Why Whole Foods will stop selling products made by prisoners

Whole Foods has agreed to stop selling cheeses and other products made with prison labor.

Elise Amendola/AP/File
Produce sits on a Whole Foods paper bag in Andover, Mass., seen here in 2013.

Whole Foods Market Inc. has announced that it will no longer sell products made using a prison labor program.

The move comes after months of complaints from customers who object to Whole Food's sourcing of products through inmate labor.

During the weekend, prison reform advocate Michael Allen and other protesters in Houston hung signs that said: "End Whole Foods Market's Profiting From Prison Slave Labor," reported National Public Radio (NPR)

"People are incarcerated and then forced to work for pennies on the dollar – compare that to what the products are sold for," said Mr. Allen. 

Currently, the grocery store sells a goat cheese produced by Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy in Longmont, Colo., and a tilapia from Quixotic Farming. These companies partner with Colorado Correctional Industries, a division of the Colorado Department of Corrections, that employs prisoners who milk the goats and raise the fish, according to The Associated Press.

Whole Foods' relationship to prison labor was first publicized in June 2014 by Fortune magazine, and Buzzfeed quickly publicized the news.

In response to customer complaints, Whole Foods promised these products will be "off our shelves by April 2016, if not sooner." The company's statement explained that while it felt "rehabilitative work being done by inmates would help people get back on their feet," it will end the practice because "some shoppers and members of the community" were uncomfortable with it.

The inmates make about $1,500 to $2,500 a year, Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy's John Scaggs told NPR.

While criticism focused on the low wages paid to produce goods that sell for high prices, Whole Foods correctly noted that prison work programs can help inmates learn new skills, including "soft skills" like showing up for work on time and navigating boss-employee interactions, which can help them upon release.

"The program has also been hailed a model for teaching inmates valuable work skills and allowing them to earn a higher wage than other prison jobs – such as cooking or laundry duty. It has also been hailed for allowing the prison department to make back some of the money it spends on housing inmates," Collen Curry reports for Vice.

On its website, CCI says its mission is to "train inmates with skills and work ethics that help them secure employment after release."

Prison labor is hardly new, but the negligible pay – often less than $1 for a full day's work – and harsh treatment of inmates have gotten activists up in arms.

Whole Foods spokesman Michael Silverman told the AP that the program, which began in 2011, was a way to "help people get back on their feet and eventually become contributing members of society."

Allen dismisses such claims. "They say they care about the community, but they're enhancing their profit off of poor people," he said. 

The policy change comes after an overpricing scandal in July and a recent announcement that Whole Foods will fire 1,500 staffers in efforts to lower their prices.

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