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Protestors Slam UNFI, Whole Foods for 'Unsustainable Practices'

Thu, 12/19/2013 - 10:34am
Educators, consumers, and labor and environmental activists gathered today to protest the unsustainable practices of organic food distributor United Natural Foods Inc. and retail partner Whole Foods Market at UNFI's annual shareholder meeting. (PRNewsFoto/International Brotherhood of Teamsters)

PROVIDENCE, R.I., (PRNewswire) — Dozens of educators, consumers, and labor and environmental activists gathered Wednesday to protest the unsustainable practices of organic food distributor United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) and retail partner Whole Foods Market (WFM) at UNFI's annual shareholder meeting. They inducted UNFI and Whole Foods into the Corporate Tax Dodgers Hall of Shame.

UNFI is taking $18 million in public subsidies while watching local schools close and kids' music, arts, library and literacy programs shut down. UNFI is also using out-of-state workers to build its warehouse in the Hudson Valley, N.Y. This new warehouse disrupts ecologically-sensitive wetlands, while turning 33 acres of farmland into a giant parking lot. UNFI management hustled the project along at record speed, working with local developers to preempt new department of conservation wetland maps. UNFI is also being prosecuted for breaking America's labor laws for threatening and intimidating warehouse workers at its Moreno Valley, Calif. distribution center.

"New York taxpayers should know that they're financing a company that has a history of threatening, intimidating and firing warehouse workers at other locations around the country," said Adrian Huff Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 445 in Rock Tavern, N.Y. "Unfortunately, the public never had the opportunity to ask if this is the kind of company we want to welcome into our community and invest in. If you come to New York you should show respect for its working families, pay good wages, pay your taxes – then you'd be received with open arms."

"UNFI expects nearly $18 million in public subsidies, yet has refused to deal fairly with the community or follow a truly accountable public process for awarding subsidies," said Tomas Garduno, Political Director at The Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN). "They get three strikes—for dodging taxes, dodging questions about the environmental impact of this project, and dodging their record on workers' rights."

"This project could have been built entirely with local union construction workers, but instead, UNFI brought in an out-of-state contractor and plenty of out of state materials, which could also have been easily sourced right here in New York," said L. Todd Diorio, President of the Hudson Valley Building and Construction Trades Council. "Not only are qualified and unemployed local people losing out on these jobs, but less money will be circulated in the local economy, making the larger community lose out on the economic benefits of new construction."

UNFI and Whole Foods have a reputation for valuing sustainability, but consumers challenged that.

"It's not enough to build a LEEDs building to make a project sustainable – the building's impact on community, land, air and water matters as well. UNFI and Whole Foods claim to care about the environment, but UNFI is disrupting ecologically-sensitive wetlands, while turning farmland into a giant parking lot," said Alexis Baden-Mayer, Political Director of Organic Consumers Association. "Along with Riverkeeper, we have serious concerns that this project was approved without weighing the impacts of storm water pollution on surrounding communities, without a climate change risk assessment and without looking into the many available brownfield redevelopment alternatives in the area." 

The EPA estimates that water runoff is 40–60 percent lower for brownfields than greenfield developments. Community advocates have also cited numerous problems in the public process for awarding subsidies to UNFI earlier this year.

"This subsidy deal makes a mockery of public participation and community-focused economic development," said Rae Leiner, Organizer with Community Voices Heard. "Playing neighboring towns against each other like UNFI did is unethical. We need greater transparency and corporate accountability in all subsidy deals so local communities can be sure they get their money's worth from expensive corporate subsidies, ensuring hiring from all surrounding areas, and meeting the need for good-paying local jobs."

The Valley Central School District alone stands to lose millions over the next 15 years because of UNFI's subsidy. Tim Brown, President of the Valley Central Teacher's Association, questioned the priorities of IDA members for promoting big tax breaks to profitable multinational corporations, while town taxes on homeowners are increasing by 16.58 percent and severe cuts to local schools have eliminated or reduced programs for kids such as elementary library, music and art, along with a reduction in kindergarten from full to half day.

"Waiting until the year 2029 for UNFI to be an equal participant in supporting the local community and its schools is an unsustainable and inherently unfair expectation," Brown said. "I ask that UNFI demonstrate its sincerity with regard to its stated Core Value of Community by reevaluating what it considers to be its fair share of taxes owed to our children."

The advocates are filing a complaint against UNFI and the Montgomery IDA with the Authorities Budget Office (ABO), the agency charged with overseeing public authorities. The complaint details problems with the subsidy deal, including inadequate public notice, an incomplete application for financial assistance, failure to respond to a FOIL in a timely manner, and a potential conflict of interest for an IDA Board Member. Remedies could include terminating the tax exemptions and launching a full investigation, among others.

"Right now, the Montgomery IDA is letting UNFI just take the money and run," said Elizabeth Soto, Executive Director of the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation. "Companies that accept public money must be held to a higher standard."

Founded in 1903, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters represents 1.4 million hardworking men and women throughout the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.

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