On the cover, Massachusetts State Representative Jeffrey Sánchez (D-Jamaica Plain) was in front of the JP’s famed and venerable Hi-Lo Supermarket, a Boston Latino institution—a local neighborhood fixture that sold it all: from milk to maltas, plaintains to perniles, and sofrito to sancocho. As I read the story, my heart skipped a beat. The Hi-Lo was shutting down. Memories of driving from Cambridge, Brookline, and Milton with friends to get authentic Puerto Rican food products (¡Café Pilón!) raced through my mind.
Taking the Hi-Lo’s former locale? A new Whole Foods.
Great, just great.
The gentrification of yet another great Boston neighborhood would be official. Affordable local food staples would be replaced by expensive marinated olives and other products you would find in richer Boston communities, like Wellesley and Hingham. Working-class people in JP would be priced out of the supermarket and eventually out of the neighborhood.
As for the current employees of Hi-Lo? They would all lose their jobs.
This couldn’t be true, could it? So, what did I do? I started tweeting to @wholefoods on Twitter to get more clarification. And guess what? Whole Foods responded to my tweets. In fact, I even had the opportunity to speak to a real person, Heather W. McCready, Public Relations Manager, Whole Foods Market for the North Atlantic Region.
Whole Foods: “We Are Committed to the Community”
McCready commented on several of the concerns that had been reported in the Boston media, including the company’s commitment to interview any current Hi-Lo employee for positions in any of Boston’s four Whole Foods locations. Besides the new JP location, Whole Foods has stores in the West End, Brighton, and Symphony. According to McCready, the interviews are guaranteed for the estimated 45 current employees of Hi-Lo, although they would still have to go through the interview process to determine if they would get a job at another location. So, in short, there are no guaranteed jobs, just guaranteed interviews.
In addition, McCready confirmed that there is no current timeline for the grand opening of the JP store, since it will take “several months” the renovate the current area.
I asked McCready about whether the food products in the new JP store would reflect the neighborhood’s Latino clientele, which had been accustomed for years to purchasing brands from their homelands, like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
“Every store we have is made to reflect the community it is in. We do our very best to reflect that,” McCready said. “We want to carry products that each community is interested in. We are very interested in sourcing local products as long as they meet our quality standards.”
McCready mentioned that the Brighton location is in a neighborhood with a large Russian population so the store’s shelves stock products from Russia. The store’s Fresh Pond location in Cambridge has a large Asian clientele and that location carries a wide array of Asian foods.
“We can’t promise you that we will carry a specific product at a specific price, but we do take very seriously sourcing products at the best value for our customers,” McCready said.
As for the concern that Whole Foods’ prices will be too expensive for many JP residents, McCready mentioned that the store will also offer its 365 Value Brands, which according to the Whole Foods website, are “products [that] can fill your pantry without emptying your pocketbook.” An examination of the 365 Value Brands on the company’s web page listed 199 products such as Fish Oil, French Roast Coffee, Tandoori Nan bread, Organic Quino, Refried Black Beans, and Taco Shells. None of the 199 products could be classified as foods that would be categorized as Latino Caribbean.
McCready would not comment on the concern that the new Whole Foods would help raise property values in JP and raise rents for some residents. However, she did close the interview celebrating the positive impact Whole Foods would make on the overall JP community.
“We’re so excited to become partners with the JP community,” McCready said. “The part of our process is to get involved in the community and our goal is to be proactive partners with the community.”
Councillor O’Malley: Whole Foods Needs
To Show a “Real Good-Faith Effort”
I also had the chance to speak with Boston City Councillor Matt O’Malley, who represents District 6, the precinct that includes the JP neighborhood where the new Whole Foods is being developed. As Councillor O’Malley has stated in previous comments to the press, he thinks that the Whole Foods move “can be good for the neighborhood,” but still feels that there are “areas of concern.” In particular, Councillor O’Malley wants to make sure that the current Hi-Lo employees get new jobs.
“I hope to work with Whole Foods [about employment opportunities], but I understand that right now they are guarded about what they can guarantee,” Councillor O’Malley said.
“Whole Foods needs to make a real good-faith effort on their behalf with the current Hi-Lo employees,” Councillor O’Malley continued. “Maybe they can possibly add training to what they are offering right now? I hope to see more assurances from Whole Foods in keeping opportunities open for the employees.”
I also contacted Rep. Sánchez office three times and spoke with his aides, who were helpful and forwarded my messages to him, but as of tonight, Rep. Sánchez still has not returned by emails or messages to comment.
Last week, Rep. Sánchez did share his thoughts with the Herald.
“This neighborhood carried the Hispanic consciousness and still does. The question is, where does Whole Foods fit into the character of this community?” Rep. Sánchez told the newspaper. “Is it going to affect rents in the neighborhood? Is it going to affect property values?”
Who knows where this will go?
I will try to add more updates throughout the year and attend any community events in JP regarding this matter.