In an era when single Tweets announce shifts in the country’s foreign policy, it’s not surprising that Alice Waters took to Twitter to respond to the June 16 news of Amazon’s proposed purchase of Whole Foods, nor that her statement, posted Saturday, made national news in itself.
“Dear Jeff Bezos,” the Chez Panisse owner and food activist wrote in a one-paragraph open letter to the Amazon founder, “with the acquisition of Whole Foods — and the ubiquitous network of Amazon — you have an unprecedented opportunity to change our food system overnight.”
The conversation surrounding Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods has spiraled far beyond a discussion of the sales price or speculation around staffing cuts at the grocery store, which has 460 locations. Does it foretell the death of retail? The death of Whole Foods’ values? The Millennials! It must have something to do with Millennials.
In any case, the sale signals a watershed, though like most watershed moments, no one agrees on where the water will flow next.
Waters isn’t clear, either, but she immediately grasped the fact that the sale meant something big. When the news broke last Friday, she told The Chronicle, “It took my breath away to think about $13.7 billion and what that could do.”
In her Tweet, Waters wrote that “it is time to demand that produce comes from farmers who are taking care of the land, to require meat and seafood to come from operations that are not depleting natural resources, and to support the entrepreneurial endeavors of those American farmers and food makers who do not enjoy federal subsidies.”
It struck her that the Amazon founder could have an immediate impact on all these problems. But how? Waters preferred to keep steering the conversation away from specifics and toward her core vision: That Americans need to cook seasonal and local food. “Who knows what kind of place those supermarkets could become?” she mused. “They could become indoor farmers’ markets, conceivably.”
Doing so would require a reversal of both company’s business models on the order of a fast U-turn on a four-lane highway. At rush hour.
For instance, Waters has long criticized Whole Foods for selling organic food shipped from other countries and stocking its shelves with too many non-organic products. It doesn’t go far enough.
And Amazon needs to address the problem of shipping things in boxes that are constantly recycled. “We don’t need that,” she said.
An Amazon-owned Whole Foods, Waters hopes, could become a direct conduit between small-scale farmers and consumers, dispensing with the idea of scaling volume up and scaling prices down.
“Scaling, I think, disrupts the creative thinking,” she said. “It’s not always that you have to have the same thing. It’s like you could really buy lettuce from 10 farms, which is what we do at Chez Panisse. They’re different but they’re all good. It’s this idea of uniformity and availability, 24-7, that are really fast-food ideas. We have to appreciate the charming irregularities, which is what brings us into a relationship with nature.”
Of course, Amazon has built its entire business on scalability, cost cutting and on-demand delivery. Not to mention boxes.
Waters’ direct appeal to Bezos, it turns out, is more of an invitation to speak. She famously caught the ears of Barack and Michelle Obama, inspiring them to plant an organic garden at the White House. Overall, however, she was disappointed by the president’s response. “I think he wanted to go through the system, and I’m not speaking about going through the system. Because the system is broken,” she said.
By contrast, she’s intrigued by the Amazon founder’s reputation for disruption. “A very enlightened, very wealthy person could make that kind of dramatic change,” she said.
“This could be a very big door opening,” Waters said. “I just see what happened when a little door like Chez Panisse, when we opened this door, it was amazing. We only serve 500 people but we became partners in the business with our farmers. So it was like restaurant-supported agriculture. And this could be like market-supported agriculture.”
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