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So You Want Health Care Reform? Boycotting Whole Foods Won't Help

09/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The health care reform debate has provoked any number of crazy opinions, including the far-right fantasies of death panels or that Medicare isn't a government-funded program. Two weeks ago, Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackey added his own musings to the list with an editorial in the Wall Street Journal condemning "Obamacare" and any government health care option in the U.S.

Unfortunately for Whole Foods, Mackey's foray into the health care debate hasn't gone unnoticed. Some progressives, incensed that the head of one of their preferred companies is helping pollute the debate, have expressed their ire via a boycott of Whole Foods.

While well intended, this is a bad strategy.

A boycott of Whole Foods won't make a difference on health care, and it might actually hurt something progressives care about -- organic and natural farmers.

Whole Foods Founder John Mackey Steps in It

With an audacity that borders on self-destructive, Mackey, a well-known "Libertarian," began his op-ed on U.S. health care reform with a bizarre quote from Margaret Thatcher about socialism and other people's money, and it went downhill from there.

Rather than see access to safe and affordable health care as a basic necessity in a civilized nation, Mackey calls any proposed government reform a "massive new health-care entitlement."

For many progressives, Mackey's invoking the Constitution and Declaration of Independence to deny an individual "right" to basic health care struck a powder keg of emotion. Mark Rosenthal, a playwright based in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Mackey's, was one of them.

"I was disgusted," says Rosenthal after reading the editorial. "I was nauseous at the thought of shopping at Whole Foods ever again. It made me want to vomit."

So Rosenthal did want anybody who feels rage and indignation does today: he started a Facebook group.

In nearly two weeks, the Facebook boycott has garnered some 29,000 online fans, while Mackey's tirade has created a cottage industry of blog posts regarding Whole Foods, its CEO and the boycott itself.

Why They Shop Elsewhere

After weeks of watching the health care debate be dominated by town hall protesters, and seeing the potential for reform slide away into a Clintonesque compromise, Internet savvy progressives jumped at the chance to focus their anger on one of their own--Whole Foods.

As someone who works in sustainable agriculture and is a progressive Democrat, I've seen many a "friend" who has signed the Facebook page. Many are serial joiners, others have longtime beefs with Whole Foods for its perceived litany of sins, and others just like a good fight. When a protest is just one click away - why not satisfy that urge for revenge.

Target the Real Enemies of Health Care Reform

But the facts remains, no matter how many people join the boycott or wave a protest sign outside Whole Foods, it won't bring a single person in the country better health care. If progressives want to achieve a public option, they need to stay focused on the true obstacles to reform. Companies like United Health Care and the Republican party that have helped fan the flames, the Blue Dog Democrats, and the Gang of Six that have been dragging their feet on health care reform since the beginning.

One good way to do this would be to make contributions to progressive members of Congress who stand up for health care.

Another is to target the Blue Dogs. Over at Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas is working on holding Blue Dog Congressman Jim Cooper from Tennessee accountable; while Howard Dean is mounting a Senate whip count campaign against wayward Senators to push them in support of the public option.

The public option will only come through organizing politically against members of Congress who actually vote on health care. Everything else is political theater. It may soothe the pain, but it won't actually cure what ails our nation.

Beware The Unintended Consequences

While Mackey has made his company an easy target in this debate, Whole Foods is not the enemy. The small natural foods retail company that Mackey helped found in 1980 has been a national leader in many progressive causes for years, which may be why his editorial stung so much.

But for anyone who has followed Whole Foods for any period of time, Mackey's libertarian views should not be a surprise.

And putting his politics aside, I'm far more concerned about the collateral damage that could be done to Whole Foods suppliers, mainly organic and natural farmers and some of the smaller and midsized organic companies whose products Whole Foods sells.

Despite what many critics of Whole Foods say, as a company it has done much more good than it has harm and is largely responsibly for helping popularize organic and natural foods in the U.S. In doing so, Mackey and Whole Foods have helped create a market for thousands of farmers across America to grow food in ways that do not harm the environment, farm animals or consumer's health.

And while Mackey may not support universal health care as a right, his life's work and that of his company has increased Americans access to food that is safer to eat, more nutritious, and will contribute less to the burden of the current health care crisis than his competitors.

Unfortunately, the only responsible thing left to do is to ask John Mackey to step down as the CEO of a company that he helped build and to ask him to go it alone, just as he believes the uninsured citizens of this country should do. Whole Foods, and the farmers they help survive shouldn't suffer, but the author of that WSJ editorial should for putting America's organic and sustainable farmers in harms way.