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Whole Foods' pledge to JP: We'll be a 'positive' neighbor

Posted by Roy Greene  February 14, 2011 07:11 PM

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Whole Foods Market today sought to assure Jamaica Plain residents concerned about the upscale grocer's move into the former Hi-Lo Foods building that it intends to be a "positive and productive" neighbor, by hiring some displaced workers, stocking affordable goods, and donating to community groups.

In an open letter to residents, Laura Derba, president of the North Atlantic Region for Whole Foods, said the company has hired several of the 45 former Hi-Lo employees and will give priority interviews to others at its other stores. It also plans to hold public job screenings after renovations are completed and the store is opened.

Whole Foods said it will gain access to the building in late March and will conduct extensive renovations to the interior of the Centre Street building. But it has "absolutely no plans'' to change the outside features of the store that are important to the community, such as the mural, awning, and clock -- all of which will remain intact, Derba wrote.

"Please know that our intentions are to be productive and positive members of the JP community and to provide you with high-quality food and exceptional customer service at great value,'' she wrote. "We understand that we will only be able to prove our commitment to you with our actions. "

The letter, e-mailed to the Globe by Whole Foods, was the first detailed community response from Whole Foods since news broke last month that the supermarket chain would lease the space long occupied by Hi-Lo. The news set off a firestorm in Jamaica Plain, touching off heated dialogues in the press and community that cut across economic, class, and cultural lines.

Some residents hail the entrance of an upscale market, while others lamented the loss of Hi-Lo, a Latin market that has occupied the space for 47 years.

State Representative Jeffrey Sanchez said today that the Whole Foods letter is consistent with what its officials have been saying since the news broke, but it did not allay concerns.

"I look forward to seeing the details going forward, because there are still questions about a Whole Foods in a diverse community,'' said Sanchez, who represents Jamaica Plain.

In the weeks since the January announcement, public officials also have expressed frustration by what they call a lack of communication and outreach from Knapp Foods Inc., which owns Hi-Lo, about the fate of displaced employees.

In her letter, Derba said that Whole Foods had intended to communicate with city and neighborhood officials before its announcement, but then news leaked about the deal.

"We were enormously disappointed that you were not informed in a more respectful and organized manner,'' Derba wrote to residents, promising community meetings to address their questions.

She said Whole Foods officials intends to hire 100 employees, a majority of them full-time. She also wrote that the grocer will provide affordable, high-quality food, including a variety of Latin products. Whole Foods, as is its practice, will donate 5 percents of its earnings to neighborhood organizations.

"Being a community partner is a responsibility we take very seriously,'' she wrote. "We are eager to show our support and commitment to the wonderful organizations that make up the fabric of the JP neighborhood."

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