood, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. One of the pillars of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration has been to improve access to healthy, fresh, quality food in the city's poorer neighborhoods and has been in discussing this partnership with Whole Foods Market for a year and a half.

For a company that has been nicknamed "Whole Paycheck," Englewood does not immediately seem to fit the bill of the typical Whole Foods neighborhood. With 60,000 residents, 99 percent are black and a third of the households live below the poverty line. A quarter of adults are unemployed and the crime rates are some of the highest in the city.

Before the announcement, Whole Foods and government officials met with local community leaders to discuss the role that the new store would play in the Englewood neighborhood. Representing Whole Foods Market in these meetings was Michael Bashaw, the Regional President for the Midwest, who in 2013 helped open a Whole Foods store in the Midtown neighborhood of Detroit.

Whole Foods' hope was that building the store would help address food security in the Englewood food desert, bring more money into the community and provide jobs. However, one of the biggest concerns was how to make the store’s prices affordable to local residents. Bashaw told the Washington Post, "the common assumption is that Whole Foods is a store for rich, white people." To address this concern when opening the Detroit store location, the company tried to base its prices on other grocery stores in the city rather than on other Whole Foods stores. This meant that prices at the store in the city were lower than those in stores in the wealthier suburbs.

Although there were initial concerns about the ability of Whole Foods to succeed in Detroit, Larry Austin, the store manager, reported to the Washington Post that the store reached its 10-year sales goal in only the first 14 months. “The biggest thing we saw was the ability to add more jobs,” Mr. Austin reported to Food Tank. “The discussion around jobs and making sure Detroit residents were hired has been [huge]  from the time we started our pre-work until now. Initially we hired 97 team members with 70 percent of them being Detroit residents. We now have a little over 180 team members and have still maintained 70 percent Detroit residents that work here.  This was important to the community and this was important to us as well.”

During that time, the store had the highest use of food assistance programs than any other store in the region, and Larry Austin has said that the store continues to see regular use of food assistance. In addition to the benefits for the store’s customers, Austin reports that there have been major benefits for the community as well. “The feedback from the community has been overwhelmingly positive and the community has been supportive of the store since it opened,” said Austin. “Honestly one of the biggest obstacles is that we don’t have a big enough parking lot.”

He went on to discuss the larger impact the store has had on the local economy and culture. “Detroit is a city with a vibrant food culture… I think we have done a great job fitting into the community and giving them another source for great food.  A lot of our shoppers go to the Eastern Market on the weekends and then come to our store to get other items. You still get the support to the local farmers and the iconic organization that is Eastern Market and this is a win-win for the city. We have also done a lot of community outreach to various organizations educating them about healthy eating, we’ve supported job fairs and we are still seeking out local vendors regularly. We are by no means perfect but we strive to be good stewards and respectful to the great community and the people that have lived here and worked here long before we were here. I also love that diversity of our shoppers which I feel captures the true personality of Detroit.”

But when compared to Englewood, the Midtown Detroit neighborhood seemed like a much easier market for opening a store. The area is currently being developed and is located very near to Wayne State University and its medical center. The Englewood neighborhood will present a new challenge, but since the announcement, Whole Foods Market has been looking for ways to include local organizations and institutions in the project to make sure that this store location is successful. One such organization is an urban farm in Englewood called Growing Home.

Growing Home is a social enterprise that has been fighting to improve food security and nutrition in Englewood through initiatives like its urban farming project which provides produce and job training opportunities. Harry Rhodes, the Executive Director of Growing Home explained to Food Tank that the urban farming projects began in 2006 and have continued to grow. “We now farm on about 1.5 acres of land in Englewood, and this year are expecting to harvest over 30,000 pounds of fresh organic produce,” said Rhodes.

Growing Home has had a long history of providing for the underserved community of Englewood. Rhodes explained, “We have operated an on-site farm stand since 2007. In 2011, we expanded this farm stand, began accepting SNAP (food stamps) electronically, and began a double coupon program. For every $10 of SNAP benefits, the customer receives $20 worth of organic produce. This has succeeded in attracting new and on-going customers from the neighborhood. We have seen sales at this farm stand grow by over six-fold since 2011.”

The growing relationship between Growing Home and the Englewood community has made it a valuable partner in the project to bring the new Whole Foods store to the neighborhood. In 2013, the organization established the Grow Greater Englewood Coalition whose mission “is to empower Greater Englewood by collaborating to cultivate a healthy and resilient economy and food system.” One of the group’s strategies is to support the establishment of food enterprises in Englewood. As Harry Rhodes explains, “since Whole Foods announced that they would be moving into Englewood we have been part of many community meetings, both through Grow Greater Englewood, and with senior representatives of Whole Foods to discuss how [the store] should be involved and support the Englewood community.”

He went on to explain that these talks have done a lot to make sure that the new store location is benefitting the community. “First and foremost is their commitment to hiring Englewood residents, including graduates of our job training program,” said Rhodes. “Secondly, is their commitment to making the store answer to the communities needs. Residents have stated that they want a store that fits in and carries food that is culturally appropriate at reasonable prices. These are the requests of the community to Whole Foods.”

Community leaders, residents, and organizations all seem hopeful that having a Whole Foods Market in the neighborhood will bring about positive change and economic growth to the community.