Saturday, March 18, 2006

(less) Evil Empire(s): Is Whole Foods Wholesome?

I wouldn't be a good Ann Arborite, liberal, or psychiatrist if I didn't say that, yeah, I shop at Whole Foods occasionally, and yeah, I secretly feel like it makes me a better human being than I might be otherwise (because, like conservatives who like to balk at homosexuals, liberals like to balk at neurotoxic pesticides).

But (duh, duh, duh) Whole Foods isn't particularly honest about some of its marketing (imagine that!).

However, don't forget, Whole Foods does pay a living wage and gives good health insurance to its employees and does encourage, though at a price, a healthier lifestyle. They're not evil per se. They just aren't quite as enviro-conscious and populist and supportive of local agriculture as they want us all to believe.

An excerpt from the conclusion of the article, though I'd certainly recommend the whole thing:

Of course, above and beyond social and environmental ethics, and even taste, people buy organic food because they believe that it's better for them. All things being equal, food grown without pesticides is healthier for you. But American populism chafes against the notion of good health for those who can afford it. Charges of elitism—media wags, in otherwise flattering profiles, have called Whole Foods "Whole Paycheck" and "wholesome, healthy for the wholesome, wealthy"—are the only criticism of Whole Foods that seems to have stuck. Which brings us to the newest kid in the organic-food sandbox: Wal-Mart, the world's biggest grocery retailer, has just begun a major program to expand into organic foods. If buying food grown without chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers has been elevated to a status-conscious lifestyle choice, it could also be transformed into a bare-bones commodity purchase.

When the Department of Agriculture established the guidelines for organic food in 1990, it blew a huge opportunity. The USDA—under heavy agribusiness lobbying—adopted an abstract set of restrictions for organic agriculture and left "local" out of the formula. What passes for organic farming today has strayed far from what the shaggy utopians who got the movement going back in the '60s and '70s had in mind. But if these pioneers dreamed of revolutionizing the nation's food supply, they surely didn't intend for organic to become a luxury item, a high-end lifestyle choice.

It's likely that neither Wal-Mart nor Whole Foods will do much to encourage local agriculture or small farming, but in an odd twist, Wal-Mart, with its simple "More for Less" credo, might do far more to democratize the nation's food supply than Whole Foods. The organic-food movement is in danger of exacerbating the growing gap between rich and poor in this country by contributing to a two-tiered national food supply, with healthy food for the rich. Could Wal-Mart's populist strategy prove to be more "sustainable" than Whole Foods? Stranger things have happened.
But Newman-Os do taste better than regular Oreos. Seriously.

At least that's what I tell myself.


Pepper said...

Oh please. You think this nation doesn't already have a two-tiered food supply? Go into an inner city sometime and see how much access is available to supermarkets which stock even normal fresh produce. It's gotten so bad that there have some calling for Pennsylvania to create state-run grocery stores in order to serve Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

That doesn't excuse Whole Foods from being a total rip-off, even if I admittedly shop there sometimes. But you can't blame Whole Foods for creating a wave of elitism surrounding organic produce.

Garrett said...

I don't think they created that elitism. I think I wish I had bought their stock about two years ago, because they've done one DAMN good job of capitalizing off of it :)

Whole Foods produce generally just looks better than produce at Meijer or Kroger. Hiller's and Busch's do okay most of the time, but once again, they cater to a higher clientelle than does Meijer or Kroger. And it's a pleasant shopping experience in general.

So this post wasn't to destroy the wonders of Whole Foods with regards to reasonable people, but more to just burst the bubble of the sort of university liberals who think that Whole Foods is a sign of the second coming of Christ. And judging by the number of douchebags who load their carts up in the homeopathic aisle, there are plenty of them around.

Pepper said...

Well the article posted certainly did put forth an argument that Whole Foods was creating an elitist system of food availability. I'm merely trying to point out that our favorite seller of vegan rice chips isn't exactly the root of the problem.

By the way, are you trying to tell me that I don't need that organic garlic/St. John's wort poultice to increase my vitality??? :)