Whole Foods reaches out to Jamaica Plain

By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / February 15, 2011

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Whole Foods Market sought yesterday 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’’ member of the neighborhood, 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.

“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,’’ Derba 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 response from the supermarket chain since news broke last month that it 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 hailed the entrance of an upscale market while others lamented the loss of Hi-Lo, a Latin market that occupied the space for 47 years.

State Representative Jeffrey Sanchez said the letter from Whole Foods is consistent with what company 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 have also expressed frustration by what they call a lack of communication and outreach from Knapp Foods Inc., which owns Hi-Lo, about the fate of its 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 Jamaica Plain residents, promising to hold community meetings to address their questions.

She said Whole Foods officials intend to hire 100 employees, a majority of them full-time.

She also wrote that the grocer will provide affordable, high-quality food, including Latin products. As is its practice, the store 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.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at