Race, Ethnicity, and Natural Food, Part II: How We Got Here

I can’t stop thinking about Baltimore. The city where Freddie Gray was killed – allegedly by a “rough ride” from six Baltimore police officers, who have since been indicted – is also the the home of Natural Products Expo East.

The Baltimore Convention Center is built along the city’s Inner Harbor, a lovely enclave of modern and restored buildings stocked with high-end designer furniture, great bars and restaurants, nice hotels, stadiums, and, yes, a Whole Foods.

Those of us who attend annually are wary of hustlers outside; we hurry in behind our admissions badges, hungry for tasty food samples.

Three miles northwest, near where Freddie Gray was arrested, a freshly-built CVS burned. Some now use that drugstore as their high perch for casting disapproval at protesters, a flashpoint for commentators to denounce those whose rage would cause them to destroy their own neighborhoods.

Four miles east of that CVS, the lovely Mt. Washington neighborhood features some of the best schools in the area, and a Whole Foods that dates back to 1996.

As the National Guard arrived in Baltimore in the days that followed the death of Freddie Gray, an Instagram post from the Whole Foods in the Inner Harbor pictured troops hoisting a Whole Foods sack, captioned with this:

“We teamed up with @mtwashingtonwfm to make sandwiches for the men and women keeping Baltimore safe. We are so thankful to have them here and they’re pumped for Turkey & Cheese!”

Now, Whole Foods has a much more nuanced view of race than can be seen via a simple picture on a single store’s social media feed. Corporate said the stores were supplying food to community centers as well, feeding kids who couldn’t go to school because of the chaos.

But optics matter, and this is a picture of what we’ve been discussing recently, which is a lack of racial and ethnic diversity at the heart of the Natural Foods Industry, and why that needs to change. This vision of Baltimore illustrates what we’re exploring this time: how an industry whose brand is largely “doing well by doing good” hasn’t prioritized racial and ethnic diversity, despite the obvious and complementary benefits.

So how did we get here? How did a group of largely progressive, well-intentioned, semi-revolutionary entrepreneurs intent on changing the world manage to elide the issue? I agree that it’s not intentional; nevertheless, effects often defy intent. I see causes in geography, education, and economic status.

Early natural products entrepreneurs started their brands in areas where there was a demographic “sweet spot” – the communities that combined education, access to either agricultural goods or restaurants, and often, money. Some were outdoors-focused, others had tourism as a driver, others were well-known havens of rebelliousness. Urban or rural, they often had academic roots. The campus based social and political movements of the 1960s were a catalyzing point for many of the ideas that resulted in the emergence of the natural foods business, with the pro-environment and back-to-the-land movements acting fellow travelers with activists fighting for racial and gender equality. While there were some (like comedian Dick Gregory, a well-known black political activist and natural foods advocate) who overlapped, the campuses themselves weren’t diverse at the time – they were still largely dominated by white men.

The first generations of today’s natural food entrepreneurs were rooted in largely white communities: Boulder, Colo., California’s Bay Area, Vermont, wealthy sections of Southern California, Western Massachusetts. As companies grew, those roots exerted a gravitational pull for the industry. Is that necessarily wrong? Certainly not, but they pulled the industry even further away from a rich vein of black and hispanic city dwellers. Fred Opie, a Babson College History and Foodways Professor told me that Gregory’s mentor, Dr. Alvenia Fulton, was a celebrity herbalist and naturopath, treating Bill Walton and Muhammad Ali – but her store, and many stores like them in the black community, remained isolated, even as the pair became regular speakers to the growing industry. There are systemic issues of location, race, and class at play there that we’ll explore a bit further in a moment.

Still, given its roots in 1960s social and economic upheaval, it’s no surprise that some of the early incubators of the natural products industry were equally parts political statement and commercial enterprise. From a retail lens, the 1960s and 1970s grocery cooperatives were (and serio-comically remain, if you’ve ever followed, say, a Park Slope Co-Op policy meeting) an experiment giving consumers and members the vote of their collective wallets on issues of economics, agriculture, race, gender, labor policy and the environment. That legacy extends through the successful brands now driving the industry – but honing the point of difference into a consumer-friendly LOHAS position has silenced other parts of the discussion.

Conscious sourcing and novel supply chains yield expensive products; to grow, the industry had to locate consumers who could handle the costs. Maybe that’s just business, but it has – quite unconsciously – led to economic, and by effect, racial, stratification. Baltimore is just one example. In seeking educated and prosperous consumers, key retailers have followed them into equally stratified suburbs, and it’s only recently that they have moved back into cities – largely following gentrification trends.

Meanwhile, the success of early companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Kashi has both inspired and diluted the ballyhooed mix of freaks, yogis and farmers that showed up at Natural Foods Shows in the early 1980s (Dick Gregory launched a juice cleanse from one of them) into the current startup mentality.

But I think that with the stakes raised, purpose has narrowed. Most of the people I’ve interviewed don’t believe growing companies have intentionally avoided diversity in their hiring. But I’ve repeatedly heard that with the money on the table, founders work with their heads down, trying hard to establish their companies, and LOHAS values are their core brand. While more mature businesses are beginning to look at the issue, racial and ethnic diversity fall in the column of “nice to have” for brands that are still struggling to make it. The younger companies run leaner, and they hire for experience.

Still, focus is no excuse – and it’s ultimately harmful. What happens is that the personnel become entrenched within the body of connections that founders and their staffs develop along the way. The legacy within the industry is that it’s still hard to break in if you don’t know someone, but as one veteran power broker told me, the industry must start looking for new talent: there are only so many candidates left who used to run sales at Naked or Snapple.

Of course, the best way to break into the Natural Foods business has always been to start a company. But that’s where systemic inequality returns to the mix. The causes, of course, lie outside of the industry, but are perhaps the most drastic – and again, present the most compelling argument for why an industry that tries to do better by changing systems should adopt diversity as a goal.

Take Alphonzo Cross. He and his sister, Alison, opened up Boxcar Grocer in what some call Atlanta’s “permanently up and coming” – (read: poor and black) – Castleberry Hill neighborhood in 2011. Creating a “healthy corner store” as a model for a potentially scalable network of small urban grocers in food deserts, the Crosses weren’t actively looking for suppliers of color but, Alphonzo Cross told me, “once we came on the scene, people came looking for us.”

“We met so many purveyors we didn’t know what to do with them all,” he said, but “they didn’t even know how to sell the stuff, how to market to a retailer.”

“There’s a lot of folks selling products door to door, out of their cars, at festivals, wherever they can,” he added. “There were a lot of folks who wanted to manufacture but they didn’t know how to do it. No retailer is going to sit down with a potential supplier and tell them how, to say ‘this is where the bar code should be.’ They just say, there’s no bar code and they move on.”

Boxcar Grocer closed in January. Its ultimate fate depended on many things, but in announcing the store’s closing, the founders compared photos of the pristine sidewalks surrounding a Starbucks in the city’s thriving Midtown area with those in Castleberry Hill. Cracked sidewalks, a broken water meter, no bike lanes, broken streetlights and a bill for an off-duty cop to police the area created an extra burden on cash flow for the small businesses in the area. It’s not a level, equitable playing field, Alphonzo said.

“Small business owners are supposed to operate optimally without the infrastructure to do so,” he said. “Those underserved communities are not just underserved via food. Food deserts are basically everything deserts.”

During my interviews, I heard many variations on this theme of systemic inequality and its effects: that well-educated blacks and hispanics, the first in their families positioned to succeed will go the safe route at law or accounting firms and other, stable businesses because of the instability they’ve seen on a generational level. That entrepreneurs in these communities tend to launch small businesses at a much higher level than the rest of the population, but that this entrepreneurial urge is tempered by startup costs and lack of access to capital, resulting in storefront kinds of enterprises – dry-cleaners, insurance offices, salons and restaurants. That networks and mentors are hard to find, that loans are a huge obstacle, that the commercialization and scale that are the language of today’s natural foods business (and others, of course) are just plain harder to achieve. And I believe it. And I think they believe it in Baltimore, as well.

The Crosses, who had found large measures of professional success before starting Boxcar Grocer, say the launch of their own stores was a commercial play, but also an experiment – could they eliminate urban food deserts by offering healthy, natural, local products in downtown neighborhoods. Could they start a discussion about increasing access to healthy food in racially stratified, poor communities, while supporting the local businesses that produce it. It’s not so long ago that such a concept might have been discussed at a grocery co-op as well. It’s time for the industry that grew out of those discussions to start having them again.