Shipwrecked in Whole Foods

by Flavio Rizzo

On entering the gigantic food chain, Whole Foods, we are greeted with airy spaces, tattooed experts on cheeses and beers sporting a late 1800s look, a spotlessly clean environment and salivating descriptions of foods. As we walk through the aisles, we learn about social responsibility, health, various degrees of animal freedom from cages and, in the process, get to master an adjective or two we did not know before. At the exit we work our way through forty plus registers, diligently following a recorded voice calling the line numbers, lines nicely painted with the colors of the rainbow. 

In what we may perceive as food paradise, the robotic voice and the mechanical order create the paradoxical effect of a post-apocalyptic world where one would imagine rationed food and tents just outside the doors. Instead, we find ourselves back in the streets not knowing exactly what happened. We feel lost, confused, electrified, self-elated, at a point of no return. We are overcome by the feeling of having entered an exclusive club, a postmodern brotherhood of food addicts organized under a reassuring corporate brand. We have found an elite paradise of delights, and we just feel the urge to tell the universe that such a place exists and we can be part of it.

Have we just witnessed the future of Western food shoppers? What’s the context of such an experience? Once we come down from tripping on this, we gain composure and try to find our center.

A generalized niceness

The essential starting point of any reflection on Whole Foods has to be the acknowledgment of the pleasant environment the store offers (when not crowded to stampede levels, that is, which may be never in some stores). Everything is quite simply “nice” - reassuring - everything looking good and appealing. Food is placed impeccably, labels are just “cool” (one wonders if Whole Food has a screening process for its products based on labels - a "cool label check” somewhere in its long list of filters). We have to surrender to this generalized niceness, unconditionally. We are literally held captive by Whole Foods, and it is crucial to acknowledge it. Whole Foods puts us in the best of positions to be just there, and in the process it imposes, perhaps unwillingly, a new, dangerous way of perceiving food.

Whiteness and widening gaps

Whole Foods is a point of entry into a new version of American whiteness, one which leans on a pseudo recognition of diversity through sanitized food presentation. It offers a new order of “otherness” in which the other is a pleasant-looking piece of food, totally safe, and with a pedigree. Within the Whole Foods’ bubble we are turned instantly sophisticated, and the store becomes the place where we can self-indulge in notions of cosmopolitan openness to world products and political struggles. To buy an avocado “with a background” ends up, dangerously, filling the space of our urge for political awareness. The store did the math for us, as well as all the thinking, so we can “shop with confidence” and just relax. 

The whole process does something rather particular: It creates the illusion of an “independent” understanding within the larger implications of corporate intervention in defining a food’s background. In establishing a perimeter of commercial values based on social responsibility, Whole Foods depoliticizes us. Worse, for those already sinking into the hybrid life of a world without politics, it offers a parachute, a sort of immunity: “I shop here so, by extension, I know a thing or two about social awareness.” 

Whole Foods unavoidably widens the gap between people who have everything and people who have nothing: 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. 

The recent situation with quinoa, the “hot” and “trendy” new grain that we are suddenly unable to live without - and without which we are suddenly missing essential nutrients to keep us alive - is case in point. Paola Flores, filing for the AP from La Paz, Bolivia, reports that “[t]he scramble to grow more (quinoa) is prompting Bolivian farmers to abandon traditional land management practices, endangering the fragile ecosystem of the arid highlands, agronomists say.” A quinoa emergency, then, at the bulk bins. A separate exposé published in the Guardian goes even further: “[T]here is an unpalatable truth to face for those of us with a bag of quinoa in the larder. The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken.” Whether we blame vegans or hipsters or the organic food movement or a lack of appropriate trade regulations, the troubling truth about quinoa represents that repetitive drama between the West and rest in which our voracious consumption depletes yet another land and another people. 

Whole Foods widens the gaps, and it does so in the most subtle and displacing manner, giving us an environment (the actually sanitized, spotless physical space) that is the embodiment of an elite (yet perceived as “open,” especially through the chain's less pricey "360" product line) that finds itself at home within a soulless, sterilized experiences. The notion of gentrification has been surpassed, attaining the space of a perennial state of mind. This is where even an apple turns into an object/jewelry of desire, not of need, or at least of normality. In that sense, Whole Foods is simply the last piece in the long, familiar chain of shifting perceptions in neo-capitalistic societies that exploded after the Second World War, in which the creation and multiplication of desires is central to the self-preservation of the system.

Hedonism, self-preservation and loneliness

The store intensifies and brings the idea of hedonism to a new level, an acidic one. Here the act of buying food is turned into a struggle for self-preservation. Central to the process is the placebo effect of food presentation and its accompanying literature on health benefits, all of which extrapolates to define one’s own look and composition. And it does not stop at one's look (skin getting smoother with X food), but the look obsession is transferred also to the food that one carries around in the bag, places on the kitchen counter and so on. The image of celery leaves poking out from an enviro-tote is now the iconic image of the socially responsible food shopper.

Whole Foods is becoming the epitome of the lonely struggle for self-preservation, one in which the “other” is just an annoying presence on the aisle between one’s self and a longer life; a place where one satisfies one's own thirst for “diversity” through the store's literary descriptions of the products. Diversity is a Brazilian coffee or an olive oil from Tuscany. Not only does this process perpetuate obnoxious stereotypes, but it also quenches any desire for real discovery. Whole foods levels off the richness of diversity into one perfectly packaged bundle. Far from becoming a point of entry into new worlds, the process locks one out. 

Whole Foods does not sell only food, it sells a standard of cleanness and product safety completely unreal and isolating as it actually creates fears of anything "substandard" (or, in short, anyplace else). From the cleanness and safety of those aisles, a generation of fearful travelers arises which finds itself on the other side of the world obsessed and imprisoned by an artificial standard that has effectively killed any chance for a real self-discovery. These superimposed safety measures become a prison in which the collective experience is only an illusion - packaged and well described like the rest of the products. Food shopping is no longer about food, but about trust and a chance for real experience. The progressive isolation of this new category of food shoppers reflects the progressive isolation of the United States as a whole, and it effectively kills the push for any sense of community around which food has been synonymous for centuries. Food is projected as potential danger, and so, “I go where I am not in danger” - a sad and drastically self-limiting surrender of range indeed.  

Obsession

Our business is to sell the highest quality foods we can find at the most competitive prices possible. We evaluate quality in terms of nutrition,     freshness, appearance, and taste. Our search for quality is a never-ending process involving the careful judgment of buyers throughout the company. -Our Quality Standards, Whole Foods Market

Why? Why “the highest quality foods?" Why is this search “never-ending?" Why surrender the sum of our sustenance to "the careful judgement of buyers?"

This description, featured on the Whole Foods website, creates a sense of obsession and urgency that should have no place in the simple act of buying food. Coming from a Mediterranean background, in my experience “the highest quality” has never been “never-ending,” but rather is simply implicit. Moreover, what does this obsession for “highest quality” do to a society? What are the implications of such a statement?

Citizenry fulfilled

One leaves the store with the impression of having embraced and participated in a progressive approach to food, a feeling that flirts dangerously with the illusion of "citizenship fulfilled.” In fact, while fulfilling our overly pumped-up desires - as opposed to following simple and pleasant needs - we are left with the impression that we are engaging in a larger scheme of positive, ethical and political behavior. Buying fair trade at Whole Foods realizes the necessity or desire for clearing up one's conscience. Hidden under the rug of “support,” however, a dangerous presage awaits: Acting by buying. With one single movement from shelf to tote we return to the center of what really matters: self-preservation. This is an essential shift, since the political sense of a more just world seems to come from a capitalist sense of fair trade, as opposed to any real discourse of redistribution of wealth and resources. We shop for food as if we are at Tiffany’s. Still sweating off the Yoga class, we dream of exotic places; we set impossible standards of cleanness; we buy fair trade as a form of neo-pity, when we should pay a fraction of the price for those products and the difference, in terms of money, should not belong to us. Wholefoods imposes a new ethical order intended to create ethical buyers, but the result is the creation of an isolated class that is progressively severing any direct experience with the “political” and emerging with a more subtle and dangerous form of racism based on standards of cleanness and stereotypical notions of far-away places. 

A final paradox

New Years Eve, New York City. 

As I stroll through Whole Foods among the festive crowd, I approach the beer section, looking for a coolly-labeled organic beer to buy. People around me fill their carts; after all this is the night of nights for drinking. 

This is when I notice that, next to the beers, on perfect display, is a magic pill! PartySmart, the day-after pill of drinking: “For a better morning after… one pill one evening.” The pill promises that you can spend a night full of Bukowskian vertigos; it is fine to fulfill your desire for transgression, go right ahead. Just make sure to take the pill and your new superimposed obsession for health will come out unscathed, just like your liver, which has been “clinically proven” to be supported by your newfound friend. 

After all, this is all that counts: To have bites of experiences that in no way affect our solitary struggle to live forever - or at least a day longer than the person in front of us at the register. 

Flavio Rizzo has a Ph.D in Comparative Literature from the City University of New York and an Italian Laurea in Cinema Studies. He is also a filmmaker. His latest documentary is on the Coca Wars in Bolivia.