Whole Foods Nation

While I write a lot about food, health and obesity, this is first and foremost a political blog. I’m interested in excavating and interrogating the comfortable assumptions that get passed around in the US, turning into conventional wisdom, asinine legislation and deeply prejudiced public policy. One of the main targets of my investigation is what I call “Whole Foods Nation,” a cultural affiliation of people who are deeply invested in finding moral superiority in their consumer choices. It is a social class that I, by virtue of my race, income, education, political inclinations, and other markers of acculturation, should embrace, but which I end up finding deeply repellent. It is a mind set that is puritanical, often paranoid, narcissistic, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, self-deluding and deeply hostile to people they view as failures, dupes, impure and fallen.

People who cheerfully chow down on fast food, for example, or who are not in a tizzy over genetically modified crops.

The denizens of Whole Foods Nation are often confused with liberals, but are better described with the monicker “progressive” since they aren’t particularly prone to liberality in their views. They are very like the social do-gooders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who wanted clean government but didn’t really care about poverty. It took the New Deal to extend the social benefits this cultural class took for granted to the rest of the nation, benefits that are steadily eroding. Whole Foods Nation is very much about unacknowledged economic privilege.

Here is a post I wrote on the old blog in August of 2009 when Whole Foods Nation was side-swiped by political reality, forced to look at the social and political vacuity of their self-perception.


Whole Foods Nation Betrayed

Oh, the poor, poor babies. Self-deluded people buying overpriced, marginal quality goods from a major corporate chain that marketed the illusion of being “community based” and “wholesome”.

The BBC writer has a very good time with this article, Customers call for Whole Foods Boycott:

It’s the shop where wealthy American liberals buy their groceries.

But the American supermarket chain Whole Foods Market has found itself at the centre of a storm of controversy after its chief executive, John Mackey, wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal presenting a free market alternative to President Obama’s proposed healthcare reforms.

Mr Mackey began his article with a quote from Margaret Thatcher and went on to add that Americans do not have an intrinsic right to healthcare – an idea strongly at odds with the views of a large proportion of Whole Foods’ customer base.

The company, which has 270 stores in North America and the UK, sells organic vegetables, biodegradable washing powder and sustainable seafood to a well-heeled clientele and champions its liberal credentials.

I hate to break the news to you, kids, but its “liberal credentials” are as deep as its advertisements in the newspaper. It is a brand intended to appeal to liberal upper middle class snobbery and elitism, and to rake in all of your excess income.

There are several Whole Foods in the greater San Diego area, including one about three miles from where I live. I admit I was caught up in the glamor of it when it first opened up, but quickly grew disenchanted by the incredible price premium and, frankly, the crappy quality. The deli food tastes like the “organic” shit served up in college cafeterias everywhere (bland, under-seasoned, fibrous, incorrectly cooked, allowed to sit around for too long) but at about six times the price. The bulk foods are twice the cost of comparable products at the nearest area competitor, Henry’s Market (which is locally owned, serves up local produce, and has great prices, just in case you’re wondering), and the product selection is limited to high priced goods. Their bakery items are, in a word, inedible.

In short, it’s a grand marketing scheme which has worked on people more concerned about appearing to do the right thing than actually doing it. A few people are smart enough to identify the ploy, but not quite willing to admit they were snookered:

Outside the store [in Washington DC], customers Emily Goulding and Ileana Abreu said the controversy had made them think twice about shopping there.

“It is hypocritical and disingenuous and it really cheapens the brand,” said Ms Goulding.

“Whole Foods is expensive but people shop here because they identify with the social conscience of the company – now it turns out that ethos was just a marketing exercise,” added Ms Abreu.

Um, so have you stopped shopping there? If the CEO “apologizes,” will you happily go back to handing over your money for the illusion of an ethos? Are you taking your well-heeled asses to local produce stands, mom-and-pop owned corner markets, and some of the run-down independent grocers in the area who keep the money in the community? No? Why not? Because they don’t sell perfectly shaped, organically grown, blemish-free red bell peppers imported from Holland for $4 each? Just the kind of dinged-up weird looking ones from Mexico at two for $1? Because they don’t have nice looking stores with artfully arranged end caps and bright, colorful posters? Because they are a bit grimy around the edges and have people using food stamps at the checkout line? Because poor people with bad eating habits shop there and you don’t like having to mix with the non-beautiful people?

Uh-huh. Riiiiight, you’re there for the healthy, organic, natural food. Which is packaged at the same factories and comes from the same industrial farms and ranches as the other stuff, but has that pretty “365” label on it.

No, you’re there to shop in an upscale grocery store where dirty poor people aren’t able to join you, but marketed in such a way that you can pretend you’re doing this for socially responsible reasons. I had to laugh at these two people interviewed for the article:

Massachusetts-based playwright Mark Rosenthal’s “Boycott Whole Foods” Facebook page has so far attracted 24,738 fans, including supporters in the UK and Canada.

Rosenthal said, “I read the article and it stunned me, the hubris of this man who has made his millions selling his products to progressives in America based on an image of caring for the community.”

Teacher Carol Kramer had driven from Virginia to take part in the protest. She said, “There are a lot of people out there who really invested in the Whole Foods brand, emotionally and financially. We are feeling really betrayed.”

Why are you all so shocked?

This is exactly how The Precious was marketed to Whole Foods Nation, a facsimile of liberal values tied up in a “clean” package. The “progressives” are a social class, not a political movement, and they are all about image. It is a class still held captive by a fantasy of the JFK White House, wanting to see it as moon landings and cultural events and chic fashion, and not as Bay of Pigs and Vietnam and invasive policing by the FBI and CIA. Its a class that waxes rhapsodic over Woodstock, but is silent over tear-gas in the streets of Berkley.

I look at this situation and see a perfect microcosm of all the delusions about the nature of power and all the unacknowledged class prejudices held by Whole Foods Nation.


Back to present day. This grimly amusing episode in the lives of people who are living in some kind of food utopia captures for me the deep social and political threat of the present obsession with Teh Fatz and the rise of Obesity Panic. The kind of people who are pushing puritanical and moralistic approaches to an environmental shift in food accessibility (demanding corporate responsibility, no less!) are the same people who thoughtlessly hand over far too much money to pernicious corporations run by right-wing plutocrats who rake in the dough selling an image of health and purity. As I mentioned in The Raw, the Cooked and the Half-Baked, the food industry so reviled by these modern-day health gurus got its start in the health food movement and the rise of boxed breakfast cereals in the mid-19th century. The push for health was quickly co-opted by the desire for profit, and the rising consumer market was quite happy to be catered to in the name of “health.”

It took food regulation with actual teeth to provide a safe food chain and to establish the need for measurable standards for food nutrition.


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