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Whole Foods, white liberalism and short-term solutions to long term problems

Last week, Chicagoans bemoaned the news that a high-priced grocery store in a low-income neighborhood would soon be shuttered. Experts and politicians say it was doomed from the day it opened.

CHICAGO (CN) — This Friday Chicago mourned the official loss of a Whole Foods location in the affluent, majority-white neighborhood of Lincoln Park. Whole Foods and Amazon, which owns the grocery chain, announced last Friday that they were shuttering the location as part of a nation-wide closure of six underperforming stores, including two in Chicago.

Practically speaking the Lincoln Park store had already been closed days before. By Thursday, the windows had been papered, the logos removed, a sign welcoming customers replaced with another telling them to keep moving. A quick death.

The Whole Foods in Lincoln Park had shuttered by mid-week, while the Englewood store stayed open (Dave Byrnes / Courthouse News)

The other soon-to-close Whole Foods in Chicago is located in the the poor, majority-Black neighborhood of Englewood. It faces a much slower doom, with the company saying last week only that it expects the store to close sometime in the coming months. Slow death is apt for Englewood, a community which has seen steady resident exodus and divestment since white flight in the 1960s.

Closing the Englewood store will turn the area into a so-called food desert — an area where there the closest large grocery store is over a mile away — for some residents of the neighborhood. Parts of Englewood were already a food desert prior to 2016 when the Whole Foods first opened.

Last week, media, the mayor and even former Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb all lamented news of the shop's approaching end.

“I died a few deaths on Friday. It broke my heart,” Robb told reporter Natalie Moore of Chicago's public news station WBEZ. “A lot of people poured their heart and soul in building this [Englewood Square] center. I personally recruited Starbucks and Chipotle to 63rd and Halsted. I am obviously very disappointed in its closing."

"Amazon's decision to close stores in Englewood and Lincoln Park as part of a nationwide closure of stores is obviously disappointing," Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a prepared statement. "My immediate worry is for the workers in both locations. Amazon must now take clear steps to protect those workers as they transition to new opportunities."

For all the sad statements, several academics along with one of the neighborhood's representatives in City Hall said they weren't surprised by the announcement. Jeannette Taylor, Alderwoman of the city's 20th Ward on whose border the Englewood Whole Foods sits, said that even if the store removed the neighborhood's food desert designation on paper, most local residents couldn't afford to buy food there anyway. Stephanie Coleman, Alderwoman of the 16th Ward in which the Whole Foods is actually located, did not respond to a request for comment.

"From what I hear from people who live in my ward, they don't really shop there," Taylor said, adding she can't often afford to shop there either. "It's too expensive."

While the Whole Foods in Englewood advertises locally-sourced products, few Englewood locals were in the store on Friday (Dave Byrnes / Courthouse News)

Supporting her point, employees in the Whole Foods on Friday easily outnumbered customers. And not all of the customers were locals.

Taylor's shrugging take on the situation belied her anger at what led to it. In 2014, the city under then-mayor Rahm Emanuel approved an investment of over $10 million in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds to subsidize development of a privately-owned commercial square in Englewood, anchored by the Whole Foods.

The developer of the aptly-named Englewood Square, DL3 Realty, also received over $13 million in federal tax credits for the project from the Chicago Development Fund and PNC Bank via the New Markets Tax Credit Program. Several hundred thousand dollars also flowed into the Square from private investors and the Chicago Community Loan Fund.

As with other development deals in Chicago, such as that reached between the city and the Obama Foundation for construction of the controversial Obama Presidential Center, DL3 paid the city all of $1 for the land on which Englewood Square now sits.

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"You got our TIF money and now you're leaving with our TIF money," Taylor said. "These companies don't care about us."

Pedro Bortoto, a labor researcher and Doctor of Labor History from Brazil's University of Campinas who has lived in Chicago for several years, was also unsurprised at the news. Englewood, he pointed out, has seen seen extensive divestment from both the private and public sectors since the 1960s, when the South Side neighborhood's white residents fled in droves to the suburbs. According to a 1999 history of the neighborhood in The Chicago Reporter, the white population of Englewood "plummeted from 51,583 to 818" between 1960 and 1980, and it has remained a majority-Black community ever since.

Poverty is structural and endemic in such communities affected by white flight, Bortoto said, and their residents' food insecurity cannot be solved by a real estate deal for a shopping center. While DL3 Realty has Black owners, he labelled the decision to open a high-price grocery store in a poverty-stricken area "white liberal thinking."

"It's a short term solution to a long term problem," Bortoto said. "It's white liberal thinking. It's, 'we want to the neighborhood to have good food. Where do they have good food? Oh, Whole Foods.' Never mind how expensive it is."

Bortoto further pointed out that Whole Foods began reporting declining profits to the Security and Exchange Commission in 2015. He opined that opening the store in Englewood with a multi-million dollar subsidy may have been an attempt to tap into new markets - one that didn't pan out.

"The tendency of the profits to fall that occurred then, is probably occurring now," he said.

The company itself isn't saying. Responding to requests for comment on the situation, a Whole Foods representative gave only this prepared statement:

“As we continue to position Whole Foods Market for long-term success, we regularly evaluate the performance and growth potential of each of our stores, and we have made the difficult decision to close six stores."

The Whole Foods workers in Englewood also declined to comment, with several saying they'd been instructed by management not to speak to reporters.

Joseph Choonara, a lecturer in political economy at the UK's University of Leicester, placed the blame for the store's closure not so much on Whole Foods itself but on Amazon, which acquired Whole Foods in 2017. He dismissed Robb's remarks to WBEZ as sentimentality obfuscating the company's hard economic calculus.

"I think this is just a cold calculation by Amazon that they don't want to subsidize this store," Choonara said.

He added that while the $438 billion+ company reaped massive profits through 2020, those pandemic profits have begun to decrease. Amazon has reported a $7.6 billion net loss since the start of 2022.

"[Amazon] hugely increased their logistics, their staffing levels through the pandemic, but... they're now reaching a point where that pandemic boost is wearing off," he said. "They're now seeing a squeeze on profit. People are not spending as much on Amazon as they were a few months ago."

Taylor said that, regardless of where blame should fall, she hoped the closure would serve as a message to City Hall and Chicagoans at large that divested communities can not rely on big box stores' magnanimity. She advocated for stricter legislation preventing large companies from picking up sticks without reimbursing the city for its investments, and said what her community needed was more local grocers with personal ties to the area.

"There's been talk about growing our own grocers, so we're not dealing with big boxes," Taylor said. "How many Black and brown grocers are there in this city? Not many."

Expanding the scope of the analysis, Choonara and Bortoto both said that they believed closures like this augured further instability in the global economy. Choonara even predicted a global recession, as large companies try to squeeze ever slimming-profits out of consumers whose wages are stagnant and whose costs of living are only going up — a scenario Bortoto called "stagflation."

"I think a lot of these firms will look at their holdings and think, what works, what isn't such a good investment... I think we should expect that kind of instability," Choonara said.

That instability will hit wage workers like those at Whole Foods the hardest, Choonara said, and so those workers should be prepared to fight for fair treatment. Whole Foods said in its statement that it will offer "interested, eligible" employees of the Lincoln Park and Englewood stores positions at its other locations, and severance to those who are let go. It did not respond to requests to clarify how much or in what form this severance will take. It also did not specify how it would determine who among its Englewood and Lincoln Park employees were "eligible" for a position at another store.

"The best thing to do now is organize and demand what [Whole Foods] promised. They're promising severances? Then make a stink about it," Bortoto said.

This drama surrounding the closures comes with one final twist. Last Wednesday — two days before Whole Foods announced it was closing the Englewood and Lincoln Park stores — the company opened a new location in River North, one of Chicago's wealthiest neighborhoods.

"The store’s design is inspired by the historic homes, storefronts and gourmet restaurants of the surrounding neighborhoods with elements like elegant arches, recycled handmade tiles and glazed brick," a news release on the location's opening said.

Alderwoman Taylor was not impressed.

"Thank you for turning your back on our community," she said, when asked if there was anything she'd like to say to Whole Foods and Amazon's corporate leadership. "Thank you for showing your true colors. Sincerely, a Black mother who just wants what everybody else has."

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