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Claire Sullivan

Hawaii vendor relations, Whole Foods Market

Claire Sullivan
Hawaii vendor relations,
Whole Foods Market

Whole Foods Market hired Claire Sullivan to work with local producers for its first Hawaii location, which opened at Kahala Mall in September 2008. Sullivan talks to Hawaii Business about the challenges facing agriculture in Hawaii, and addresses some misconceptions about the whole sustainable, local and organic conversation.

Q: How did you get local companies and farmers on board?


A: There were some initial press releases that invited vendors or resources to contact us. Then we went through the process of explaining what it was we required of our vendors — it’s actually a very short list of requirements. The first thing is meeting our standards, which simply means that all ingredients are acceptable to Whole Foods. When it comes to produce, we don’t require that items are organic, although we greatly prefer organically certified produce, as do our customers. … The main thing that we had to communicate to vendors who were interested was that we’re actually very small. There’s this sense of, “I don’t think I can supply Whole Foods Market. It’s so big, and I can never meet the volume requirements.” I had to say many times, “We’re one store.” There’s an opportunity to grow with us as we open more stores in Hawaii. If vendors want, and if we want by mutual accord, we could have products in multiple stores and possibly even on the Mainland. But vendors can also choose just to be in one store, and that’s fine. It was interesting overcoming that perception, and even now we’re turning people away because we’re saturated.

Q: What areas are saturated?

A: We certainly find that we have plenty of papayas, plenty of bananas, so we’re pretty good on the tropical fruits front. It seems like a lot of the new farmers who have taken up farming in the past 20 years have planted exotic fruit orchards. When it comes to things like lychee, rambutan and longan, there’s plenty. But there are some missing pieces. Across the board, the missing piece for us is not enough
organic produce. That is a really big challenge and it speaks to a lot of the challenges that face the farming community in Hawaii in general … I think the most essential [challenge] would be land tenure, because going organic requires a three-year conversion period from your last application of any chemical, synthetic pesticide or herbicide through to your actual certification. You’re also building up your soil health over many years, so it requires that you have access to the land and are able to invest in it for many years. When you’re operating on a year-to-year or even a five-year lease, that is not a reasonable investment to make. Many farmers are facing a serious disincentive to employ organic practices on their land.

Q: You mentioned the oversaturation of papayas and tropical fruits. What about other crops?

A:  If you wanted to make a basic vegetable soup, you’d have trouble, because we don’t have a good supply of carrots, potatoes, celery and non-sweet onions — really basic staples for most pantries and most cuisines around the world, and they’re just not available here. I think that ties into the fact that they’re commodities, so it’s difficult to compete with imports on a price basis, unlike niche products that were really championed by the chefs. Thank goodness for Hawaii Regional Cuisine, which has done so much to support our local farmers; but that direction has really been more toward a niche product as opposed to a basic product. Some other things that we’re missing are locally produced spinach. Some things that folks don’t necessarily think would grow in Hawaii but do — in Upcountry Maui and Upcountry Big Island — are all the soft fruits, the stone fruits: peaches, plums, apricots and even apples.

Q: Not all local products are organic, and not all organic products are local. For Hawaii, what’s more important at this stage?

A: That is a very difficult question, and I think it’s one that each consumer has to grapple with on his or her own. I think there are certain criteria that can be taken into consideration and the problem is there’s no definitive decision-making criterion. If you’re buying organic, I think the commitment is to those broad benefits of organic production, both to your own health and well being and that of your family, but more particularly to the health and well being of farm workers who are exposed to chemicals in much greater concentrations than the actual end user. It’s also a commitment to the environmental benefits, so it’s kind of a big picture [decision]. If you’re purchasing local, then it’s much more focused on this economy, this community and this landscape. That choice prioritizes an emphasis on land-use decisions in Hawaii. If you’re purchasing local foods, then you’re supporting a certain type of economy, a certain type of job, a certain landscape, a more rural and green landscape; you’re focusing on aquifer recharge, etc. There are some very tangible, specific benefits to buying local.

Q: Some people say that Whole Foods is just another big-box store and will drive out smaller health-food stores like Down to Earth and Umeke Market. What can you say to those critics? 

A: First of all, it’s a really good question because locally owned grocery stores are an important element of the community and of the economy, and may they live long and be vibrant. Whole Foods Market, when it enters a new community or a new market, generally finds that there is an initial, very short-term impact on sales at pre-existing grocery stores, and that impact then melts away over time. Having had conversations very recently with a few of our competitors, it sounds like that is in fact what has happened, at least to the ones with whom I spoke. They felt that initial impact, but it had a very short duration, and it reflects Hawaii’s manic interest in anything new, where everybody and their uncle needs to come and see, and then they go back to their regular shopping patterns. I think the most important point to make is that Whole Foods Market doesn’t divert existing, committed natural-food shoppers. In general, it broadens the base of consumers who are purchasing natural organic foods. It means that we are expanding that production methodology; we’re expanding that consumption methodology and ending up with an overall improvement.

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