Easheta Shah: My culture is not your Whole Foods

Thursday, February 6, 2020 - 12:00pm

My parents are immigrants, so in our household, food is the center of everything. That means you don’t refuse food even if you just ate. While I’m not the biggest foodie, my parents would take food preparation very seriously, so I grew to love cooking over the years. I was never a natural, but my mom insisted that I learn all the traditional family recipes. What I once thought of as a tedious chore became the foundation for an appreciation of my culture and the art of food preparation. Grocery shopping is the most important task for the Shah family’s process. It includes two kinds of trips: the routine run to our local grocery store with my mom, or a more special trip to my city’s farmer’s market with my grandpa. While the former is a speedy encounter, Saturday farmer’s markets were a religious experience. My grandpa would say hello to his favorite local business owners, and we’d pick out beautiful, fresh produce. Hours later, we’d head home, content with our selection. 

The occasional trip to Whole Foods, however, was a completely different experience. While I reluctantly forgive the overpriced produce, I can’t help but scoff at the shelves stacked with lentil soup that pale in comparison to my mom’s recipe. Here, my grandpa would have no one to talk to. Instead, I see a man debating between the free-range and grass-fed chicken eggs. I see a kid pick up a box of 100 percent fruit strips with no added flavors or sugars. Although I support the raw foods lifestyle, I always thought some of it was a little extreme. But who am I to comment on another individual’s grocery shopping predilections? And by any means, I had some intense restocking to accomplish according to my highly organized list.

A part of me recognized the facade of Whole Foods, but it was one of those things I seemed to be better off unbothered with. But when I had finished reading the section of Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” on Big Organic for my Food, Energy, and Environmental Justice class last semester, my shy animosity toward Whole Foods escalated. I take pride in my culture, so when I see a brand that has industrialization embedded into its production narrative try and preach authenticity, I get a little defensive — to that and seeing jars of my grandmother’s cure-all “Golden Milk” instant mix placed methodically in the front of the bulk spices aisle. I mean, come on, get your own god damn culture.

It’s understood that as globalization continues, cultural diffusion is inevitable — it’s encouraged even. And what is the American Dream if not an expansion of ideas and ways of life? However, for America and its premature industrialization of food, ahead lies a consequently unpromising road to culture and the craft of food preparation. Time and time again, these attempts to reconcile the mass production of processed food acquiesce at the hand of convenience. In that respect, countries of lower socioeconomic status seem to be at an advantage because their circumstances led them to care about how food was made available. And that care continually nurtured their culture. It’s what makes food preparation such a big deal in many countries, and it’s why culture cannot simply be bought in a can of ultra-pasteurized goat milk.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a big fan of organic, and I think the campaign for it is a noble one. Big Organic is a term coined for the progressive movement in agriculture and food production promoting organic and sustainable farming over existing industrial practices. This is good. Organic is good, and consumers should support brands that practice sustainable farming methods. Especially if it means endorsing local stories over the narrative of capitalism. But when businesses like Whole Foods want and expect their organic suppliers to operate at a larger scale, Pollan poses the overarching question best: “Is industrial organic ultimately a contradiction in terms?” Short answer: It is. Whole Foods strives to emphasize their “commitment to the local farmer” but unless their “local farmer” is a large scale organic farm in California, this is nothing but false advertising. A large portion of Whole Foods’s shelf space is accorded to big brands, wiping away all the underdogs, if they haven’t already been absorbed into the larger ones.

The problem I have with Whole Foods is that it is just a facade. The goal of redefining the American food production system is commendable, and the organic movement is doing a fine job taking preliminary steps toward a more sustainable future. However, seeking to undo the wrongs of American commercialism is much more arduous than writing a few creative labels about how the farmers tucked their heirloom tomatoes in each night.

Whole Foods has constructed a culture out of the stories on the back of the boxes, and consumers are buying into it. They’re convinced they’re doing the right thing, paying a few extra bucks for a compelling production narrative. They have the money to spare, so why not support the locals? But the reality of it is that it’s not supporting locals. Instead, high-end organic grocery supermarkets are contributing to the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor for the sake of cultured produce; because even though accessibility to high-quality healthy foods is increasing in an effort to combat food inequality, affordability isn’t. While I’m not in the least bit opposed to the idea of meeting my soulmate in the Rosé aisle, if the goal is unrefined and genuine culture, go to a farmer’s market and have a chat with a farmer in the flesh.

Easheta Shah can be reached at shaheash@umich.edu.