Amazon’s announcement that it intended to purchase Whole Foods rocked the food industry on Friday. Ever since, people have been trying to predict the future. What will it mean for other delivery services? For other grocery stores? For farmers and suppliers? For the way we live?
One of the industry’s strongest voices has some thoughts about that. This weekend, Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse and a leader in the local-food movement, tweeted an open letter to Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos — who also owns The Washington Post — urging him to “do the right thing for our country, our farmers, and our planet.” In an interview with The Post, she elaborates on what she’d like to see Amazon do for our food system — and what she fears will happen instead. This transcript has been edited for clarity and condensed.
Q. What was your reaction when you heard that Amazon bought Whole Foods?
When I heard that number, $13.7 billion, it just sort of took my breath away. I just thought, wow, what you could do with that amount of money — and when you’re the head of Amazon, and you have just purchased a big supermarket company, you could make a difference.
What about Whole Foods do you see as problematic?
I always had great hopes for it in the beginning, at least when it was small and in Texas. The idea of buying from local people, and a commitment to the organic farmers and ranchers was very, very important to me. But as it grew, it compromised. I really hope it can be reinvented.
What do you see as its biggest compromises?
Not buying from local, organic growers. I’m not saying everything [should come] from local [growers], but most of it, and the ideas of seasonality feeling very present in the store. I’ve been to Whole Foods markets in New York at Union Square, and they have sunflowers at Christmas. And I just have watched it over the years really using our movement to their advantage, without an effort to inform people, but rather to sell them something. I have never approved of [Whole Foods selling conventional produce]. I think our focus needs to be on taking care of the land for future generations. And really [to make] an effort to inform people about the real cost of food. Why is it $28 for an organic chicken? Because it takes this long, and this much land, this much organic grain, this much pasture. You know, help people understand that food can be affordable, but it can never be cheap. When it’s cheap, it’s part of a fast food indoctrination. We have these ideas about uniformity, about advertising conferring value, about fast, cheap and easy. And food has never been that.
What about Amazon do you see as problematic?
I can’t speak about Amazon. I’m not informed the way I should be. I just know it has an immense reach. I know that [Bezos has] a megaphone that people listen to.
What do you think about fears that Amazon plans to reduce jobs at Whole Foods through automation?
Well, you can only imagine what I think about that. [Laughs] I think that food is a living thing. I think that people’s judgment about it is very important. Sensitivity to aliveness in food is what we’re talking about. We’re not discarding things because they are imperfect or blemished, we’re understanding ripeness in terms of human values. So the idea of mechanization, really, I think, goes against a food culture of humanity that’s been around since the beginning of civilization. It’s the closeness to nature that’s ultimately going to heal us, and our preservation of it. And our recognition that that’s where our food comes from.
As the influence of technology increases in the food industry, do you see any of it as a force for good, or does all of it make you wary?
All of it makes me quite wary. I know things that are helping people to analyze the labels on food, for instance, to inform people about what they’re buying. Maybe that is useful. I’m looking to see things unpackaged, I’m looking to connect with the farmers and really be able to touch and smell and taste, and use our senses. I mean, that’s what it’s all about, that’s the joy of it. And of course, a really big part of it is cooking — cooking and gathering at the table. And that kind of has been a primary rite of civilization, and I’ve heard that 85 percent of kids at this country don’t have one meal at the table. We’re losing our connection. And certainly technology is interfering with that.
Have you ever met Jeff Bezos?
I haven’t. I know he’s friends of people that I know. I would very much like to meet him. I was hoping maybe even, a crazy thought, that he would come to Slow Food Nation in Denver in July.
Has anyone from Amazon reached out to you after your letter?
They haven’t. I’m not surprised. I’m very gratified that so many people responded. Some people think I’m idealistic and impractical. But we’re at a point where we have to believe that we can change things. I’ve never lost that. We stopped the war in Vietnam in the ’60s. We have to change our food system in this country. It feels like [Bezos] might be open. He asked for people’s ideas about his philanthropy. That’s surprising to me. I just am looking always for the person who can help carry this idea.
What would you like to see Bezos do?
I can’t help but think about my little business, and how we had to find a path to the people who were taking care of the land and growing food that we wanted at Chez Panisse. It’s not a difficult path to find, it just doesn’t fit into the values of a fast food culture. It doesn’t fit into cheap and fast and uniform. It fits into a whole other set of slow food values. It becomes a partnership. And it doesn’t mean that every store has to have the same things. Every store could be different. You could buy from 10 lettuce growers, you don’t have to buy from one, and it’s not harder to buy from 10. Fast food culture would want us to believe so, but it’s not true.
What is your greatest fear about the purchase?
I have a great fear of technology. And of misinformation. Misrepresentation.
What do you hope will happen?
I want to believe that that it could be transformed in a way that would really educate and enlighten us, and delight us. All of the above. I had one crazy idea that maybe the stores should just be gutted and turned into indoor farmers’ markets. I mean, I just came from Spain, and the way people shop there is so beautiful. There are stalls in a big huge building that has refrigeration. And each one is owned by somebody. [There’s] great ham people, a cheese shop and vegetables. And outdoors there’s an organic market. And we don’t think about shopping like that. Every time an American goes into a market in another country, they find it wondrous. I get to go to the farmers market every single day. But in other parts of the country we need an indoor space that operates in that way, where you’re empowering people to build a food community. It really could begin that sort of transition. It could begin in a Whole Foods Market.
What do you think people lose when they shop for groceries online?
We don’t want to put in an order on a computer. We think we do, but it’s another idea of fast food culture, that time is money. So talking with somebody personally, [people] think, is too much time. But my great pleasure has always been when I called up Bob, my farmer, and he’d say, “I was just out in the field.” It’s the conversation that I have with him that gives me that sense of closeness, of communication. People, I see them down at Acme Bread Company, and they’re standing in line 40 people deep. They like the experience of walking into a bakery and smelling it, they like to talk to each other in line. They have a sense that there’s something about that just-baked bread that’s gratifying. That’s what we’re missing when we buy food online.
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