Making the Connection
From contributing to local nonprofit organizations to creating innovative foundations that focus on microfinance and more, we’re serious about giving back – whether it’s to the neighborhoods that support our stores or the international communities that supply us with products. Collaboration has always been at the heart of what we do, and we never stop striving to build stronger connections to our local & global communities. Read on to see some examples of this commitment in action!
Exposure creates awareness…it gives you different perspectives. It can change the way you treat people, the way you treat the land…
the way that you love people.
Maile Itakura-Putt, Whole Foods Market Team member
The Team Member Volunteer Program
The Importance of Local Food Systems
Whole Story: Tell me who you are and what you do.
Kelly Landrieu: My name is Kelly Landrieu and I am the global coordinator for local brands.
WS: And Kelly, what exactly does that mean in practice?
KL: [LAUGHS] As you know, Whole Foods Market has team members all over the country tasked with finding the best local products available. I collaborate with those team members in support of their work with local producers, as well as partner with our Global support teams, such as Marketing, Learning & Development, Compliance, Technology to ensure the Local program is represented in all facets of our business.
WS: What is your background and how did you come to this role?
KL: Prior to my work at Whole Foods Market, I worked at an incredible non-profit in New Orleans focused on local food and markets advocacy. There, I did a little bit of everything: managing markets and connecting producers with restaurants to grant writing and program development and that experience allowed me to develop a strong understanding of the local food landscape and producer experience. The funny thing is, I had no intention of ever working for a retailer or a larger corporation. After about three years at that non-profit, a friend of a friend who was familiar with my work suggested I look into an opening at Whole Foods Market. They were looking for a Local Forager to manage the Louisiana area. I’ll admit, I was a little hesitant but after talking some of the leaders, I realized that this role would afford me a greater opportunity to positively impact the local food and entrepreneur community. I interviewed, got the job, and the rest is history. 8 years later, my job is a little different – but my passion for the local food and entrepreneurship community remains.
WS: So stepping back a little bit from the Whole Foods Market side of things, just generally, what are some of the challenges facing smaller, more locally focused food producers?
KL.. Mm-hmm – business can be uphill battle for any small, locally focused food producer, or really any small business. Scale, for one, can be an issue– when you are doing something on a small scale, things that would be blips on the radar to larger businesses can become major stumbling points. A farmer I used to work with told me once: “Kelly-Mae, no one gets rich farming like this. We do it for the love of the land, and food, and the people we feed.” Food producers who start out small are usually in because they love what they do, and they want to share that love with others. When they want to grow and work with a larger retailer, they have to figure out how to do business within larger structure. They have to have, okay, UPCs if it’s a packaged project. They have to have insurance. They have to meet certain costs so the product isn’t prices astronomically on the shelf. If it’s Whole Foods Market, they have to meet our standards. Even something as small as sourcing their ingredients through a wholesaler as opposed to a club store, that’s something they’ll need to figure out in order to partner with a larger retailer. So yeah, it’s an uphill battle but when we are able to work with a small producer, it’s a win-win. It takes a lot of effort on both sides, but in the end, it’s well worth the effort.
WS: And why is that?
KL: So Whole Foods Market has 500 plus stores, right? If every one of our stores were the same, we would have this cookie cutter format and that is really not who we are. We pride ourselves on being on the cutting edge of trends. We like a unique assortment. We like to be part of our surrounding community. By working with small and medium size producers, we can really reflect the community within the store. A customer can go into the store and see product and producers they are familiar with, and might even know personally, from their community. On the producer side, working with Whole Foods Market helps extend their reach. If they start small with us, they get to learn how to work with a retailer, how to navigate bumps in the road, how to build a relationship with a buyer. This is part of the reason we reason we have a dedicate team of Foragers is to support those partnerships.
WS: How do you think consumers can help smaller brands get started and establish themselves into the retail landscape?
KL: Well, I’d say, the first thing they can do is actually seek ‘em out, right? Find them at a farmers’ market or find them at your small corner stores, or even in the aisles of Whole Foods Market. From there, help tell their story. Social media is incredible. With social media, you can really amplify a small producer’s voice; helping to share their story. Connect and share your feedback. And then finally, of course, buy the product. Taste the product. Take pride in being a small part of their growth.
WS: And so, how and why does Whole Foods Market work with and attempt to support local producers?
KL: The Whole Foods Market Local program has dedicated team members called Foragers all over the company. They are our boots on the ground. They field lots of product pitches, as well as find potential products and producers for our stores and guide a small producer through what it takes to work with a retailer. Once we decide to work with a specific producer, they help guide them through the onboarding process. And the relationship does not end there – the Foragers help the producers navigate the ins and out of Whole Foods Market
WS: Are there any surprising facts about local products at Whole Foods Market that you wish customers knew about?
KL: I think a lot of customers when they think about local, they think about artisanal and small. Some of our most steadfast partners and retailers started out as local producers. A recent one is Siete. It was only like five years ago that they started. They started in one store in Southwest region and that forager was their first point of contact. And they grew really fast. And now they are a force to be reckoned with in the CPG industry, not just the natural products industry but the overall industry. And that growth path happens often. But even when a brand grows to be that big, they’re not a giant company. They’re still a small business with a big impact which is awesome.
WS: Why don’t more big food companies put this much emphasis on local sourcing and local products?
KL: Frankly, it’s not easy. I could just put a period in it and end it there. It takes a lot of work, a lot of energy and a lot of adjustments within legacy systems. It’s really hard to work with producers of a different scale if the majority of a retailer’s assortment is from larger food conglomerates. It’s easy to get those products on the shelf. They’re available everywhere. They’re a known commodity and have legacy support from customers. Sourcing local and supporting small businesses is an investment on the front end, but there’s nothing like being able to surprise and delight our customers with something new and exciting like a plant-based butter that actually bakes like real butter, or maybe familiar and comforting like Local strawberries grown in the state or nearby areas from a Local producer. Our Local producer partners challenge us. They drive us to innovate, bring us new ideas and concepts to try. They make us be creative and they give our customers what our customers want. At the end of the day, if we’re a customer centric company, then Local is a no brainer.
WS: So on a more philosophical note, why do you think a strong and diverse local food system is so important to community’s larger health and sustainability?
KL: I have a few thoughts here. Economic development part of it. Growing small businesses equals more and more jobs coming into a community. And as those small businesses grow, they can really become an economic development engine. And then there is the community piece: food is integral to community. It has the ability to connect, to heal, and to remind us of our shared humanity. We’ve all got to eat and we all have food traditions. A strong and diverse local food system honors those food traditions and connects us to cultural identity. It brings nourishment, not just nutritionally speaking, but also for the soul.
QUESTION: So, Kelly, what do you love most about your job?
KL: That’s a hard one! I love that I get to connect with so many local producers, and the work they’re doing, I get a unique bird’s eye view into company-wide work our Local Foragers are doing with our producers. I love getting to spend time with a producer that I hadn’t known before and learn their story and be able to amplify it, To be able help them grow in some little way is the most satisfying thing. On the other side, it’s getting to work with our team members. When I get to go visit stores and hear about their favorite local product, that gets to the heart of what we’re doing. To hear from someone in our team member community about what they love or be pointed in the direction of a small producer that I didn’t know about is really nice.
QUESTION: And so, why do you think that you’re personally passionate about these issues?
KL: Let’s see if I can tell this story in a way that makes sense! Back in 2005, I was living in New Orleans and suddenly had leave the city because of Hurricane Katrina. My house was flooded, my school was flooded and due to many tiny circumstances, I ended up in Memphis, TN – a city I knew nothing about.
One day, devastated and sitting there in Memphis just a wreck of a human, I decided to try to cook something to make myself feel better. So there I am, wandering the aisles of a supermarket, dejected. I turn the corner and see a bag of Camellia red beans sitting on the shelf. Camellia is a local dried bean producer that is a staple in every Louisiana household. I spot these beans and suddenly I’m crying over red beans. It was almost like seeing home, right? Like everything’s, everything’s gonna be okay. And you know, I found some smoked sausage, and I went back my little apartment in midtown Memphis and, with my donated pots and I made some okay red beans. I got through that time. I wasn’t sure I would. It was those red beans! There is something with food and community and identity that is really, really affirming. There is so much power in it: everything from that economic development aspect to building trust and bringing people together. That probably sounds very nebulous but, but that’s why I love it. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I do this work.
This Land Has Power
Giving Back, Whole Foods Market style
Whole Foods Market’s purpose is nourishing people and the planet, and that’s always meant more than just selling high quality foods.
Over the years, our Core Value of caring about our communities and the environment has been put into action through a variety of programs that have benefitted all our stakeholders, from our suppliers and customers to people who live near our stores. We’ve invested in community food security, supported agricultural workers, educated kids about healthy eating, contributed to local nonprofits, volunteered in global communities, provided low-interest funding to promising small businesses and so much more.
Here are several ways we’re proud to give back to our communities.
The first of our Foundations was created in 2005, after CEO John Mackey met Muhammad Yunus, who would later win a Nobel Prize for pioneering the concept of extending microcredit to the poor. Inspired by the idea of providing a hand up instead of a handout, we established the Whole Planet Foundation, which has disbursed $92 million through its microfinance partners, creating more than 26 million opportunities for entrepreneurs and their families to live a better life in countries from which we source products. https://wholeplanetfoundation.org/
In 2010, a register campaign for salad bars in schools resonated so deeply with our Team Members and customers that we established the Whole Kids Foundation just one year later with the goal of transforming the way we feed our kids. The nonprofit has reached more than 8.1 million kids and provided grants for school salad bars, gardens and beehives to nearly 12,000 schools across the U.S., Canada and the U.K. https://www.wholekidsfoundation.org/
In 2014, we decided it was time to make a strong investment in improving access to fresh food and nutrition education by founding Whole Cities Foundation. The idea for the program came about earlier, after the opening of our store in midtown Detroit. There, we learned so much about truly seeking to understand a community around our store, and this became a guiding principle for Whole Cities Foundation. The foundation’s focus was initially in five cities: Newark, New Jersey; Englewood, a neighborhood of Chicago; New Orleans; Detroit, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi. In response to growing Team Member excitement about the work, we created the Team Member Community First Grant to expand Whole Cities Foundation’s reach to communities across the U.S. We’ve so far been able to support grassroots efforts across more than 100 communities in this way. https://wholecitiesfoundation.org/
Community Giving Program
In addition to our Foundations, our Community Giving Program has been in place since 1980 in various forms. This year, our store and regional programs focused on investing in the communities immediately surrounding our stores. We evolved the program to enable all Team Members to have a voice in the organizations we support and be part of making a real difference in their neighborhoods through our Community Giving Network. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we used our Global Giving Program to support food security in our local communities through partnerships and the expansion of our Grocery Rescue Program. So far in 2020, we’ve given more than $2.1 million to nonprofit organizations local to our stores.
Sourced For Good Program
Through our Sourced for Good program, we work with certifying organizations like Fair Trade USA, Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade America, Fair Food Program and Equitable Food Initiative to support initiatives like fair wages, good working conditions and environmental stewardship on the farms where our Sourced for Good products originate. As part of this program, some product certifiers contribute community development funds to farmworker committees that are used for projects most needed by their unique communities.
Team Member Volunteer Program
Our Team Member Volunteer Program is administered through Whole Planet Foundation. Established in 2007, it gives Team Members the opportunity to travel in groups to global communities, meet Whole Planet Foundation microfinance clients, provide community service and see where and how our products are made, raised or grown. So far, 854 Team Members have participated, volunteering their time in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, Paraguay, Peru, South Africa, Thailand, Togo and the U.S. This year the program will be virtual.
Local Producer Loan Program
Founded in 2006, our Local Producer Loan Program (LPLP) lends money to small-scale, local and emerging producers across the U.S. and Canada to help them grow their businesses. The program serves to deepen our commitment to local suppliers through investment in the people, businesses and economies of the communities we serve. It also enables us to offer a wide assortment of local, differentiated products across departments for our customers. Our Local Producer Loan Program has provided over 360 loans, representing roughly $26 million in capital for its recipients.