Uproar about food markets attracts crowds

February 18, 2011
By
 


Gazette Photo by Lori DeSantis
A crowd bids a public farewell to Hi-Lo on Feb. 12. Hi-Lo closed its doors for good over the weekend. It is slated to be replaced by a Whole Foods Market, causing a great deal of conversation in the neighborhood.

HYDE SQ.—Close to 300 people turned out at a forum Feb. 7 to discuss it. It has inspired impassioned rhetoric. Three separate Facebook pages have sprung up supporting, opposing and asking for community input on it.

One thing is certain; the scheduled replacement of Hi-Lo Market at 415 Centre St. with a Whole Foods Market has given the community cause to reflect.

Some see it as a serious blow to JP’s cultural and economic diversity, others as a boon for a struggling business district and an exciting new local grocery shopping choice.

Hi-Lo, which closed last weekend, had, over its 47-year existence, carved out a niche as a local go-to store for Latino food staples and affordable groceries. Whole Foods—a national chain—specializes in organic and natural foods. Whole Foods plans to move into the grocery store in March and begin renovations.

Meanwhile, the new grocer in town has earned high marks from the city for its support of former Hi-Lo employees.

But Laura Derba, North Atlantic regional president of Whole Foods said she would have preferred it if the conversation had gotten off to a slower start.

She issued a statement this week—addressed to “residents of Jamaica Plain,” saying, among other things, “We were enormously disappointed that [the community was] not informed in a more respectful and organized manner. Ideally, we would have had the opportunity to communicate with the city and neighborhood officials prior to our announcement, as is our standard policy.”

The Gazette first reported on the replacement of Hi-Lo with Whole Foods on-line on Jan. 14, after the change was announced to Hi-Lo employees and some of them were given pink slips. Contacted by the Gazette at that time, Whole Foods officials declined to comment ahead of an announcement to the company’s shareholders scheduled for Feb. 9.

In an about face, Whole Foods officially confirmed its plans to move into JP, issuing a statement Jan. 19, just before the Gazette went to press with the story.

Since then, the city and Whole Foods have hosted at least four events aimed at supporting former Hi-Lo employees. Those have included three information sessions at the Connolly Library in Hyde Square, and a Whole Foods job fair for former Hi-Lo employees, Connie Doty, director of the Mayor’s Office of Jobs and Community Service told the Gazette.

“They have been an incredibly collaborative partner,” Doty said of Whole Foods.

Hi-Lo owner Knapp Foods, which is leasing the 415 Centre St. site to Whole Foods, has not been particularly cooperative, she said. “We weren’t getting any help from [Knapp],” she said. The company did not announce the city-sponsored support efforts, would not provide the city with contact information for former employees, and did not provide employees with any information about unemployment benefits, she said.

Officials from Knapp Foods did not respond to Gazette requests for comment for this story.

Doty said she is confident, at this point, that the city has contact info for all of the around-40 former Hi-Lo employees. Whole Foods has, so far, hired at least one former Hi-Lo employee, Doty and Whole Foods spokesperson Heather McCready told the Gazette.

Whole Foods has a history of supporting workforce development in the city, Doty said. The company has, for years, sponsored language classes for non-native speakers and other development classes for employees and potential employees at the International Institute of Boston. “They have hired well over half,” of the workers who took classes they sponsored, Doty said.

She said the city plans to follow up with Hi-Lo employees, “The Mayor said, ‘Make sure these people are not left high-and-dry,” she said.

In the weeks since the grocery store change was first reported, a robust and sometimes heated conversation has emerged in the community about the broader implications of Whole Foods moving in.

“I can’t believe how lucky we are Whole Foods is coming to the neighborhood,” Pat Roberts, a 30-year resident of Hyde Square told the Gazette at the Feb. 7 hearing, at the Kennedy School in Hyde Square.

“I have lived here for 30 years. I started three crime watches. I swept the streets. I painted over graffiti. I have gotten in the faces of bad guys—all with my neighbors. It has been so bad for so long. I never thought we could be this lucky,” she said.

Roberts was expressing a minority opinion at the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) and Hyde/Jackson Square Main Streets-hosted forum. The over three-hour-long event was almost wholly given over to community comments, and the vast majority of those comments were anti-Whole Foods.

“I am wholeheartedly opposed to the Whole Foods moving into Jamaica Plain. The food options it offers are too expensive for JP residents. It is a direct attack on the diversity of JP,” JP resident Roger Wynn said at the meeting.

“Your home is a landscape, and its not just a landscape of people and hills, parks and trees, it is also a landscape of businesses. Whole Foods says they want to ‘reflect the community they serve,’ but I have never been in a Whole Food and thought to myself, ‘This reminds me so much of this neighborhood,” said David Warner, co-owner of City Feed & Supply, a small local grocery that specializes in local, organic produce and organic and natural food staples.

“There need not be a debate about whether [people are being] displaced…Latinos and others have been struggling for years to stay in JP, despite the rising costs,” said Norma Rey-Alicea, a self-described “JP native,” who currently lives in another neighborhood, but owns a home in JP. Rey-Alicea’s mother, Clementina Rey Acebedo, participated in the struggle in the 1970s to stop the expansion of I-95 through JP. That successful struggle led to the construction of the Southwest Corridor Park.

Rey-Alicea described herself as a professional, a homeowner and a “satisfied” Hi-Lo customer.

Describing herself as “one of the lucky people still able to live in JP,” longtime JP activist Betsaida Gutierrez made a rare appearance at the forum. “Please, say no to Whole Foods. Reject it,” she said.

A number of youths from the youth group Beantown Society, which operates out of Spontaneous Celebrations on Danforth Street also testified at the hearing. Speaking to the Gazette in a phone interview after the forum, 17-year-old Beantown Society member Giovanni Acevedo said that many of the group’s Latino youths feel they are “being robbed of our culture” and are witnessing the gentrification of their neighborhood. “Even if they give us jobs [we have to deal with] rising food prices and housing prices,” he said.

“The community is going to get a little bit broken down,” Acevedo said. He said his family regularly shops at Hi-Lo.

While other Hyde and Jackson Square businesses—including the restaurants Miami, Yelli’s and El Oriental de Cuba—serve as meeting places for the Latino community, Hi-lo was also a major focal point, and it will be missed for that reason, Acevedo said

Toward the end of the forum, elected officials, including local city councilor Matt O’Malley, state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez and At-Large City Councilors Felix Arroyo—a JP resident—and Ayanna Pressley, weighed in.

In his comments, Sánchez strongly rejected what he saw as members of the community casting themselves as victims. “There has been upward mobility in the Latino community” in JP, he said. “I do not want people to leave here thinking Latinos are victims. We are not,” he said.

Sánchez said he is committed to making sure that Whole Foods engages in a dialogue with the community and does right by former Hi-Lo employees. “When we have to fight, we have to fight,” he said. “We want to make sure we are part of the dialogue.”

O’Malley, while criticizing Whole Foods for its lack of engagement with the community thus far, said his focus would be “working with Whole Foods to make sure it does, indeed, become a good thing for the community.”

The local city councilor said his understanding from speaking to Whole Foods is that the company has signed a 25-year lease with Knapp.

Arroyo was harsher in his assessment. “I really don’t want to see a Whole Foods in JP,” he said. “If it is a done deal,” he said, he would push Whole Foods to make a stronger commitment to hiring former Hi-Lo employees. So far, the grocery chain has only committed to interviewing them.

While the conversation at the community forum was decidedly one-sided, community support for Whole Foods has emerged in recent weeks, most notably in the form of a Facebook page, started by JP resident Steve Garfield, called “We Are All Whole Foods.”

“What inspired me was all the negative publicity about the Whole Foods coming to JP,” Garfield told the Gazette. “It seemed like there was no place for supporters to go.”

In addition to local conversation, the page is a forum for providing information that Garfield said shows Whole Foods to be a responsible corporate steward. “Whole Foods is one of the top companies in the country to work for,” Garfield said, “The food they offer is healthy” and their generic “365” brand is affordable, he said. The Facebook page had 63 “fans” as of Feb. 15.

Slogans using the “We Are All…” trope are commonly used to express solidarity with groups of people facing adversity. Recently, “We Are All Egyptians” was used as a rallying cry for people supporting mass protests in that country.

Garfield told the Gazette he chose the slogan because, “The point is Whole Foods is for everyone.”

He also said he was upset by comment a comment in the media by a Latino JP resident expressing opposition to Whole Foods.

Anti-Whole Foods sentiments do not appear likely to die down anytime soon. Another Facebook group “Whose Food / Whose Community? The coalition against Gentrification,” is providing a forum for it. The Facebook page is a public face for a group that intends to stop Whole Foods from moving in to the 415 Centre St. store, Whose Food spokesperson and JP resident Edwin Melenciano told the Gazette in a phone interview.

Like Garfield, Melenciano pointed to education as a key strategy for winning support for the anti-Whole Foods effort. As a community, “We have to stick to our beliefs and our ethics,” he said. “A major part of that is supporting locally-owned businesses and working class people,” Melenciano said. The Whose Foods Facebook page had 146 fans as of Feb. 15.

Another Facebook Page “Whole Foods: Listen to JP” appears to be set up as an unofficial forum for JP residents to communicate directly with Whole Foods.

Direct conversations between the community and Whole Foods will likely come in the spring, after Whole Foods gains access to the Hi-Lo space in late March, McCready told the Gazette. Those conversations will include a Whole Foods-hosted Town Hall forum, and could include Whole Foods seeking community approval for alcohol and take-out food licenses, depending on what the company decides to offer at the store.

Responding to Gazette questions about parking at 415 Centre St. location, McCready said in e-mail that, “Whole Foods Market stores do tend to serve not only the immediate communities, but surrounding areas as well. In anticipation of this, we are working on securing additional parking locations.”

While the company has said it does not intend to change the footprint or use of the existing Hi-Lo store, it may need city approval to add additional parking.

Meanwhile, the JPNC is planning another forum for Feb. 28, in part to allow supporters of Whole Foods the opportunity to have their voices heard off-line, JPNC chair Andrea Howley told the Gazette. That forum will also feature a formal question and answer period with local elected officials, she said. [See JP Agenda.]

Correction: Norma Rey-Alicea was incorrectly identified as a current JP resident in the print and previous on-line versions of this article, and the previous versions described her paresnts as being long-time JP activists, when that description only applied to her mother, Clementina Rey Acebedo. Also, Edwin Melenciano’s name was spelled incorrectly.

The Gazette also incorrectly characterized a comment by Steve Garfield. Garfield did not say he was upset by multiple comments in the media by Latino JP residents expressing opposition to Whole Foods. He said he was upset by a particular comment from a Latino person.

Corrections

Due to reporting errors in the article “Uproar about food markets attracts crowds” in the Feb. 18 issue of the Gazette Norma Rey-Alicea was incorrectly identified as a current JP resident. Her parents were identified as being long-time JP activists, but that is only true of her mother, Clementina Rey Acebedo.

Edwin Melenciano’s name was spelled incorrectly.

The Gazette also incorrectly characterized a comment by Steve Garfield. Garfield did not say he was upset by multiple comments in the media by Latino JP residents expressing opposition to Whole Foods. Garfield said he was upset by a particular comment from a Latino person who said that she took Whole Foods moving in as a sign that Latino people are no longer welcome in JP.