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Is Whole Foods unfair to fat employees?

New voluntary program gives a bigger employee discount to those who meet certain health criteria.

By Karen Datko Feb 5, 2010 6:01PM

Upscale grocer Whole Foods has a new voluntary program to reward workers who don’t use nicotine and meet specific numbers for body mass index, blood pressure and cholesterol during in-store screenings. Have the right numbers, and you get up to 30% off stuff you buy at the store. Kinda fat? You’re stuck with the regular employee discount of 20%.


It’s no surprise that CEO John Mackey, who has already railed against government involvement in health care -- let the all-knowing corporations take care of that! -- is getting more heat.


Jezebel appeared to be the first to share the news: Anna North wrote, in part:

If your BMI is above 30, you'll get to keep the original 20% employee discount, but you'll be 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.

In a memo explaining the program (you can read it here), Mackey said Whole Foods spent more than $150 million last year for health care for employees and the number is expected to rise. The new program is not a benefit, but rather an employee “incentive” to be healthier and keep company costs down, he said. “We believe this is a win-win program that will help both our Team Members and our shareholders.”


A post at The Atlantic Wire titled “Whole Foods punishes fat people” summarized many of the objections raised by bloggers: BMI is not a good indicator, the program is discriminatory, etc.

One of them, University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos, wrote at Lawyers, Guns and Money, “Even if one decides to enter John Mackey's Epidemiological Fantasyland, where good health is achieved by purchasing $27-a-pound Ahi tuna in order to achieve Optimal Thinness, how much sense does it make to make it more expensive for your non-thin employees to purchase said tuna?”


Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur observed that there are ways to encourage better health while treating everyone the same and leaving the employer in the dark about weight, blood pressure and other private health matters. For instance, King County, Wash., employees can lower out-of-pocket health care costs if they participate in an annual health assessment and action plan. “Perfect. Nonintrusive. Respectful,” she wrote.


Mackey, she said, is “the last guy you want taking your blood pressure or looking at your chart.”

Jillian Lovejoy Lowery called the Whole Foods approach discriminatory. Mackey “seems to have forgotten that people come in all shapes and sizes, that things like blood pressure and cholesterol are sometimes hereditary, and that even smokers might like to purchase their avocados at a greater discount,” she wrote at The Perpetual Post.


What do you think? Is this program -- remember, it’s voluntary -- unfair to workers who don’t meet the standards? Wouldn’t those who are overweight actually benefit from getting a bigger discount on nutritious food? Are your BMI and your blood pressure none of your employer’s business?


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