Prison to Table: The Other Side of the Whole Foods Experience

Prison to Table: The Other Side of the Whole Foods Experience

Whole Foods workers participate in a Fight for 15 strike, July 31, 2013 (Steve Rhodes/Flickr)

It’s not clear what shocked people most about the report in Fortune that Whole Foods Market sells goat cheese and tilapia prepared with prison labor—the horrendous exploitation of prisoners for a base rate less than one-tenth of Whole Foods’ starting wage, or the fact that even after paying prisoner-workers sixty cents an hour, that tiny wheel of goat cheese still costs upward of seven dollars. Whichever reason it was, for many the story disturbed the experience that Whole Foods carefully cultivates for its customers.

Walk into any Whole Foods Market and the messaging is clear. Colorful panels above neatly displayed quarts of organic chicken broth boast that Whole Foods pays the highest minimum wage in the grocery business ($10 an hour, which is still a poverty wage for most workers). Pamphlets outside the meat cases detail the company’s animal welfare rating system and explain why it doesn’t sell shark meat and other seafood that can’t be fished sustainably. Workers in a seemingly casual but carefully tailored uniform set out “Whole Trade” bananas while smiling and making small talk with customers. Along the walls, posters introduce you to different vendors whose products the store stocks. When you check out, a cashier may ask you to donate to the Whole Planet Foundation—a program to give microloans to women entrepreneurs in developing countries. The stores are designed, from the crates used to display produce to the boat-deck-style overalls worn in the seafood department, to give you the impression of a highly compressed supply chain, carefully monitored for quality and decentralized to produce “win-win” relationships with vendors.

Whole Foods portrays this experience as the natural state of affairs in a bastion of so-called conscious capitalism—a strategy that has contributed in no small part to the company’s incredible success. It pioneered a new model for grocery stores that based its marketing not only on the products it sold but on its image as an “activist” company that “revolutionized” the way the grocery business was run. The real secret of Whole Foods’ success, however, is far less novel or glamorous: it has essentially profited from scamming its customer base.

When you go to a Whole Foods, you might pick up an organic avocado priced at two dollars—pretty steep for such a common produce item, especially when you can get it for half the price almost anywhere else. But Whole Foods’ marketing and branding tell you that you’re not only paying for the avocado, but to ensure that the workers who produced this avocado were treated well, that the avocado was farmed in the most ecologically friendly way possible, and so on down the supply chain. Beyond the utility of the fruit to you as a food item, you are also supporting better working conditions and ecological sustainability.

When I worked at Whole Foods as a cashier, customers told me on a number of occasions that they chose to shop there because they believed working conditions in the store and on the supply chain were excellent. “You must love working here,” they would comment. They would smile when I explained what the Whole Trade label meant and ask me for a list of Whole Trade products available in the store. They would ask questions about local products and come into the store specifically to meet the producer during special events.

So when customers found out that prisoners were being paid appallingly low wages for helping to create some of the artisanal foods that line the store’s shelves, they were outraged. Why shouldn’t they be? Beyond exploiting a vulnerable population of workers housed in the nation’s prisons, Whole Foods had essentially defrauded these customers.

The pretty image of Whole Foods’ good labor practices has been ripped away, and now customers are getting a glimpse at the ugly reality beneath it.

Perhaps even more upsetting than the practice of employing prison labor are the justifications that the company and vendors give for the policy. In a series of tweets sent out in response to customer outrage, Whole Foods said, “One of our core values is supporting our communities, & that includes paid, rehabilitative employment of inmates at CCI. CCI’s animal husbandry programs plays [sic] a small but vital role in rehabilitating inmates so they can learn job skills to help them contribute to society in meaningful ways upon release. We’re proud to partner w/ programs that help inmates.”

Meanwhile, at Huffington Post, Laurel Miller of “The Sustainable Kitchen” (a cheese consulting company) lambasted articles decrying the use of prison labor, parroting the management of CCI by suggesting that the labor programs instill inmates with skills and a work ethic (thereby assuming that the inmates had neither before beginning the program). Additionally, she claims that bloggers like Kelly Faircloth “know not of what [they] speak” when they refer to CCI’s program as exploitative. After all, she writes, “inmates do have rights, and when those aren’t met, events like riots and hunger strikes occur.” Miller flips the tables, suggesting that the central focus of the program is the benefit it provides to inmates, not the role it plays in producing commodities to be sold for profit. She asks, “If it benefits yuppies shopping at Whole Foods or bamboo fishing-rod aficionados on the side, does it matter?”

As a matter of fact, yes.

Contrary to what she suggests, there is a political economy to prison labor, and its primary beneficiary is neither the inmates performing the labor nor the consumers purchasing the product, but rather the vendors that make the product and the companies to which they sell it. Even if prisoner-workers earn the recently touted figure of $400 a month, that’s certainly not enough to support any family they have been separated from while incarcerated. These workers should be earning—at the very least—the $10 per hour that Whole Foods uses as its base wage, and when workers on the outside win our $15 per hour through the Fight for 15 campaign, prisoner-workers should get $15 too. CCI and Whole Foods’ claims that this is about helping inmates, not about making money, seem a bit flimsy when they are paying prisoner-workers $6.65 less than the federal minimum wage and $9.40 below the Whole Foods base wage.

While the idea that people are unemployed because they lack work ethic is downright insulting, there are many people who could (potentially) benefit in the long run from access to things like job training, or dairy certifications. Despite the recent jobs report, full-time, living-wage employment remains out of reach for most workers in the United States. So if CCI’s programs are allegedly about job training, why target prisoners? Because they’re vulnerable, confined, and oppressed. Most important, it’s legal to pay these workers a mere fraction of the minimum wage.

We need strong communities with full employment, living wages, and access to services. Any support for a prison system that channels millions of people, overwhelmingly black and brown, into a lifetime of legalized discrimination actively undermines our communities and must be opposed. Miller claims in her defense of prison labor that this larger question is “not the subject at hand”; Whole Foods did not create the outrageous prison wage system that it exploits. And yet Whole Foods brought the bigger issues into play by invoking one of its “Core Values”: “We Serve and Support Our Local and Global Communities.” If Whole Foods sells free-range eggs because it’s inhumane to keep hens in cages that rob them of their quality of life, it seems more than a little contradictory to then claim that exploiting the labor of caged humans who have been ripped from our communities—often for nonviolent offenses—and locked up by a barbarous criminal injustice system is “serving the community.”

Companies do things like exploit prison labor every day. Why write about this particular case? As a former Whole Foods worker, and a person who still works in the grocery industry, I know that the practice of exploiting prison labor is only a particularly egregious example of an increasingly widespread practice: boasting about good working conditions as a marketing practice while subjecting workers to intolerable (and often illegal) conditions.

Earlier this year, my coworkers and I peeled back another corner of that pretty picture Whole Foods uses to hide its poor labor practices when we went on strike to demand that our coworker, Rhiannon Broschat-Salguero, be reinstated after she was fired for calling out to take care of her special needs child during the polar vortex that closed Chicago Public Schools. As we gathered petition signatures outside the store to call for her reinstatement, customers expressed shock and outrage. They gave us their support—wore buttons, signed petitions, complained to management, even refused to shop at the store. We were also able to discuss with customers the other grievances that had led us to begin organizing a union: poverty wages, sexual harassment, racism on the job, unfair attendance policies, and a lack of human dignity and respect at work.

Unlike prisoners, we don’t live under lock and key, but we are both exploited by the same process—which also means that there is potential for us to fight it together. We can also join with customers to say that Whole Foods needs to treat its workers better and pay them more—because that’s what the customers have paid for. The villains in this story aren’t the “yuppie customers,” but companies that ruthlessly exploit workers while claiming to care about them. In the outrage that has poured out across the web over the last two weeks lies the power to change these labor practices and secure better wages and working conditions for all workers—behind bars or not. We must not let it dissipate.

Trish Kahle is a graduate student in history at the University of Chicago and a member of UFCW Local 881. She worked at Whole Foods for more than two years.