In a recent interview, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey offered a brave alternative to single payer healthcare: eating the kinds of foods that are sold at Whole Foods.
“I mean, honestly, we talk about healthcare. The best solution is not to need healthcare,” Mackey said on the November 4 episode of Freakonomics Radio. “The best solution is to change the way people eat, the way they live, the lifestyle, and diet. There’s no reason why people shouldn’t be healthy and have a longer health span. A bunch of drugs is not going to solve the problem.”
For years, Mackey has more or less been saying the same thing, which is unsurprising for the CEO of a notoriously anti-worker company that also happens to sell “healthy” food. In 2009, Mackey wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal titled “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare”—which is to say, John Mackey’s alternative to Obamacare. Obamacare, Mackey wrote, would “move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system” when we should be moving towards “more individual empowerment.”
In 2010, Mackey’s Whole Foods began to offer graduated employee discounts based on body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol, and nicotine use. Such a plan was criticized on a host of fronts, but especially on the grounds that the policy reduced the buying power of staffers that Mackey believed needed to eat healthier.
More recently, in September 2020, a New York Times interview sparked backlash after Mackey characterized obesity and related comorbidities as purely individual choices. When asked what to do about offering healthier food options for people who can’t afford or access Whole Foods, Mackey insisted there wasn’t an “access problem” but a “market demand problem” that required people to consume better. Mackey pushed back against the question and said that Whole Foods opened stores in “inner cities” and “poor areas” but that “we see the choices” revealing it’s not about access but “more about people making poor choices, mostly due to ignorance.” (Whole Foods, of course, has been shown to be 15 percent more expensive than competitors overall, with meat protein commanding a 30 percent premium.)
It shouldn’t be a surprise that “choice” re-emerges here considering that it is not only Mackey’s but the health insurance industry’s go-to talking point. In 2020, a former health insurance executive, Wendell Porter, penned a New York Times editorial explaining how he helped craft the talking point that “makes the idea of changing the current system sound scary and limiting.” And while “choice” polled well and was increasingly incorporated into his public relations strategy, the American system does not let people “pick their own doctors, specialists or hospitals—at least, not without incurring huge ‘out of network’ bills.”
“Most can’t choose their own plan or how long they retain it, or even use it to select the doctor or hospital they prefer,” he concluded.
It’s hard to reconcile Mackey’s own ideas about “individual empowerment” with the fact that in he has tried very hard to free part-time workers from it. In 2019, he announced that Whole Foods will cut health care for 1,900 part-time employees while increasing the work hours needed to buy into Whole Foods’ plan from 20 hours a week to at least 30. And given what we know about Mackey’s views on “choice” and his tendency to blame individuals—especially if they’re poor—for health problems, it’s no surprise that Whole Foods handled the pandemic even worse than Amazon, which bought the company in 2017. After months of failing to prioritize worker health and safety—but insisting otherwise—outbreaks were covered up at Whole Foods locations, and workers organized a nationwide May Day protest demanding safer working conditions and personal protective equipment.
All of this fits with the ethos of Whole Foods, which is a shrine of sorts to individual choice. As Sarah Jones wrote for NYMag’s Intelligencer, it caters to middle-class liberal guilt about consumption with “high-quality food, much of it organic, alongside a plethora of essential oils and homeopathic remedies “that prove “your individual choices can add up to a healthier, more vibrant self.”
It makes sense why its billionaire libertarian co-founder and CEO said as much on Freakonomics Radio. It would make less sense to take seriously the ideas of someone who lives a life so far removed from that of most human beings, let alone Whole Foods workers, when they claim to know what’s best for their healthcare.