Living in the Whole Foods era

I have only ever shopped at Whole Foods on Thanksgiving, and that’s because it’s one of the only places that stays open. The fact that I don’t shop there regularly is not a political statement. I’m just poor.

You don’t have to frequent the business often to be familiar with the well-lit, warm and inviting atmosphere and beautifully-presented food selection. Whole Foods began as a modest operation out of Austin, Texas in 1980 and now operates 365 locations in the U.S., with plans to expand that number to 500 by 2017.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the seven Oregon stores are all within the greater Portland area. There are plenty of rich, white NPR listeners in ugly sandals who feel comfortable in a Whole Foods despite living in a place with a plethora of options for organic food and viable alternatives to the local Safeway. That’s how it works, right? No matter how many local coffeehouses there are in the Northwest, most people will still drink Starbucks.

Last year, writer and filmmaker Flavio Rizzo wrote a brilliant piece for Warscapes literary magazine entitled “Shipwrecked at Whole Foods,” which equates shopping at the store with a new kind of “American whiteness” because we can equate buying these foods with a kind of pseudo-political awareness.

In fact, Whole Foods actually contributes to the disparities between the rich and poor both locally and internationally. Rizzo cites the popularity of quinoa, which has led to farming practices that endanger the environment in Bolivia. It has also driven the price of that grain so high that poor people in Peru and Bolivia can’t afford it. While elite Americans have decided quinoa is trendy, poor kids in South America are headed for the McDonald’s.

“How can super expensive foods that look like an invention of Edward Weston’s camera—that the majority of the world cannot afford, or would laugh about—be synonymous with social responsibility? This is truly a modern enigma,” Rizzo says.

While I am sure there are plenty of experts on this kind of thing who would know more than I do, I can claim to know a little about Whole Foods as a business because I was commissioned to write a piece on the history of the company for a writing gig last year. CEO John Mackey has spouted some controversial beliefs, including the denial of climate change and the comparison of ObamaCare to fascism, and would probably contrast deeply with his average customer.

He’s not really concerned with social or political awareness, he is just a shrewd businessman. Whole Foods was founded as an alternative food resource, but it grows because of brilliant niche marketing. Customers are supposed to feel better, smarter, richer, healthier and more educated by shopping there. Their business appealed to a certain elite segment of the population that wasn’t being reached before. They don’t want to appeal to everyone. Some of us have to be
the peasants.

Many business analysts have pointed out that as the larger population becomes more aware of healthy food alternatives, Whole Foods may have a problem monopolizing. There are local grocery stores here in Portland to contend with, and there are more organic and vegan sections popping up at traditional grocery stores too. In Southern California, we even have Gelson’s, which looks exactly like Whole Foods. One super-shiny destination for celebrities to buy brie is just not enough.

In reality, the modern enigma that Rizzo speaks about is in no way limited to the food we buy. Last month, Bloomberg profiled online retailers like Zady and Everlane who specifically claim to cater to the “Whole Foods set” by providing locally made garments to encourage larger brands to stop using unethical overseas factories.

The message is great, but there’s no denying that the clickable factory pictures and statistics you find on some of these retailers’ sites are designed to get you to pay $40 for a T-shirt. The Whole Foods set will do that because they get to feel better about themselves and they get a snazzy T-shirt. And they can afford it.

So many of these problems are too complicated for most of us to wrap our heads around. The urge to feel that you are doing something worthwhile is understandable. And I don’t think the goal of being a successful business precludes a company from doing positive things.
The success of Whole Foods has paved the way for more alternative food stores, and while their brand might not be as elite as it once was, the results are better for America. If online retailers make a difference in how clothes are made and distributed, that will be great, even if it means the pioneers can no longer charge those niche prices.

I think you should shop at Whole Foods if you want to. If I had disposable income, I probably would go there all the time to buy Numi Tea and pretend I’m best friends with Amanda Seyfried. You just have to recognize that elitism is different than slacktivism, and that the ultimate goal is for peasants to get a piece of the gluten-free pie, too.