Whole Foods CEO Jason Buechel presenting on the second day of Progressive Grocer's Grocery Impact event.
Anticipation ran high before the kickoff session of the second day of Progressive Grocer’s Grocery Impact event, and the star speaker, Whole Foods Market CEO Jason Buechel, didn’t disappoint. From the moment he bounded on stage after an introduction by Inmar Intelligence SVP Enterprise Strategy and Development Garry Church, Buechel captivated the audience with his presentation, Purpose- and People-Driven, on how the Austin, Texas-based organic and natural food grocer is helping support global food systems.
“I believe that we as an industry can be a force for good in the changing way the world thinks about food at Whole Foods Market,” he asserted to the audience of aspiring and established grocery leaders. “We're inviting all of you to help be part of a ripple-effect change that will fix challenges within our broken food systems.”
This isn’t, of course, the first time that Whole Foods has worked to advance a cause. From the time of its founding in 1980, “we pushed for locally sourced organic fruits and vegetables during a time that most retailers were pushing frozen and prepackaged products and convenience foods,” recounted Buechel. The rest is history for the only national retailer to achieve organic certification in the United States, as “organic foods are mainstream and widely offered by many types of retailers,” he pointed out. “We can find [them] just about everywhere, from groceries stores to convenience stores to gas stations.”
Now, however, the grocer is “on the cusp … of a new era where we collectively extend [our] commitment to climate-smart agriculture, including regenerative,” he noted. “And I see in the foreseeable future, our climate and our soil health, if we continue farming [in] large-scale mechanized ways that much of the industry currently does, our topsoil that we know today is not going to have the nutrient density it needs to grow the products that we know and love for future generations.”
Buechel went on to observe that “[s]mart agriculture has the potential to do so much more than merely slow down climate change; it has the capacity to reverse and heal our environment and our soil to tackle this challenge.”
To make this needed change happen, “Whole Foods Market is working with suppliers, scientists, experts and other committed organizations to learn how we can utilize regenerative agriculture to evolve the growing, the harvesting and the producing of crops for food and other products,” he said. “We’re also taking action to help protect the integrity of the term ‘regenerative’ … so our customers can understand what it really means.”
Some ways that the company is effecting change are through partnerships with suppliers like North Carolina’s Hickory Nut Gap Farm, “whose focus on animal welfare, sustainability and nourishment is resonating with the market, and we can help give them a platform to grow and become a more impactful player within the industry,” according to Buechel; increasing affordable land access for farmers, “specifically those who are young, Black, Indigenous and other people of color”; the grocer’s In the Field program, which unites “team members from across the company at all different levels for a hands-on educational experience with our community partners and suppliers”; and the expansion of Whole Foods’ Sourced for Good program, which stresses the importance of responsible sourcing through third-party certification, to more aisles across of its stores, starting with Whole Foods Market brand coffee blends.
A key reason for grocers to advance climate-friendly agriculture is that “in 30 years, climate friendly agriculture, like organic and regenerative, is going to be a table stake for our customers across our landscape,” predicted Buechel near the close of his presentation.
In a brief one-on-one with Progressive Grocer Editor-in-Chief Gina Acosta, he spoke about expanding Whole Foods’ reach and impact through such means as growing its store footprint to open 30 locations a year and instituting direct ship to enable customers who live far from Whole Foods stores to have the grocer’s 365 brand products delivered quickly via parent company Amazon. Echoing his remarks during the presentation, he invited the competition to join Whole Foods in its world-changing work, noting that “as we … continue to raise the bar, we know other folks are going to come along as well.”