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Possible arrival of Trader Joe's, Whole Foods sparks ongoing discussion

Owners of two Grand Rapids markets offer their views on Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, and what our community and local businesses need to thrive.
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Angela Topp, owner of Tree Huggers, is one of many who joined the conversation about chain grocery stores.

Angela Topp, owner of Tree Huggers, is one of many who joined the conversation about chain grocery stores. /Courtesy of Angela Topp

Last week, there was much buzz surrounding the news that the national grocery chains Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods would be opening up shop in Grand Rapids. While many Grand Rapidians were excited about this possibility, not all were enthused about corporate chains coming into a city that already has local grocery stores and farms from which to source food.

News comments and social media site discussions had people asking, 'What really is the difference between these stores and what we already have in Grand Rapids, and are they any better?'

It seems that the immediate concern for community-based stores would be competition. According to Jake Heaton of Nourish Organic Market at 634 Wealthy St. SE, losing business to a big chain store like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods is not a big concern. Neither of these would station themselves in the heart of downtown like Nourish, he said, as they’re not neighborhood stores. In essence, it's a different niche. Nourish is home to loyal customers who come consistently for goods and produce from local farms, none of which would be supplied at one of the big-box stores, said Heaton.

“It’s a mixed bag,” said Heaton, “It’s good to promote the growth of other businesses, but I’m not sure of the effects.”

Nourish is an all-organic grocery store that focuses on bringing in pastured animal products and local food items. The store also works with farmer Luke Malski of Reformation Growers, supplying him with compost materials that he can feed to his worms to create soil, which he can then sell to customers. Malksi also teaches classes on composting that many customers of Nourish take advantage of. Further awareness of where our food comes from is important for a healthy community, according to Heaton, something that comes into question with big corporations.

“Our choices impact the world as a whole, not only our actions, but our inactions. I want to encourage people to be thoughtful about what they’re eating, where it comes from, and what it took to make it. Don’t think it’s healthy just because a label says Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods,” said Heaton.

Angela Topp owns Tree-Huggers, another local grocery store located on 947 Wealthy St. SE. Topp made her stance on the two companies known on her company's facebook page. In a post, she wrote:

...while everyone is celebrating the idea of a whole foods and a trader joes, think for a second about the small farmers, bakers, retailers and such that will not be apart of this vision. Food should be local and small not corporate and big..."

Tree Huggers is a package-free store specializing is bulk products, where customers can buy as little or as much as they need, both saving money and reducing waste. Larger stores have food that goes unused and get thrown out, even if there's just a few dents or dings, said Topp. While the three R’s- Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, have reduced Whole Food’s contribution to the landfill by 75 percent, Tree Huggers is completely waste-free. The store offers recycling (including styrofoam and unnumbered plastics) for its customers, for a small fee or volunteer time.

While Topp naturally prefers her model, she is also concerned about the West Michigan food system, and wonders how more big food corporations may change local farming.

“Whole Foods may work with our local farms, but it will probably be on Whole Foods’ terms, not the farm’s,” said Topp. “I don’t know how that could be good for any of us. Farmers have brought back many heirloom and lost plants back from non-existent.”

The concern is that if big businesses dominate what our farmers grow, some of this work will be lost.

“Most people are ready to flock to a big store like these because it’s fast and easy," said Topp.

Topp says that although customers say they will continue to support local businesses, Whole Foods must recognize the opportunity to build upon those already-thriving businesses that offer good food, or else it would not come.

“The world would be a better place if we lowered our expectations and slowed down. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect, where you can get everything from one store. The more businesses you can support, the better, whether or not produce has a few dents or dings in them.”

Kathy VandeGevel, teacher and head of the Environmental Club at City High School, takes her shopping seriously when it comes to supplying her family with organic and non-genetically modified (GMO) food items.

"In Grand Rapids, if you really want to eat healthy, you have to go to a number of different stores," she said.

This can be hard, according to VandeGevel, for those like herself who don't live near stores like Nourish or Tree Huggers. VandeGevel tends to do the bulk of her shopping for organics at the nearby Meijer or D&W, or local farmer's markets. Although not completely current on the environmental practices of Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and Meijer, she hopes that they are taking initiative in regards to the three R's.

"I think Meijer has really taken great strides," she said.

VandeGevel's main concern is finding natural ingredients in food products, without the use of food dyes.

"If you want to be choosy about your food, you have to be careful. You really have to pore over ingredients labels," she said.

She has not been to Whole Foods, but has shopped at a Trader Joe's outside of Grand Rapids, and was happy with the number of non-GMO and organic items.

"I'm shocked that we wouldn't engage in these markets," said VandeGevel, especially if it means more people have the opportunity to access healthy options.

Calls to the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce regarding these markets, were not quickly returned. 

While it’s now known that a Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods is not likely to be arriving here in Grand Rapids in the very near future, the discussion is valuable to the community’s recognition of all of the local options that are already available. In the end, it comes down to the customer and what they want and need. Ultimately, says Topp, grocers are at the fate of the customer.

"It’s important to make them want to support what we are doing,” she says.

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