Farewell, Whole Foods.

It’s not so hard to say goodbye. Via Anna N. at Jezebel, we learn:

Whole Foods will offer steeper employee discounts to people with lower BMIs. […] Whole Foods CEO John Mackey explains the program in a letter, reproduced below. Apparently it’s part of an initiative to reduce health care costs, which is interesting since Mackey is against the health care reforms that would actually reduce costs for all people.

Click for a larger image:

This is patently absurd. One, because BMI is a terrible indicator of health. PB proprietor G.D., who does a ten-mile run once a week, is technically bordering on obese due to his height and weight (believe you, me, he’s the picture of health). And me? I’m a short woman who meets the weight requirements for obese, but I have sizeable hips/backside and a smaller upper body, which, according to some researchers means I’m less likely to suffer from heart disease than women of similar weight that’s distributed differently. (For more ridiculousness on BMI, check out this slide show at Shapely Prose.)

The second reason it’s absurd is because making it more expensive for larger employees to acquire food is a stupid way of trying to make them lose weight. The policy is punitive, not incentivizing. If John Mackey was truly interested in the health of his employees, why wouldn’t he lower the costs on healthier, unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables for all employees? Moreover, thin employees can be just as unhealthy as fat ones.

Look. I believe in eating well, and being healthy, and exercising, and all that good stuff. But using a measurement like BMI to determine employee discounts is ridiculous. This, for me, is the final straw. My support for the chain, which has been shaky since Mackey came out against health care reform, has concluded. While I’ll miss the convenience of shopping at Whole Foods — especially the bulk bins of dried beans, rice, and flour — it just doesn’t taste good anymore.

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  • Val

    I didn’t know this guy was against health-care reform. That seems strange from a person who owns a business that basically sells health.

    Anyway I gave up on Whole Foods a long time ago. It is just to expensive. Fortunately here we have another store that sells equally healthy food for much more reasonable prices.

    And I don’t think this policy could stand a court challenge. As you point out its discriminatory.

    • I’m with you Val. I quit Whole Paycheck a while ago for cost reasons. They opened one near me in Duluth and it became this sub-division status symbol to hear people say they shopped at Whole Foods and overpaid for groceries. That was the end for me although I do miss that dried grain section too.

  • hXc

    I was hoping this was Onion type material- but alas (sigh)

  • This is crazy and backwards. The letter states in addition to promoting a healthy lifestyle, Whole Foods hopes to lower healthcare costs, then why not make this increased discount available to everyone? Eating healthy is expensive, why not make it more affordable for all who desire to do so?

  • Lisa

    This is stupid! You are right about the BMI, especially b/c it can differ based on ethnicity. On top of that I used to know a Marine who was quite trim but b/c of his build and muscle mass he’d always have to get a weight waiver when he had his Physical Fitness test and weigh in. One year he decided he didn’t want to do that so he worked out even more than usual (his usual was 1.5-2 hours a day)and he hardly ate anything. Like he was worse than a borderline anorexic teen. He lost so much weight his pants were almost falling off. It seemed so crazy.

    On top of that, what are they going to do, make the employees have regular weigh-ins BMI checks? What about pregnant women? What if you put on a lot of weight in a short time? Is it fair for you to keep getting a discount until your next weigh in or is your manager supposed to watch you? What if you lose a lot of weight rapidly? Same thing? Being healthy is good but this just sounds like discrimination. Who knows, maybe their employees will keep working there b/c this isn’t the best time to find a job but will do their shopping elsewhere b/c even with their discount, Whole Foods is probably still pricey and with a lesser discount it might tip the scales (no pun intended) for those folks to shop elsewhere. So less revenue for the company and when the economy improves they might lose some good people just b/c of their BMI. DUMB DUMB DUMB. I hope someone sues.

  • HA! I will pass this on to my girlfriend, who is actually having lunch with this guy today. He is speaking at her Business School… Any nasty thoughts you want me to send his way? Although, I think you guys pretty much captured it here.

  • I admire Mackey’s clarity about Whole Foods mission in life. I wonder if today’s liberals who adore Whole Foods will get clear about what they believe, as well.

    • blackink12

      Wait … huh? What does that mean? The second sentence in particular.

      Is that a joke?

    • I’m glad that Whole Foods CEO John Mackey came out as a right wing ideologue. It makes it easier for me as a liberal to know where I should spend my money…

      Farmers markets, Co-Opportunity , Trader Joes. Same stuff, cheaper prices.

  • Ash

    Trader Joe’s is better anyway.

  • CK

    In states like Michigan, where under the state anti-discrimination statutes, you cannot discriminate based on things like height and weight, this policy is also against the law. Hopefully, someone will sue their asses.

  • Seth in LA

    Shani-o, it seems like you’re going out of your way to dislike this initiative. I don’t think it’s so bad. Not that it matters, since I already swore off WF when Mackey’s stand on Health Care Reform became public.

    But in defense of this particular initiative… it is not punative. Anybody who works there, signed on to work there with the understanding of getting a 20% employee discount. Nobody is losing that. Some people will get a bigger discount, up to 30%.

    Second, he says there will be several criteria, of which he lists four, of which BMI is one. He then goes on to discuss the fact that there might be better criteria and that they plan to try to find them. So he is not relying solely on BMI and besides, it seems he is aware of the shortcomings of BMI and is open to finding a better way.

    If you want to hate the guy, go ahead. There’s plenty of good reasons to do so. But don’t demonize him because he is trying to incentivize employees for being healthy (and looking healthy, it is a retail business) without penalizing anybody else in the process.

    • shani-o

      Criticizing a policy isn’t the equivalent of ‘demonizing’ Mackey, and I’m not sure why disliking it and choosing not to spend my money at a company that enacts such a wrongheaded measure means I ‘hate the guy.’

      Second, your point about BMI being only one criterion of four is immaterial, because if an employee meets all of the other criteria for a discount but still has a high BMI, they’re out of luck. That’s disqualification based on a bad measure, therefore it matters.

      Last, since all employees get the same 20%, then we can set that aside. Getting a bigger discount for being skinny is a reward. And not getting the same discount as one’s thinner coworkers is different than losing out on a reward for not meeting a team goal. BMI has nothing to do with performance. It is punitive to make some employees pay more just because they weigh more, plain and simple. And if you think having a low BMI = “looking healthy,” then you’re missing the point of the post, and I suggest you peruse the link to Shapely Prose I posted.

  • The Whole Foods guy is a total libertarian; WF, while it’s nice that it sells organic and all, is all about catering to the haves and selling them the idea that You’re Totally In Charge Of Your Own Destiny (eat organic and live forever!). Not to mention the insidious idea that consumerism=politics, which drives me crazy (and which is really, really popular with comfortable umc types). So I’m not terribly surprised.

    I also once knew a woman who worked there and said that they treated their employees like shit–union-busting and crap like that. Screw WF; find a good local co-op if you’re in an urban area.

  • Seth in LA

    Forgive me for putting words in your mouth. You weren’t demonizing Mackey and you don’t hate him. I am guilty of hyperbole.

    However, you are swearing off the store because of this policy (even though apparently you didn’t over Mackey’s stance on Health Care legislation, so is it fair to say that you feel very strongly negative about this policy?

    And it appears that half of your anger is based on the whole concept of rewarding certain employees for meeting some self-defined measure of good health and half at his use of BMI as part of the formula.

    Let’s start with the whole concept. You say “since all employees get the same 20%, we can set that aside.” Why should we set it aside? It is the agreement that every employee made with WF. If I’m getting the 20% discount I was promised, why should I care if somebody is getting more or less? Nowhere in this letter does it say that meeting these criteria is the only way to increase your compensation. I’m sure there are plenty of performance based ways to get rewarded. He has decided with his companies money to compensate, and incentivize his employers to be healthy. Nobody is making anybody pay more. They are just allowing some to pay less. You define more as “more than what the other guy is paying.” I define it as “more than I agreed to make you pay when we agreed to work together.”

    As to a high BMI making somebody out of luck, where are you getting that? Do you think that if two employees have good blood pressure and cholesterol measures and one smokes but has a low BMI and the other doesn’t smoke but has a higher BMI, the smoker will get a better deal?

    I understand your anger at the concept of BMI. It is inaccurate, and in its inaccuracy it tends to be unfair to African Americans and you personally are one of the people that BMI mislabels. But judging from the lengths Mackey went to acknowledge the shortcomings of some of the biomarkers (and you know he was talking about BMI), I have no reason to beleive that an athletic employee with a high BMI might be able to appeal it by proving, for example, that she has a satisfactory body fat percentage.

    By the way, I checked Shapely Prose, and I saw a number of people who are mislabeled. That’s to be expected, given the point they were trying to make. I also saw some people who seemed accurately labeled.

    And lest you think I am a skinny snob, according to BMI, I am morbidly obese, and BMI is dead one correct on that score.

  • LaJane Galt

    Of course Whole Paycheck couldn’t be bothered to drop the employee prices on its healthy hot food. Nooooooo.

    The irony of irony is when I buy fresh fruits/veggies etc…from Whole Food$ I actually end up spending more.

    This is it for me, like Wal-Mart (yeah), WP’s corporate practices have pushed me over the edge. No more.

  • Stephen

    Free country, Free market, Free Choice. Consumers are not forced to shop there. Employees are not forced to work there. Companies should be able to reward healthier behavior.

    If I as an employee feel that those health markers are something that I am unable (BMI/Blood Pressure) or unwilling (Nicotine use) to meet, then I am free to not participate.

    Why do some of the comments above imply that we should be offering the “Reward” to the employees who need it most? If they would get the best discount, why would they even try to improve their health?

    This is the US of A. Take responsibility for your own health. Do not wait for the government to fix all your problems.

    • Ladyfresh

      It’s also rewarding those who don’t take responsibility for their health. So you weigh less but smoke, you weigh less but can eat what you want. This is taking responsibility for health?

      As shani-o keps stating BMI is not a good measure of health. If you want to promote health lower the prices on your healthy and whole items. Give an extra discount to those who visit the gym or bike, walk and jog regularly

      This is a false promotion of health hence the problem…. on top of the already problematic stance Mackey has.

      Like you said it’s a “free” country and most have already started shopping elsewhere. Pricey foods and questionable political stances makes it easy to do.

      • Stephen

        It is interesting that everyone is only focusing on the BMI measurement. I’ve seen this story posted on many different forums and I’ve only seen the complete Whole Food’s Healthy Discount plan on one of them. To get an increased discount you need to make improvements in four areas. If you smoke or use any nicotine product at all you do not get more than the 20% discount. If your BMI is good but your cholesterol or blood pressure is high you do not get more than the 20% discount.

        Mackey’s stance on healthcare reform is more in line with what the majority of Americans believe. He is against the healthcare reform/government takeover that the Democrats are proposing. He is only one person, so his stance on any given subject should not really matter.

        If this policy really causes people to not shop or work there, then he will see it on the balance sheet. Only time will tell.

  • glasgowtremontaine

    Stephen claims “Mackey’s stance on healthcare reform is more in line with what the majority of Americans believe.” This interestingly misrepresents American public opinion: