I don’t shop at Whole Foods. For one thing, I live on the other side of JP in the area that Realtors and almost no one else calls “Parkside.” But there’s more to it than that.
During the height of the controversy, as a freelance writer I was sometimes assigned to cover the emotional topic here on JP Patch, and I felt obliged to retain an objective viewpoint. At the risk of stirring the pot now that the heated debate has simmered down, I hope you won't object if I offer a little food for thought.
From my perspective, both sides had validity. With some exceptions it was in many ways a classic class war, a case of the haves vs. the have-nots.
Homeowners and those with disposable incomes largely came in on the side of the pretty pricey grocery and felt that its opening would help to revive Hyde Square, the site of too many vacant storefronts. Renters and sometimes less well-heeled residents legitimately feared that the supermarket would fuel the community’s gentrification and result in displacement. There were, of course, cultural issues and concerns about sustaining JP’s diversity since Whole Foods was to replace Hi-Lo, a landmark Latino grocery that had been in operation for nearly half a century.
Others expressed opposition to the opening of a chain store here in a neighborhood largely dominated by small, independent businesses. Pro or con, you had to laugh at the brilliant parody "Whole Foods Parking Lot" by DJ Dave, who later and somewhat incongruously went on to do ads for automaker Hyundai.
During this time, I more or less subscribed to a kind of free market fatalism. After all, no one had forced Hi-Lo to sell the property, and I was pretty sure that short of a strip club or cock fighting pit, the new owners would be given the authority to build whatever they liked.
My stance on the subject was largely formed when Whole Foods held its one and only community meeting at the Curley School. The now legendary food fight, as you may remember, was held with a heavy-handed police presence, and protestors’ signs were seized, actions more reminiscent of the PRC than our liberal, leafy little urban village. After that, I resolved that it was just as easy for me to pick up my groceries at Harvest Co-Op, City Feed, or Stop and Shop, stores that as far as I know had never violated anyone’s First Amendment rights.
Now, as Whole Foods seeks to add 38 seats for eat-in dining, a proposal that the JP Neighborhood Council recently voted to oppose, I decided, for the purposes of this column, to lift my unofficial embargo, at least for a day, and invited several friends to rendezvous with me for a Whole Foods picnic.
There’s a bounty of both vegan and vegetarian take-out dishes available at its deli counter. Shoppers can select from a wide array of freshly made sandwiches, pizza, salads and other prepared meals. If you’re having a hard time deciding, you can ask one of the helpful and friendly workers for a free sample so you can try before you buy.
For our veg-fest, we finally settled on the Vegetarian Pad Thai, Pineapple Quinoa Stir Fry, Chick Pea Salad, Garlic Green Beans, Sautéed Spinach with Garlic, and Curried Tofu. (All priced at $7.99 per pound.) We also chose Vegetable Spring Rolls ($1.25 each) and a Vegetarian Panini $5.99).
On a gorgeous evening at a hilltop overlooking Jamaica Pond, my companions, Douglas Wolcik, Sara Riegler, Richard Villavicencio, all of JP and Maggie Dolan of Brighton, enjoyed our al fresco feast.
There was unanimity that the freshly grilled Mozzarella and Tomato Panini was delicious.
Douglas observed that some other dishes like the Curried Tofu and Spring Rolls would also have been tastier if they had been warmed.
Sara remarked, “The simpler dishes like the spinach and green beans were the best by far.”
Maggie agreed with Sara’s assessment and also preferred the less
complicated dishes. Containing chickpeas, red pepper, cucumber, spinach, onions, tomatoes and red cabbage, she stated, “The Chickpea Salad was flavorless. There’s no spark. And,” she noted, “the same for the Quinoa,” which was made with pineapple, cashews, peas and red peppers, tamari, rice vinegar, cilantro, ginger, onion, mint, basil and jalapeno.
Fundamentally, I shared my friends’ opinions. Despite some successes, overall, the food was hit or miss, and I concurred with Maggie and Sara that less was definitely more.
Perhaps it's not fair to compare Whole Foods' prepared dishes with restaurant fare - but at around $8 per pound for most items, I'd probably opt to go to Purple Cactus or City Feed where you can get a freshly made burrito or sandwich for about the same price.
Despite plenty of untried and delicious sounding dishes like Artichoke Rice and Zucchini Parmesan, I probably won't return to Whole Foods anytime soon.
I can’t, however, wait to devour a planned study by the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at UMass-Boston, which will examine the impact of Whole Foods on gentrification in Jamaica Plain, and holds the potential to finally illuminate the opinionated matter with facts.
[Editor's note: This column originally stated Whole Foods in JP doesn't have a salad bar. It does.]