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Amazon Whole Foods deal: My biggest hopes and fears

  • Amazon Whole Foods deal and Blue Apron going public offer glimpses into the future of how we will eat.
  • There is a great opportunity for these companies to expand access to fresh wholesome food.
  • But they must use their new power to ensure that small, local food businesses continue to thrive and that diverse communities are included.
Source: Matt Dutile

The future of food is coming fast. With Amazon picking up Whole Foods and meal kit services like Blue Apron going public, we are thrust into a quickly changing food system where on demand service is revolutionizing how and what we eat. It's a time of even faster food, easy as the touch of a button, but is it accessible? That's the question that plagues me.

Having access to high speed internet and access to fresh food that is affordable should be basic civil rights, yet they are two fundamental issues that urban America is still struggling with, compared with those in certain privileged area codes.

Maybe I'm in touch with these issues because I live in Harlem where Whole Foods is poised to open a sprawling new store on 125th and Lenox and everyone has an opinion on whether that's going to be a good thing or not.

I'm all for services that inspire people and make it easier to cook at home. But, what we can't forget is making it affordable. With these seismic shifts happening in the food industry, there is tremendous opportunity and power to change the lives of people at all income levels. This means making sure ingredients are relevant, and accepting multiple types of payment, including food stamps.

How do we ensure that these businesses are inclusive? With its size, technology, market clout and maverick approach, Amazon could bring down prices so healthy food is within the reach of more customers. Access to and lower prices for high-quality food would be a welcome relief. Home delivery of groceries using Amazon Fresh and Prime Now would be a great time saver and a real benefit for the sick and the elderly. Think of how amazing it would be for a service like that to partner with an organization like Citymeals on Wheels to help feed those in need, and City Harvest for waste.

"There is a real opportunity for Amazon, and other forward-thinking players in the food industry, to use their size and power to make sure people in all of our communities have access to fresh, affordable food. I see this as a defining moment and a huge opportunity for these companies to reimagine how to create a stronger link between the diverse urban environment and the online world."

If I could look up at a project rooftop on my morning jog and know that Amazon helped to create a farmers market there with rows of fresh vegetables that could be sold back to Whole Foods at an affordable price, that would be progress. That's the entrepreneurial mindset that I already see all over Harlem, and one that Amazon could help grow. It would be inspirational to fly over Manhattan and look down at lush green rooftops knowing people are eating well.

Meal kit services like Blue Apron, and many more, are growing and multiplying quickly, proving that there is a great demand and desire to make cooking at home easier. Right now, though the prices for a meal package are beyond the reach of many. There should be a lower-priced model making this type of service more accessible to not only a larger but more diverse customer base.

Think of a meal kit service that sources fresh fruits and vegetables from your local CSA, preserves and other goods made by local businesses, meat from a local butcher. A model like that would help ensure that this shift from brick and mortar to online shopping does not decimate small and local businesses.

Harlem is filled with small food entrepreneurs— Aaron the Jamaican guy I buy my juice from on 125th Street, Marc at the coffee shop on Lenox and 118th, Mustafa selling shea butter, the Senegalese lady selling food to construction workers on-site daily. It's these kinds of local places that give Harlem—or any New York neighborhood—its character and enhance the special qualities of city life. My regular interaction with these local businesses keeps me grounded and connected to the community. When on demand shopping dominates, what happens to the local mom-and-pop businesses, the bodegas, grocery stores, and delis?

We need a food system that links these small, independent businesses. Technology like Square has already empowered small businesses. My local bodega can text me a receipt if I need it. Street fair vendors can sell their wares all over the city. How can technology even further help small food businesses compete with the speed and ease of this on demand food economy?

There is a real opportunity for Amazon, and other forward-thinking players in the food industry, to use their size and power to make sure people in all of our communities have access to fresh, affordable food. I see this as a defining moment and a huge opportunity for these companies to reimagine how to create a stronger link between the diverse urban environment and the online world. With their support, we could expand our network of local farms, food suppliers, farmers markets, community gardens, and rooftop gardens.

At this critical time of the consolidation and changing distribution network of our food system, we can envision (and build) a future where quality food is accessible to everyone at every income level.

Commentary by Marcus Samuelsson, celebrity chef and owner of Red Rooster Harlem, Streetbird Rotisserie and Red Rooster Shoreditch in London. Samuelsson has appeared on "Top Chef Masters" and "Chopped All-Stars" and is the author of best-selling memoir "Yes, Chef" and multiple cook books, including "Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook At Home." He also co-produces Harlem EatUp!, a food and culture festival that launched in 2015. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscooks.

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