When Whole Foods entered my sphere of consciousness, I became totally enamored. I'd already begun my own "food awakening," moving away from processed foods and dabbling in vegetarianism. Since we didn't yet have a Whole Foods near us in The Bronx, it was part of my Manhattan experience. I think it was Mark Bittman who said that the Whole Foods experience is all about story telling. Every single thing in that store is designed to evoke some kind of positive emotional response. There is nothing random about the way produce is displayed to look the way it would in a Farmer's Market, or the handwriting font that is used on their signage.
In my 20's, unmarried, with no children, I had no qualms about the money I spent in that store. After all, it was good, wholesome, organic food and of course, it was expensive. Cheap food=bad. Expensive food=good. Right? Then, once I stopped working and had kids, I became more budget conscious but I discovered that by sticking to their 365 line of products and shopping the sales, it was not impossible to keep a grocery budget at the store. I felt good that I was giving my family the best food we could possibly buy. It was definitely better than the crappy Key Food across the street from my apartment, where the meat aisle always smelled like rotting chicken and all the produce had fruit flies swarming around it.
Whole Foods' biggest draw is the illusion of trust. Because the public mission of Whole Foods is to provide organic, sustainable and natural foods to its customers, I relieved myself of the responsibility to do my research. After reading What to Eat by Marion Nestle, I developed a neurotic sense of awareness. Grocery shopping in a regular supermarket took me forever because I was reading labels, looking things up, trying to remember what was bad and what was good. At Whole Foods, I trusted that whatever I put in my cart was good for me. I essentially abdicated my responsibility as a consumer, which is the goal, really, of any corporation. Corporations don't want consumers who think for themselves, or consumers that do their research. They want consumers who will blindly follow them. Corporations manufacture relationships of trust and loyalty because they believe that consumers want things to be easy. And they would be right, of course. So many things in life are hard, so if we can at least make shopping easier, why wouldn't we?
My love affair with Whole Foods has gradually come to an end over the past year or so. What changed? A few things:
- BigAg has successfully spun off Big Organic. This means that a lot of the products that once could only be found at Whole Foods are now found at major supermarkets, for less money, to boot (still more expensive than the non-organic products but cheaper than Whole Foods).
- GMO labeling, or lack thereof. I just assumed that products at Whole Foods would be GMO-free or at least, labeled. When I realized that GMO labeling is not mandatory at all, and that Whole Foods carries GMO products on their shelves, it struck me as antithetical to their mission. This is really when I started to wake up to the reality that Whole Foods was just like any other supermarket, just with a better story and a better shopping environment, and that I still needed to be a good, investigative consumer.
- The anti-union stance. Though I do not come from a family of union members, I was a union member myself when I taught in NYC and the Communications Workers Union has protected my brother-in-law's family health benefits. I know enough about unions to know that while they are not perfect, they do good, important work for the middle class in this country. Without unions, we would have no middle class-- our country would be divided into very poor and very rich. The number one mission of any company, public or private, is its bottom line, no matter what, and that bottom line doesn't always include the best interests of its workers. So what gives, John Mackey?
At first, I thought I was boycotting Whole Foods but I've come to realize that it isn't a boycott. It's just that I don't need Whole Foods anymore. I never did, really. I made a classic mistake, and one that Whole Foods was hoping I'd make. I bought into their story, and I put my trust in their marketing model. It doesn't matter where I shop-- the crappy supermarket, the national chain, Whole Foods or the Farmer's Market-- it is still my responsibility as a consumer to know what I'm putting into my cart, and to not take anything for granted. A review of the research can be totally depressing (as I put it to my sister last week, some of these websites are "totally bad news bears!") but in the long run, forewarned is forearmed. I can't make good choices if I don't know what the bad choices are. So, I'm totally fine shopping at my local Stop and Shop, where I can find organic fruits and vegetables, organic dairy, wild-caught fish, and lately, grass-fed beef and natural or organic chicken.
I've also learned that what is "healthy" is not always so. For example, I stopped buying tofu, partly because it is heavily processed and partly because the production of most tofu and other soy-based products involve the use of hexane gas extraction.(http://www.cornucopia.org/2010/11/hexane-soy/) I also don't buy low-fat dairy. My children are the main consumers of dairy in this household. Low-fat dairy contains additives to replace the flavor that is lost when fat is removed, and fat itself has benefits that are important to my children's nutritional intake. (http://grist.org/scary-food/2011-03-04-low-fat-diet-fad/ via Full Belly Sisters)
My evolution as a consumer means that I've established my own bottom line, one that represents the best interests of my family. My kitchen is no dietary utopia but I feel confident that I am giving my family the best choices to which I have access, and more importantly, I'm making those choices instead of letting someone else make them for me.