Employees who weigh less, pay less at Whole Foods

26th January 2010

Employees who weigh less, pay less at Whole Foods

I love me some Whole Foods’ vegan General Tso’s chicken, but I seem to have lost my appetite after reading that Whole Foods is discriminating against its fat employees by offering their thinner coworkers as much as a 10 percent additional employee discount.  Jezebel has the scoop.

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey explains the program in a letter, reproduced below. Apparently it’s part of an initiative to reduce health care costs, which is interesting since Mackey is against the health care reforms that would actually reduce costs for all people.

Note that Mackey knows BMI isn’t a perfect measure of health, but at least it’s cheap! Even more fun, though, is the poster for the new Healthy Discount program, breaking down exactly what BMI range his minions need in order to get various discounts on his Tofu Pups.

If your BMI is above 30, you’ll get to keep the original 20% employee discount, but you’ll paying more than your thinner co-workers, who can knock as much as 30% off. Because if public health research has taught us anything, it’s that reducing people’s buying power totally makes them healthier. Stay classy, Whole Foods.

(copies of the announcements are available after the jump)

To put this into perspective: to receive the maximum 30 percent employee platinum discount, a 5-foot-4-inch Whole Foods employee would have to weigh less than 140-pounds and a 6-foot employee less than 177-pounds.  That is, of course, assuming they also meet the attendant platinum levels cholesterol, smoking and blood pressure requirements.  And because this is all in the name of health, say that same 5-foot-4-inch employee meets all the cholesterol, smoking and blood pressure requirements of the platinum level but they weigh 175-pounds, which means that they have a BMI of 30.  Their added discount?  Nada.

Whole Foods is careful to point out that they’re not penalizing employees who do not participate or who do not meet their admittedly “imperfect” bio-markers for health — all employees will keep their basic 20 percent discount — but, in effect, they are penalizing these workers by selectively rewarding those who hand over their private medical files and meet incentive requirements.  Whole Foods CEO John Mackey cites an attempt to curb rising health care costs as the impetus for the program, but do the ends justify the means?  Ironically, the company’s plan to slenderize employees by dangling before them an organic carrot may actually work to increase health premiums in the long run.  Remember that many an eating disorder begins as a simple diet and desire to “eat healthy.”  Now consider that eating disorders alone cost U.S. companies about $3.8 billion a year in lost productivity.

By rewarding a BMI of 24 — a full point below what is considered the benchmark of “overweight” — Whole Foods is not-so-subtly indicating its preference that a lower BMI is better and ideal, thus contributing to an atmosphere in which employees who do not meet this standards are made to feel ostracized and targeted.  These blanket standards also ignore genetic, gender, age and ethnic differences across groups, thereby directing this sense of corporate hostility, however passive, toward those employees who may already be among the most vulnerable in the workplace: minorities, women and senior citizens.  Would we tolerate this kind of “incentive” if it were directed at other groups of workers?  Consider this: in at least half the states, marital status isn’t a condition protected by state or federal anti-discrimination laws.  Many other states, like Ohio, are “at-will” employment states, meaning that workers can be fired without just cause (so long as its not based on unlawful discrimination, which even then must be proven).  Whole Foods could also save a lot of money both in terms of productivity and health care costs if they offered similar incentives to employees who make the “lifestyle choice” to remain single, childless or who limit their family sizes to a number that’s more cost-effective for the company’s bottom line.

Absurd!, you gasp.  Unfair!  A person’s marital or parental status has nothing to do with their work performance!


Make your concerns and outrage known by contacting Whole Foods here.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 26th, 2010 at 1:02 pm and is filed under Eating Disorders, Fat Bias, Gender & Sexuality, Mental Health, Race Issues, Rachel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 41 responses to “Employees who weigh less, pay less at Whole Foods”

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  1. 1 On January 26th, 2010, WendyRG said:

    Oh-oh, I can feel my blood pressure rising. Yes, this is just one more reason to boycott Whole Foods.

  2. 2 On January 26th, 2010, Elizabeth said:

    But if poor diet is part of what makes us less healthy, shouldn’t less healthy people (putting aside those ridiculous mis-definitions of health) have MORE access to “healthy” foods to offset the other problems? If it were really about cost savings in medical care, you would think so.

  3. 3 On January 26th, 2010, Rachel said:

    That would be too logical, Elizabeth. As it is, this incentive isn’t about health at all. It’s about rewarding people who meet the appearance of good health, while penalizing those who do not.

  4. 4 On January 26th, 2010, SweetAsCake said:

    Ha – I meet all their “platinum” level requirements except BMI (and mine’s over 30). What complete bullshit. Especially considering that people whose BMI is between 25-30 live longer than the group they’re rewarding…

  5. 5 On January 26th, 2010, Synna said:

    So do I get a 100% discount if my bp is 0/0?

  6. 6 On January 26th, 2010, Vixen said:

    Thank you thank you, Rachel, for covering this. I’ve been looking for a post in the ‘sphere since I read it on Jezebel yesterday (an action closely followed by my “I will never darken your doorstep again and this is why” email to Whole Foods.) I hope everyone who is boycotting will also take the time to contact WF and tell them WHY. I think they just lost a lot of the money they were looking to save with this ridiculous, discriminatory “incentive program”.

  7. 7 On January 26th, 2010, Lu said:

    As a general rule I’ve always liked Whole Foods. Yeah. I’m done with that. Thanks for putting this out there.

  8. 8 On January 26th, 2010, Vixen said:

    Interesting. This is the message I initially sent to Whole Foods customer feedback yesterday:

    I have nothing but good things to say about my local Whole Foods store in Bellevue, WA. I shop there once a week on average and buy most of my meat and much of my produce there, spending an average of $100-150 per visit. I have found the quality, hygiene, and customer service to be uniformly excellent.

    Which is such a shame. Because I can no longer justify shopping at Whole Foods, due to the new “health-based” employee discount policy. It is impossible to justify picking some health indicators (BMI, cholesterol, smoking) and ignoring others (stress levels, sleep quality, alcohol consumption) as measures of “employee health”. Especially when some of the indicators you select have a strong genetic component and at least one (yes, I’m looking at BMI) has very limited utility as an indicator of anything about individuals, having been designed to assess groups. Why don’t you just start rewarding the tall employees extra? Or maybe the white ones? It would make about as much sense as these guidelines.

    No, this does not concern me personally. I’m not an employee. But you know what? I find it offensive and will be taking my money elsewhere, with immediate effect. Judging by the comments on the message board I read the story on, I doubt I’m alone. Hope your little social experiment is worth it.

    Sincerely, (redacted), who will especially miss your excellent bacon and honeycrisp apples

    And this is the body of the response I received just now:

    Thank you for taking the time to share your comments with us. The Team Member Healthy Discount Incentive is a brand new program and we have not done anything like this before. We appreciate the feedback we are receiving and will take it into consideration as this program evolves.

    I do understand your concern with the use of certain biometric criteria. We realize that BMI, cholesterol, blood pressure, and nicotine use may not be perfect bio-markers to measure health, however they do provide a method of evaluating empirical data.

    We would like to mention that participation in the Team Member Healthy Discount Incentive is completely voluntary. Team Members are under no pressure to participate. Team Members who choose not to participate will still enjoy a variety of company benefits, including our 20% discount on purchases. The Team Member Healthy Discount Incentive is only one small portion of a larger initiative promoting the health and well being of our Team Member and customers.

    Again, we appreciate your feedback.

    We hope this information is helpful. If you have any further questions please use our on-line response form.

    As of right now, they’re actually reading and responding. Let the virtual carpet-bombing commence.

  9. 9 On January 26th, 2010, branwyn-gwynneth said:

    They have no stipulations stating they will not give the people with extremely low BMI the extra discount…

  10. 10 On January 26th, 2010, Lisa said:

    Rachel, this is not about rewarding people who meet the appearance of health, its about the bottom line. It’s simple dollars and sense, if you factor in Mackeys ridiculous views on health care. This discrimination will funnel more money to the bottom line, of course. That is, if employees can even afford to shop there.

  11. 11 On January 26th, 2010, ….in which silentbeep goes off like a siren « Silentbeep is not so silent anymore said:

    [...] I’m sure y’all have heard about the Whole Foods crazyness. Turns out that they are basing a 30% discount employee program on health standards, which includes [...]

  12. 12 On January 26th, 2010, Bree said:

    Remember when employees were graded on their job performance, not their BMI or cholesterol numbers and employee discounts were for everyone? Perhaps Whole Foods and these other companies buying into the obesity epidemic kool-aid should start remembering that too.

  13. 13 On January 26th, 2010, Rachel said:

    Rachel, this is not about rewarding people who meet the appearance of health, its about the bottom line.

    We may be arguing the same point here. The impetus for this program is in reducing health care costs, and Mackey thinks that good health can be measured by BMI, when in reality, BMI in and of itself only gives the appearance of good health.

  14. 14 On January 26th, 2010, Rachel said:

    @Vixen: Wow, I’m surprised that you actually received a response from someone who appears to have actually read your note (which was great, btw). I love how they acknowledge that BMI, among other factors, is flawed, but insist upon using it anyway. It’s like they’re saying, “Yeah, we know we”re discriminating against some of our employees, but it’s a cheap and easy method, so who cares?”

  15. 15 On January 26th, 2010, Anna said:


    I can’t even be coherent, I just…this shit makes me so FREAKING ANGRY.

    Why not go the whole hog Whole Foods? Why not give an extra discount to female employees with large breasts? Males with symmetrical faces?!

    I think what bugs me the most is that they’re saying “Oh, we’re rewarding HEALTH” but damnit, they’re LYING. I know so many super skinny people who smoke like chimneys, who would be considered “Healthy” by these standards. IT’S BULL.

  16. 16 On January 26th, 2010, Rachel said:

    I know so many super skinny people who smoke like chimneys, who would be considered “Healthy” by these standards

    Well, they would have to meet the non-smoking requirement to get the added discounts, but really… how could they verify if that were true or not? Follow them on their breaks to see if they’re smoking out back?

  17. 17 On January 26th, 2010, Rachel2 said:

    Seriously, this could not have come at a better time for me!

    I had a physical today, and the doctor told me that I classified as “obese” with a 30.23 BMI. …Yep… I landed in the land of spandex pants and mumus by .23. First of all, as we’ve discussed here many times, the BMI scale is BULLSHIT. Second of all, the doctor, who used to weigh 220lbs, lost it by eating cereal for 2 of his 3 meals of the day… Thirdly, while the doctor *did* know a lot about a lot, he seemed a bit clueless on the fact that metabolism is like a fingerprint: it is unique to the person.

    For his credit, the doctor *did* roll his eyes as he was telling me that it’s for the insurance companies, so that if I need, say a thyroid test, the test would be covered… Okay, fine. That still does not discount the fact that the BMI scale is a load of horse shit drummed up by some weirdo using a standardized, “generic” person… (“Uh, looks like if they’ve got two legs, two eyes, etc… we’ll just pick an Arbitrary Factor A, and an Arbitrary Factor B and call it a day.”)

    Also, FOR MY CREDIT, I’ll have you know I was wearing TWO pair of pants (one set of jeans and long underwear), TWO pair of socks, tennis shoes, a heavy belt, car keys, a wad of change, etc… So the 179 they clocked me at was not even accurate in the first place. ALSO, I am coming OFF of my period, which means I’m de-bloating, and de-crapifying my system of all of the junk that I put into it…

    The BMI scale is full of shit. Yeah, I know I’m a little overweight, it’s NOT going anywhere… Unless I start up a SERIOUS exercise program, and quite frankly, right now, I’ve got other things to deal with… Namely a runaway anxiety disorder. The LAST thing I need is to dive headfirst into an eating disorder because the way my brain goes, that would be the next logical step in clinging to this OCD-Anxiety loop pattern that I’ve held to for so long. Fuck that.

    That subject hits a nerve today. A more painful one than the Influenza A and H1N1 shots in my arms… {And yes, I had to ignore the internal SCREAMING about inject “contaminants” into myself to protect myself from the very things I’m afraid of. A paradox in terms, I know. I bit the bullet.}

  18. 18 On January 26th, 2010, Vixen said:

    Yeah, it’s like, “Well, we know it’s misleading but we’d rather be doing SOMETHING — even something stupid — than nothing.”

    My one regret was not inquiring about why there was no diminution of benefits at the lower reaches of the BMI scale, given the well-known (if not well-publicized) health consequences of underweight….

  19. 19 On January 26th, 2010, drummergrrrl said:


  20. 20 On January 27th, 2010, Carrie said:

    There are so many things wrong with this that I can’t even come up with a coherent response. I haven’t shopped Whole Foods since I moved and there isn’t a store within a two-hour drive, and this new program doesn’t leave me disappointed that I won’t be shopping there.

  21. 21 On January 27th, 2010, Lose weight, eat cheaper! « Dating Jesus said:

    [...] the story (linked from Jezebel) that the behemoth Whole Paycheck offers thin employees as much as 10 percent more on their employee discount, over what they offer larger [...]

  22. 22 On January 27th, 2010, buttercup said:

    I sent a letter.

    “Ever since Whole Foods came to Pittsburgh, I have gleefully shopped there, reveling in the organic produce, fresh meats, variety cheeses, and more. No more. Until you revise your discriminiatory discount policy for employees, that is. You will no longer get a single dollar of mine as long as you are determined to treat employees of size as second-class citizens, basing a discount hierarchy on BMI, which is nothing but a statistical measure and useless for individual people.
    Please do your research and know that it is possible to be fat and healthy, fat and fit. The policy of charging employees more because they don’t conform to a statistical model is discriminatory, and insulting to your fat customers and employees both.”

    Vixen’s was better, though. :) I’ll post back if I hear anything from them.

  23. 23 On January 27th, 2010, Rachel said:

    @Vixen: Now that I think about it, I emailed Whole Foods’ customer service once before wanting to know nutrition information for their vegan General Tso’s chicken (in part, to determine how it falls on the glycemic index and also hoping they’d send me the ingredients list, so that we could replicate it at home!). I got a prompt reply from someone named Doris or Dorothy who tried to help me, but was ultimately unable to provide any information. So, basically, Whole Foods’ is rewarding thinner employees with a greater discount on products their stores sell, but they can’t even tell them the nutritional content of their specialty foods? I find that to be a little ironic.

  24. 24 On January 27th, 2010, julie said:

    I had a housemate some years back who worked at Whole Paycheck, and he would bring home a tray of brownies almost every week. Damaged, somehow, so free. I had to ask him to stop, I like a brownie occasionally, but they are one of very few foods that I will eat if they are there. While I like some of their products, I think they’re an ugly corporation, kinda the Walmart of natural food stores. By this I mean they move to a town, open a huge store, put everyone else out of business, and charge outrageously cheap prices. They really are spreading like weeds around here, I know of 4 new ones opening in a 30 mile radius. Like a disease.

    I won’t shop there for anything, even if Mackey became Mr. Benevolence and Charity. Yucky store, yucky politics.

  25. 25 On January 27th, 2010, Elizabeth said:

    But if that 5’4″ employee weighs 80 pounds, they’ll be happy to give her a discount, right? Because she’ll be SOOOO healthy like that. Bull.Crap.

  26. 26 On January 27th, 2010, Vally said:

    This makes me livid.

  27. 27 On January 27th, 2010, Kim said:

    I am a Whole Foods Market employee. This whole thing just makes me sick. I refuse to participate in this new Healthy Discount program (what a crock of crap!). If they really cared about my health, they wouldnt work me like a freaking dog. There are several employees at my store who have also decided to not participate. Not only will they be measuring BMI, they will also be doing screenings of blood pressure, cholesterol and tobacco swabbing. I refuse to share this kind of personal information with anyone besides my physician. Leave it to corporate greed monsters to take that information at some point and use it against me. And rumor has it that our health insurer UHC will be doing the screenings. Just take a few moments to research online and read about UHC and how they treat people. I wish I could find another job, but at this point I am stuck at Whole Foods Market. What an embarrassment.

  28. 28 On January 28th, 2010, Rachel said:

    Check out Paul Campos’ commentary on the subject. As he explains, “Whole Foods’ employee discounts based on weight are inversely related to mortality risk. So you have a policy that’s not merely discriminatory on its face, but completely irrational on its own terms.” Interesting stuff.

  29. 29 On January 28th, 2010, Elizabeth said:

    Actually, if the rationale is to save health care costs, then it’s not irrational. The faster the employees die, the less they can rack up in health care costs.

  30. 30 On January 28th, 2010, FatNSassy said:

    I had been walking to Whole Paycheck since there is one within two blocks of my house. (I gave up my car for environmental concerns.) They will NOT get one more penny of my money. I will shop at the mom and pop health food store even though it costs more!

  31. 31 On January 31st, 2010, Kate said:

    This is just awful. Here’s what I just sent them:


    I have been a VERY loyal Whole Foods Customer for years. I am nauseated today to have heard about your disgusting, discriminatory benefits policy which not only discriminates against employees with a BMI over 30, but actually encourages and rewards those with a BMI under 24 – 1 point under that which is considered normal. SHAME ON YOU.

    More insulting is the “assurance” that this is not discriminatory, but some form of encouragement. Sirs, put yourself into the break room of one of your stores, into the shoes of a woman with a hormonal disorder, or naturally large breasts, or someone who has simply been larger than average her whole life. Do you honestly think she will not feel discriminated against when her peers with bodies that you find more acceptable beam with pride over the additional discount they’ve “earned??”

    I have always enjoyed the way that your store seems to encourage individuality – you seem to hire those who have chosen a different path in life, but remain kind and honest people. Where is this sentiment now?

    In the long run, you will go down in history as a company who indulged in a form discrimination based on characteristics that cannot be helped. You will be compared to racists and homophobes.

    In the short run, you have lost my business.


  32. 32 On January 31st, 2010, L said:

    I have a lot of food allergies and sensitivities… dairy, egg, shellfish, peanuts, corn syrup, brown rice, dextrose, maltodextrin, BHA, BHT. Plus I have a fructose intolerance. Whole Foods is my primary grocery store. I do some shopping at Trader Joe’s, but because so much of their stuff is packaged in small factories, there is quite a bit of potential contamination from some of my more serious allergens. This whole mess makes me so angry… and I would love to boycott Whole Foods. But I’m not sure where I’d be able to shop. Gotta get out my letter writing pen… *sigh*

  33. 33 On February 5th, 2010, All Women Stalker said:

    This is very wrong and sick. I can’t believe they actually came up with a system like that.

  34. 34 On February 8th, 2010, Alexa said:

    This is really just unbelievably stupid. They clearly don’t actually care at all about employees’ health. If I worked there, I would not qualify for this thing even though I have their requisite BMI, because despite being in the so-called healthy weight range, I have high cholesterol. I’ve been on prescription drugs for it since age 22, and it has still never tested in the ‘normal’ healthy range. It’s purely genetic, as my doctor clearly stated, actually not giving me any bullshit about improving my eating habits.

    I would think that an employer who wanted to encourage healthy employees would want to give someone like me better access to healthy food, since I need it more than the people who do meet all the health criteria.

  35. 35 On February 9th, 2010, Why It’s Time to Change Our Thinking About Weight: A Q&A with Linda Bacon | Weightless said:

    [...] attention, fear and unhelpful regulations about the obesity epidemic. Schools ban cupcakes while grocery stores reward thinner employees. Our assumption of larger bodies being unhealthy is deeply [...]

  36. 36 On February 10th, 2010, Big Fat Deal » Not “Fattie Quickies” said:

    [...] Thinner Whole Foods employees get higher employee discount. Um, gross. I will not be going to Whole Foods anymore, I guess! By rewarding a BMI of 24 — a [...]

  37. 37 On February 16th, 2010, Sybil said:

    What makes no sense to me about this is this: I am what most people would consider “overweight” …however… I do not have diabetes, I do not have high blood pressure, I do not have high cholesterol or any of those other numbers you get when you have blood tests. I eat very healthy and I walk for exercise; in other words people see me & think “Fat” but all these medical tests say “Healthy.” Incidentally my husband (of the past 20 years) is very attracted to me too & very happy! Go figure Whole Foods, go figure… do we need more prejudice on this earth!? sigh.

  38. 38 On March 5th, 2010, Yanna said:

    With the advent of advanced genetic science, we are basically looking at the beginning of a huge Eugenics revival. Weight as a “lifestyle choice” can be argued, certainly, but weight, cholesterol and blood pressure are all genetically influenced. Giving preferential treatment to those with more “desirable genes” (see below) is a precedent that we do not want to see established in our society. I sincerely hope that a group of Whole Foods employees will launch a class action suit against WF for this disgusting “voluntary” program.

    “Dear Whole Foods Corporation,

    I am appalled to learn that your corporation has enacted a Eugenicist program which rewards some employees based on their weight, cholesterol levels and blood pressure. As you are doubtless aware, these three attributes are to a great extent determined by a person’s genetic profile. While no corporation that values its longevity would enact a policy of screening its employees for the breast cancer gene, for example, and rewarding those who do not have it, the program that you have put into place is, in essence, the same thing. You are giving financial benefits to employees with more “desirable” genes. Surely you can see what a potential problem this creates for your corporation and for our society in general. Were I you, I would give serious reconsideration to this degrading, inhumane and discriminatory program.

    ***** ****
    Former Whole Foods Shopper”

  39. 39 On March 5th, 2010, Rachel said:

    This Whole Foods ridiculousness is getting really annoying for the sheer fact that I’m in vegan General Tso’s chicken withdrawal. Why, oh why does my morals have to trump my tastebuds?

  40. 40 On March 6th, 2010, KP said:

    Compare 2 people…both are 5’10″….one weighs 210 lbs. (BMI 30.1) with 13% body fat and the other 207 lbs. (BMI 29.7) with 25% body fat. That’s only 27 pounds of fat on person “A” and almost 52 lbs. of fat on person “B”. Guess who gets a discount…..BMIs are useless!

  41. 41 On December 3rd, 2010, Lisa said:

    I have a 12 year vegan friend. He is 6′ 2″ and by genetic disposition is a tad round. So is WF’s policy is genetic specific?. Personally I think Mackey is gone bonkers.
    THAT BEING SAID here is an interesting bit
    December 1,2010/10:45 pm
    Staff at a Chicago Whole Foods Chicago, after an exhausting holiday week shift, were gathered together before they left and told by the new assistant store “team leader”..’Oh you do a good job but we have ONE PROBLEM we need to tend to.”
    Staff stared sliently. (About 100 staff present)
    “You are not shopping enough at Whole Foods. You need to shop at the store more often.”
    OH REALLY? My friend who is employed there is $30 above Food Stamp requirements. He and his unemployed wife are scraping by. They don’t have children but many of his fellow staff do. They barely afford the canned cat foor for their aged cat that they buy at WF’s.
    It was delivered in a very demanding manner.
    “Tell you what..bring your receipts to the office and once a month we will pull one employee receipt and reimburse you.” OH GOODY GUM DROPS!
    I guess he thinks the staff are regular lottery or Powerball playing types?
    The Store leader makes bonuses as does his new assistant(ex-lover). They POST the numbers from all departments on a board everyday. The store usually grosses $250,000.00 per day. Last week they had a $385K day YES IN ONE 8am to 10om shift. Oh and by the way..the ‘gainsharing’ they brag about has disappeared even though this is a record breaking sales store and climbing.
    So that is not enough? Now this assistant manager has decided he wants the number up just a little more ( bonus!) and is reaching into the pockets of the I see it. The Store manager is reported to have a salary of $120k annually + bonuses. Average worker pay is around $11 per hour. They just upped the co pay on all benefits.
    I don’t know if it is even legal to demand employees shop at Whole Foods Lincoln Park but it seems unfair.Many staff discussed it and are afraid they are watching who spend and who doesn’t. Unemployment just went up today..

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