Friday, 8 June 2007

an appetite for philosophy

Everything is relative, I suppose. 3QuarksDaily says Whole Foods is moving into New York City's Bowery District. And that's a bad thing.
I once served some sliced raw albacore tuna doused in soy to a friend. I had bought the fish not far from Whole Foods from Alex, the fisherman who had caught it and brought it the next day to the Greenmarket. I'm lucky to live in a city where this is a humdrum and everyday transaction. My friend, a film producer, remarked, "This is great! But how did it get sterile?"

Not that Whole Foods is responsible for food ignorance or food paranoia, mind you, but it's certainly capitalizing on the trend. And that's not all.
There is something else alienating about Whole Foods: it posits a universe in which we are all only consumers. The holism its name gestures towards is not the holism of a community in which buyers and sellers know each other. Instead, it's purely about the foods themselves: one's interest in food is projected as only another form of self-interest.
One of the best lines:
Neoliberal shoppers prefer the impersonal embrace of a corporate parent, disguised as some vague moral goodness.
And later:
The last decade's avalanche of information about food, where to get it, what's in it, and how it's made has been mostly a very good thing: the industrialized food system that wallows in corn syrup, hydrogenated soybean oil, and boneless, skinless chicken breasts is finally being recognized as unhealthy for both individuals and society, as well as the very soil.... Labels are often a shortcut for thinking.
I must admit, I had always thought of Whole Foods and Trader Joe's as A Good Thing. They really are better than most supermarket chains (more expensive, too). But is the solution to the supermarket-of-the-world problem to build a better supermarket? Perhaps not. Most of the youngish, hipster-bohemian-starving-student neoliberals I know (pause: do I know anyone NOT in that category?) buy food in markets when they can. Some even eat local.

Back home in Maine, we have weekly farmer's markets and backyard gardens galore--during growing season. But it takes a lot of effort to eat local. Most folks rely on a supermarket or country store to top up the pantry. I've mentioned my concerns about pat answers to systemic problems before, and movements like Eat Local still make me nervous. I love the sentiment, but inhabitants of Urbania are too unaware of the complexities of food networks to really get what they're asking of folks outside city limits. At first glance, it might seem like agricultural communities would have an easier time eating local. But the fact is, rural areas don't have fish markets and fruit stands within walking distance of homes. They lack the rich diversity of food choices now offered only by a local supermarket or country store.

In farm country there's not much demand for Big Organic. Perhaps it's because people are closer to food there. I've never heard anyone in Maine ask about "sterilizing" fish. Of course, I've never heard anyone ask for raw fish, either, unless for bait. Maybe it's just another facet of the city-country contrast.

Whole Foods represents a trend to reform the supermarket, to make healthy and safe the dangerously industrialized food system. Even some supermarkets in Maine are making an effort to sell local produce (studies have shown that people will pay more for local food. It's a winning business model). Unfortunately, even trendy supermarkets perpetuate homogenization. Now we have a dozen varieties of apples all stamped "Certified Organic." My fear is that trendy Eat Local movements also have a homogenizing effect. The idea that Eating Local is possible, cost-effective, or desirable in all locations at all times just seems a little foolhardy.

3 comments:

Ms. M said...

I confess that places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's (even though I will seek out TJ's if I'm ever in the US because of their 1-pound dark chocolate bars w/almonds) have always seemed strange to me - they sell food, but it's not like normal groceries. When I walk in there I don't have the feeling of seeing ingredients to make a meal with. It's just... food. But the image they're selling is deliberately marketed to a certain segment of the population and the stores will always be found in the most gentrified neighbourhoods. (e.g. the Whole Foods downtown is in Yorkville, of course) The friends-of-friends I stayed with in D.C. a couple summers ago lived near a TJ's but it wasn't there normal everyday grocery store, they'd go for a treat or for specialty items. It's the lifestyle WF and TJ's are trying to sell you, you've put the finger on it.

A friend of mine works for Loblaws corporate, sourcing produce (she makes the calls that send which stuff from which farm to whichever part of Canada), and mentioned a little while ago how the local food movement is trickling up because it'll make money. The organics trend is already big and grocery stores know they'll be able to make money off the trend by pushing organics. It's good for us, yes, but maybe the movement wouldn't be so big if it wasn't known to be a money-maker? I do have a better feeling about the local foods movement, if only because it gets people to think about where their food is coming from, and in theory it should help local farmers. (Here there's the ongoing concern that Canadians should make the most of our own natural resources - why send our money to the US for California citrus when we have perfectly good Ontario apples?) But it's something that'll work better in the Niagara fruit belt than, say, the prairies. I'm curious to read more about it as it goes, anyway. Food for thought. (Geddit? Ha ha.)

You should definitely make a visit to the Hamilton farmer's market if you ever get out there. Nice stuff there and it used to be bigger, back in the day. Maybe the local foods movement will help.

Isaac said...

>maybe the movement wouldn't be so big if it wasn't known to be a money-maker?

You've hit the nail on the head. I love the power of the market to change corporate practices, and the greening of the economy is wonderful. But. I worry that as soon as the profit incentive disappears, corporate interests will return to their old, pillaging
ways.

>I do have a better feeling about the local foods movement, if only because it gets people to think about where their food is coming from, and in theory it should help local farmers.

It's this "thinking about food" thing that the 3QuarksDaily fellow was up in arms about. He thinks people are thinking too much about food as it is, and moreover they think the wrong things about food.

For example, our concerns about beef safety lead to irradiating beef before market rather than changing production practices.

My worry is that the same thing can be true of Eat Local: we'll substitute bumper-sticker platitudes for real intelligence, we'll turn serious thought into a good/bad dichotomy, and we'll replace industrial monocultures with inefficient, low-diversity foraging.

Or maybe I'm just bitter because I can't get Maine blueberries here in Toronto.

Ms. M said...

(See how I'm totally writing my thesis? That draft'll be done any second. I swear.)

>But. I worry that as soon as the profit incentive disappears, corporate interests will return to their old, pillaging ways.

Yeah, that's a fair point. Environmental issues are also really huge right now (look at all the candidate's platforms, US or Can). And demand is driving other parts of the market, like hybrid cars. Maybe the eat local movement is spillover, or maybe it's an indicator of population thinking.

I think this is theory vs. practice issues. In theory, local foods should help people embrace what they have and enjoy diverse tastes like you say. In practice, will it just force local farmers to produce the same things in each region? I don't know if food education is a bad thing (the media will go straight to safety and health hazard issues). It's that current stores are already fairly homogenized because so many things are shipped from out of country - you can always find the most popular fruits & veg on the shelf even when they're out of season. But how much do people know about what goes on to get them fresh apples & oranges year round?

>we'll substitute bumper-sticker platitudes for real intelligence, we'll turn serious thought into a good/bad dichotomy

If that's the kind of thing it turns into, then it probably is just a trend. Good/bad dichotomies are so depressing. The feeling I get in this part of the country is that it's just marketed as a way to get people to appreciate what they've got here, instead of rushing out to import everything to meet consumer demand. But if it gets pitched as a way to make outsourced food look unhealthy/unsafe/undesirable, that's, uh, dangerous.

I should be bitter too. I don't have Maine blueberries to pine for but only Niagara peaches. I only got one good carton last year, never to be seen again. Then I was sad.