One Corporation’s Effort to Eliminate Food Deserts

One Corporation’s Effort to Eliminate Food Deserts

Is it possible that corporations could become part of the food desert solution? With overpriced goods and little concern for low-income individuals, corporations are often seen as the problem. However, not all corporations are built the same, and some realize it is in their best interest to build these communities up for the well being of their company, the employees, and the communities. Unshared Bounty has dug deeper to see what one corporation, Whole Foods Market, is doing to eliminate food deserts and increase food equity.

In Detroit, Michigan, starting in 2011 and going into 2012, Whole Foods Market planned to open a market in the almost bankrupt city. The national media questioned why, knowing that Whole Foods is nick named “Whole Paycheck” and had a reputation for serving white, middle and upper class individuals.[1] When asked what they thought of the store opening up, white, middle class individuals, were showing hostility and asking how “Detroiters” (lower-class and black individuals) were going to be able to afford to shop there.[2] In response to the media attention and comments, Walter Robb, the co-CEO of Whole Foods, addressed business leaders stating that there would be lower prices as well, to make food accessible to all.[3] Whole foods aimed to confront the disconnect between the accessibility and the affordability of healthy foods.[4] He even went as far as to state that they were going after elitism, and racism.[5] In order for Whole Foods to succeed at this, it needed to just do more than turn a profit, it needed to change the food culture among the poor. “It would have to persuade a new kind of customer that what it sold—local, organic, and sustainable products—were worth seeking out and paying higher prices for.”[6]

The store would not only be an option for employment for the unemployed, or another option for groceries, but it had the potential to be a game changer on many levels. They aimed to bring gentrification to the city, because this would bring in revenue and help close the gap between the rich and the poor. More than $200 million a year was being spent on groceries outside of the city, but with Whole Foods opening, it would bring that revenue back into the city and create jobs for those living there with pay above the federal and state minimums.[7]

To help educate the lower-class individuals, Whole Foods offered classes on how to shop on a budget. In one particular case, a lower-middle class mother, with an obese son, made an educated decision, after one of these classes, that spending a little extra on the healthier foods was worth it for her and her family.[8]

Before placing a market within the city of Detroit, Whole Foods committed to finding out how their store could meet the needs and desires of the people within the community. They were respectful and responsive to local cultures, and focused on increasing access to fresh foods for all income levels. They started their project with deep community engagement, and a new model for Whole Foods was born: Community First. This model uses the communities best interest as the lens for looking at all major decisions made in that area.[9]

This process led to establishing the Whole Cities Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting the efforts of bringing fresh, nutritious food, and easier access to healthy eating education to food desert areas. On the Whole Cities Foundations website, Walter Rob states “we founded Whole Cities Foundation to create solutions together with like-minded local partner organizations that will have a meaningful and lasting impact on health and wellness on the communities we serve.”[10]

The Foundation was launched in February of 2014, and focuses on food access, partnership and education. The Foundation partners with community-based organizations that create food access solutions, builds collaborative partnerships where nutritious food access and healthy eating education come together, and broadens access to healthy eating information by starting conversations about wellness and fresh food.[11] Their initial scope of work is focused on New Orleans, Louisiana; Englewood (South Chicago), Illinois; and Jackson, Mississippi.

In Jackson, Mississippi the Foundation is collaborating with organizations that are working to increase access to fresh, healthy food. They are inviting grant applications from non-profit organizations that run community gardens, urban farms, mobile groceries, and other innovative projects that will bring fresh, healthy, and affordable food to the area.

Furthermore, in New Orleans, Louisiana, Whole Foods has collaborated with the Refresh Project, which restored a 60,000 square foot grocery store that was previously abandoned after hurricane Katrina. Within the building is a non-profit café that provides job skills training for youth, a medical teaching kitchen, a teaching garden, a revitalization organization, and a Whole Foods market with free nutrition education.

Whole Foods is on track to open a market in Englewood, IL, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago. When Whole Foods announced its plans to open a market in 2016, the media was again skeptical. Again, Walter Robb spoke of their plans to bring affordable and healthy food into the city. He stated plans such as focusing more on their 365 brand, pricing produce individually instead of by the pound, and selling more foods in bulk. Changing their business model for this store will help allow low-income individuals to shop at the store.[12]

So what can we learn from the Whole Foods business model? Although corporations always have the end goal of making a profit, there is nothing stopping them from helping solve a national problem such as food deserts. Whole Foods has created a lasting business model targeted towards community engagement, food education, and improving the health and wellness of underserved communities. Using community engagement, respecting the local cultures, and address the needs of the people is what will continue to make this model a success.

[1]See Tracey, McMillian, Can Whole Foods Change the Way Poor People Eat?, Slate (Nov. 19, 2014, 11:30pm) whole_foods_detroit_can_a_grocery_store_really_fight_elitism_racism_and.html

[2] McMillian, supra note 1

[3] McMillian, supra note 1

[4] McMillian, supra note 1

[5] McMillian, supra note 1

[6] McMillian, supra note 1

[7] McMillian, supra note 1

[8] McMillian, supra note 1

[9] Whole Cities Foundation, communities-we-serve/detroit-mi (last visited Aug. 14, 2015)

[10] Whole Foods Market, (last visited Aug. 14, 2015)

[11] Whole Cities Foundation, (last visited Aug. 12, 2015)

[12] Emily Badger, Can Whole Foods Remake Itself in the Middle of a Food Dessert?, (Sep. 5, 2013)


Posted by Vivian DePietro – Research Fellow