Why would a store commonly referred to as “Whole Paycheck” open a store in a city that has filed bankruptcy?
That’s the question many asked when Whole Foods, known for charging a premium for healthy, organic and sustainable food, opened a store in Detroit back in 2012. However, company leaders claimed the store was devoted to social equity.
“We’re coming to confront the disconnect between the accessibility and the affordability in healthy food,” Whole Foods’ co-CEO Walter Robb commented in an early 2012 address to Detroit business leaders.
He added that Whole Foods would offer lower prices to provide more accessibility to Detroit citizens, a strange goal for a supermarket known for appealing to a wealthy clientele.
Later, Robb addressed corporate leaders at the Milken Institute Global Conference in April 2012, claiming that the company was targeting elitism and racism in the grocery industry and hoped to see improved health in Detroit citizens.
“Whole Foods is still a generally expensive store,” Beth Wloszek, a 23-year-old who lives in Detroit, told GP. “I believe it does offer the opportunity for better health to Detroit citizens, but that better health might come at a much higher price tag than suburban grocery stores.”
Whole Foods’ Detroit opening in June 2013 prompted racial and socioeconomic tension, since inequality has typically broken down along the Detroit city limits, John Patrick Leary, assistant professor of English at Wayne State University in Detroit, explained to Slate, claiming that historically, poor black residents lived in the city while rich white residents lived in the suburbs, but more recently, middle- and upper-class citizens have moved within the city limits.
“[Detroit was] becoming more of a normal city like Chicago or New York, where the superficial trappings of middle-class life are concentrated in a place where you can pretend you’re surrounded by it,” Leary told Slate.
“I think there are two ways to look at a Whole Foods in Detroit,” Vince Wloch, 25, of Detroit said. “It may aid in attracting the young professional population that is already starting to settle in Detroit, but it also may stress the income gap that already exists in Detroit. As I understand it, Whole Foods is a premium grocer and as such may not be an option for people with lower incomes in the area. However, If Detroit is going to continue to grow, it needs an infusion of youth which will require more of these premium brands entering the space. There are positives and negatives to any situation. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think that one Whole Food is going to make or break the revitalization of Detroit, but I think that it is an important stepping stone in a positive direction.”
While Robb’s focus was on making healthy food more accessible to the poor, Detroit’s city planners viewed Whole Foods as a way to both serve and expand the city’s middle class. The supermarket would offer jobs to the 15 percent who were unemployed as well as a new grocery option to the upper- and middle-class Detroiters who shopped outside the city.
When asked about Whole Foods’ pricing, Robb focused on the quality the store offered and claimed that the supermarket was competitive on like-to-like items.
“The cheapest food is not always the best deal for you, from the health perspective,” Robb told Slate. “Yes, you can buy cheaper food than what we offer at Whole Foods, but there’s often a trade off. I don’t know how to tell you the difference between pink slime and beef that’s been raised to our standards. It’s not the same product, but is it worth it to you?
“Ultimately, customers get to choose. It’s a free market and we’re going to present our choices and then people are going to decide if it’s worth it or not. You know, we’re not miracle workers. We’re just a grocer.”
“I believe that Whole Foods offers opportunities to the city’s middle class through both jobs and food,” Carl Papa, 24, from Detroit said. “If I remember correctly, Whole Foods pays a $15 to 20 wage and has a health savings plan. In terms of food, they have a great selection of organic and other food that isn’t loaded with sugar. Since calories consumed and sugar arguably play the most major role in any obesity epidemic, I hope Whole Foods provides the options Detroiters need.”