A Tale of Two Grocery Stores


Normally my posts address issues pertaining to people with criminal backgrounds. Today, however, I want to talk about something that happened to my brother a few months ago. My brother suffers from a mental illness. Like people who have a criminal history, people who are mentally ill struggle daily to gain acceptance in a society that rarely takes the time to get to them know - to see past the labels.

A Tale of Two Grocery Stories

This is a story about my brother and two grocery stores located blocks from one another: Jewel Foods and Whole Foods.

For the past 30-odd years my brother, who is in his 50s, has lived in a halfway house for the mentally ill in Evanston, Illinois. My brother is unable to work. He passes the time taking long walks and spending the little bit of money he gets from his SSI check to purchase candy, soda, and cheap cigarettes.

My brother has his regular haunts: the convenience store on Main Street, the Main Street newspaper stand, Squeeze Box, a used-book-and-record store, and, of course, Jewel Foods.

Everyone who works at Jewel Foods knows my brother. My brother is on first-name basis with the employees who work at the store. My brother, for all his challenges, is a gregarious fellow. He’s quick to offer a compliment to the ladies and always wants to know about your family roots.

In May, my brother decided to check out the Whole Foods store in downtown Evanston. It was his first time and last time in the store. Whole Foods banned him from the store for life.

When I learned about the incident a couple of weeks later I tried to find out what happened. My first attempt to get an answer went poorly. I went to the store and spoke with a male supervisor who was rude and dismissive.

Initially, the supervisor told me that Whole Foods did not eject my brother. The “loss prevention” people did. When I asked him for the phone number to their “loss prevention” people, he refused to give it to me. I told the employee that my brother is mentally ill and has for years frequented several commercial establishments without incident – all the more reason why I was perplexed by what had happened at Whole Foods. I also stated that my brother does not steal.

A week or so later I sent a comment to the store through its website. Later that day I got a call from the Store Team Leader, Ruben. Ruben said that he was on vacation when the incident occurred but would look into the matter and get back to me. He never did.

Subsequently, I learned from a former store employee that Whole Foods “works closely” with its loss prevention team. The former employee also told me that the store keeps a log of every person it bans from the store, along with photos.

In September, I sent another comment through the store’s website. This time I mentioned the log. Ruben again responded, this time by e-mail. Without mentioning the log book, he said he was available to talk. I responded: “If you genuinely want to help me, make a copy of the log entry regarding my brother … and send it to me.” There has been nothing but deafening silence ever since.

From the outset, I questioned the store’s repeated claims of ignorance. The store’s refusal to provide me any explanation leads me back to my original suspicion – that my brother was banned from the store because of his mental illness.

One in five Americans will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives. Ninety-six million people -- or 4% of the population (aged 18 and older) -- live with a serious chronic mental illness.

Some people may be surprised to learn that the mentally ill are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime -- nearly a third are crime victims.

But the stigma of being mentally ill persists. It is for this reason that I am grateful to stores likes Jewel Foods. Unlike Whole Foods, the employees at Jewel did not immediately “profile” my brother but saw him for who he is: a human being.