Every single bite of food we take has deep agricultural, environmental and nutritional significance. The bowl of cereal I’m eating right now contains corn (which might be organically grown or not, genetically modified or not) and is bathed in milk (which might be organic or not, from cows given synthetic growth hormones or not, or it could be soy milk — GMO or not, organic or not, and let’s not even get into almond, hemp or rice milks). That yellow color could be natural or not, and the whole box could be preserved with synthetic preservatives to make its shelf life virtually infinite. This is a very simple meal (eight ingredients), and a relatively minor one in the grand scheme of my day, but the choices I’ve made with this little meal have touched at least half a dozen different crops, some cows, growers and my own health.
The relationship between a meal and the rest of the universe is complicated and gets more so when we start talking about meat, seafood and products imported from other countries. My point here is that what seems to be a tiny choice (what to eat for breakfast) can actually have deep significance when we consider the collective impact of the 1100 or so meals we each eat every year.
The incredible growth of the natural and organic food industry over the past 30 years has been driven by individual food choices made about specific meals. Yet considering that organic currently makes up just 4% of US agriculture; GMO crops make up almost all corn, soy, canola, sugar and cotton production in the US; our kids are getting fatter; and unhealthy food is getting cheaper, it sometimes seems like our movement – natural and organic foods – has barely made a scratch in the mainstream of conventional food.
"Let’s Retake Our Plates"
is a Whole Foods Market initiative designed to highlight the things we all can do to continue this movement towards better food. In choosing between various types of food, we really are voting with our dollars and have the power to accept or reject so many ways of growing crops, raising animals, impacting the environment and feeding our bodies. The plate (or take-out container or smoothie cup or whatever) is the point where we, as eaters, intersect with the systems and practices through which that food is grown, raised, processed and marketed.
For us, as a company, “retaking” takes place on so many levels – our standards for the food we sell, the nonprofit groups we partner with, the suppliers we work with, and the advocacy we do to fight for stricter organic standards and better lives for farm animals. Throughout the month we’ll explore the details of all of these and more.
The main reason I love my job is that the work my team and I do is at the core of our company’s constant “retaking” of our plates. More to come throughout the month, but here’s a super-abridged overview:
- Our quality standards: Our founders started this company as an alternative to the conventional grocery stores of the 1970s and 1980s, when artificially processed, preserved, colored and flavored foods were taking over and it became increasingly difficult to find simple, fresh, natural foods. Our quality standards continue to serve as our definition of “natural” – a concise list of acceptable and unacceptable ingredients that ensure our food meets your expectations of natural.
- Organics: We’ve done more to support organic agriculture in the US than any other retailer, since the very beginning. Rather than just sell organic food, we’ve helped grow the organic market by actively promoting organic and pushing for strict standards. We pressed for and helped develop National Organic Standards. Our VP of Quality Standards, Margaret Wittenberg (also my boss) was the sole retail representative on the National Organic Standards Board from 1995-2000, as the standards were being developed, and I’m humbled to have been picked by the USDA to hold that same seat from 2010-2015.
- GMOs: We’ve been worked up about this issue since the first GMO crops were approved in the US and continue to ramp up the work we’re doing. We do not believe that natural foods and genetic engineering are compatible ideas, and we’ve banded together with other retailers, manufacturers and industry stakeholders to form The Non-GMO Project, a non-profit that helps verify and identify food products as non-GMO. We’ve committed to enrolling our entire Whole Foods Market store brand product line, and the list of enrolled and verified products keeps growing.
This is just a small sampling of the work we do to advocate for better food, and I’m only one of thousands doing this work throughout our company.
There are very few simple answers to the question “What should I eat?” and the quest for those answers has driven us, as individuals and as a company, as we’ve grown over the last thirty years. And there will always be disagreements about how food should be grown and made and sold, and I hope that those disagreements bring fertile, productive discussion that continues to make our food better and better. The first step is to ask critically where each bite comes from, digging deeper and deeper, and acknowledging that every bite of food has a story. Learn more at Let’s Retake Our Plates