Advocates say Whole Foods may struggle to find customers in Englewood

Locals say high-end grocer will need to view store as a service rather than profit center.

September 4, 2013

WBEZ/Robin Amer
Inside a converted Fresh Moves mobile produce bus. After a lot of positive media coverage, the non-profit quietly shut down its buses last week. In the wake of Whole Foods announcing its new store in Englewood, some fresh food advocates question the sustainability of selling fresh produce in food deserts.

(Updated at 3 p.m. with additional comment from Fresh Moves co-founder Steven Casey.)

While many city officials trumpeted the news of a Whole Foods coming to Englewood, some who’ve worked for years to sell fresh produce in the area advise cautious optimism and lots of education.

They also question the sustainability of a Whole Foods in Englewood barely a week after Fresh Moves, a widely touted non-profit that sold produce in the area from converted CTA buses, announced it was shutting down its mobile operations due to lack of funds.

Until last month, Julian Champion served as executive director of Fresh Moves. He commends Whole Foods’ commitment to the impoverished neighborhood but warns that they’ll need to lay a lot of groundwork before opening in 2016.

“Whole Foods will have to approach this as a social mission unlike many of the other very profitable supermarkets,” Champion said. “If the mentality going in is that ‘we hope to be profitable but this is a mission’ then I think they will be able to manage expectations and enjoy some peace. But they also have to be committed to customer creation.”

Creating customers, let alone finding them, proved to be a challenge for Fresh Moves despite a unique model that addressed accessibility issues by taking the fresh produce directly to the customer. Champion said the Fresh Moves mobile produce buses were losing about $300 a day, which created an unsustainable drag on their bottom line. He says that pressure will be even greater for a company like Whole Foods.  

“From my experience there are people who will appreciate what Whole Food does and brings,” Champion said, “but it’s not going to be a critical mass, and so they will have to be committed to creating these people who understand what they are doing and appreciate the presence of the store.”

Last week, in a newsletter to supporters announcing the shutdown of mobile operations, Fresh Moves co-founder Steven Casey said the organization was “facing the headwinds of a dynamic environment of rising costs, legislative uncertainty and challenging resource allocations on a local, state and federal levels.”

Casey says that the Board hopes to find new partners and relaunch in the future but there is no firm date on when that might happen. He confirmed that Fresh Moves drivers have been laid off and the converted buses are lying dormant. 

Which raises the question: if a non-profit offering affordable non-organic produce can’t make it in Englewood, what chance does Whole Foods’ higher-priced organic offerings stand?

“Their price point for organic and locally grown quality fruits and vegetables can be pricey but they will have to find a way to subsidize that so that it will be accessible to the residents of the community,” Champion said.

Sonya Harper is the outreach manager at Growing Home a non-profit that runs organic urban farms  including two in Englewood. There, it is has operated a farm stand for at least three years, selling its produce for half of what it charges at Lincoln Park’s Green City Market, Harper says. But the stand has yet to turn a profit.

“We still need more education around healthy eating and organic produce and cooking," Harper said. "We are finding that a lot of folks are not cooking and so they don't really know what to do with fresh fruits and vegetables, even though we are giving them away almost free in some instances. They just aren't cooking them and eating them as much as we'd hope."

That said, Harper noted that the farm stand is making progress. After first year sales of less than $900 in 2011, that increased twofold the following year and sales are now set to triple in 2013.

What led to the bump in sales?

“We’ve had a tremendous increase in canvassing the neighborhood  and speaking to neighbors one- on-one,” she said “We wanted people to see that we were really involved in the community not just here to sell them food from the farm stand.”

She advises Whole Foods to do the same, featuring the same kinds of workshops, partnerships and classes they’ve made a part of their other stores.

But pricing could still be a challenge for a company that wants to turn a profit.

“Our sales at the Englewood Farm Stand are more of a community service,” Harper notes. “We are not selling them at market value or Whole Foods prices. We are selling them at Growing-Home-Farm-Stand-we-really-want-you-to get-fresh-vegetables-and-afford-them-prices.”

Yesterday Whole Foods executive Michael Barshaw told WBEZ that the company wants to work with the Washburne Culinary Institute at nearby Kennedy King College.

“We hope that Whole Foods would offer educational classes on healthy eating, nutrition and cooking,” Barshaw said.

For Mari Gallagher a researcher and consultant who has done groundbreaking research on food deserts, the store may not solve all of the neighborhoods problems but can be a positive start.

“You can’t choose healthy food if you don’t have access to begin with,” she said. “What’s most exciting is that retail attracts retail and like attracts like. So Whole Foods could become a game-changer and anchor to revitalize the commercial district. But this all depends on how the community builds on it.”

Connie Spreen heads Experimental Station in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, which pioneered the double value food stamp program at its 61st Street Farmers Market. She and her colleagues have worked for the last few years to make sustainable produce affordable to low-income Chicagoans through the double value program but on a very small scale.

“We have learned over the six years of operating our market that affordability of the healthy foods sold at the Market is a major concern for low-income customers. Obviously so. A Whole Foods in Englewood will not only have to accept LINK benefits, but will also have to ensure that the prices of the products they offer reflect the ability of the local community to pay for them.”

Spreen says she’s intrigued but also has a lot of questions about how they will address the affordability issue.

“Will that mean that they will offer lower-quality produce to keep the prices low?” she asks. “Or will that mean that they will offer high-quality products at a lower price, but perhaps offset lesser profits gained at the Englewood location with higher profits from other Chicago stores?”

For Gallagher, creating a model for selling healthy food to the nation’s highest risk populations is one of the biggest potential benefits of the Whole Foods project.

“We need to learn what does and doesn’t work,” she says, “and I am hopeful that Whole Foods will let this be a bit of a learning lab in helping people crossover to those healthy foods and making it more affordable to families. They have to protect their business concerns so I don’t expect them to give all their numbers away but my hope is that they will.”

Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer. Follow her at @monicaeng