For Whole Foods specifically, the issue was brought to light by a widespread demonstration/protest in Houston, lead by Michael Allen, founder of End Mass Incarceration Houston. Allen told NPR "People are incarcerated and then forced to work for pennies on the dollar — compare that to what the products are sold for."
Whole Foods was selling goat cheese and tilapia from two companies -- Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy and Quixotic Farming, respectively -- who partner with Colorado Correctional Industries, who employ prisoners to farm dairy and fish.
According to the NPR piece, CCI's mission is designed to provide training and employment for inmates, and a spokesman for Whole Foods told them "We felt that supporting supplier partners who found a way to be part of paid, rehabilitative work being done by inmates would help people get back on their feet," while admitting he had heard some shoppers were uncomfortable with using prison labor.
Whole Foods caved to the public outcry, and has vowed to cut all prison-sourced food by April of next year. Though, using these methods to source food is not uncommon in American grocery stores. CCI alone provides food for Colorado-area supermarkets with more than 2,000 inmates "employed," and is worth around $65 million dollars.
The morality of using cheap labor, and the argument that it provides inmates a valuable service, is very much subjective. But one thing is certain: the cheese you buy at Whole Foods will be prison-free come April. Ridiculously overpriced? Maybe. But definitely not from prison.
Wil Fulton is a Staff Writer for Thrillist. Follow him @wilfulton
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