The Body Electric: Whole Foods Tells Me What I Need

Thomas Page McBee
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Wow, did Whole Foods CEO John Mackey piss a lot of people off with his August 11 Wall Street Journal op-ed opposing single-payer health care. Though at first pass, it does seem odd that the CEO of a multinational health food "market" with an emphasis on fair trade, organics, and equity would oppose what appears to many of us a long overdue step towards responsibly caring for one another, thirty seconds of contemplation has me stuck on another aspect of this all together: why does this corporation exist in the first place? When did we stop cultivating an individual knowledge of our bodies? Why is the modern model for optimal health about access and comidification?

I am not a Whole Foods hater. Despite Mackey's personal philosophy (or, perhaps, because of it), Whole Foods--on paper and anecdotally amongst the employees I know--is a decent company to work for. It's worth noting that comprehensive health care is a large part of why so many artists and writers I know--from Pittsburgh to Oakland--have chosen to work there. And, the fact is, in many American towns and cities that are not replete with farmers' markets, Whole Foods is one of the only spots to buy produce that's not drenched in pesticides.

And, to be honest, I am consistently seduced by the physical design and marketing of Whole Foods' products.  Though I usually frequent the independent grocery store down the street, in the past year I've bought  a neti pot, high grade fish oil pills, probiotics,  and pressed flax oil at the Whole Foods nearest me. I do this because I want to take care of myself, and when I walk into the vitamin aisle, I am overwhelmed with all the ways I am failing to "be good to my whole body." It's like I'm suddenly in the midst of a pyramid scheme, and  the one bottle of Wellness Formula I've stopped in for just isn't going to cut it. I need Psyllium husk powder, whey protein, and--obviously--antioxidants. F off, free radicals! I didn't even know you existed, and now I've been empowered to buy products that will destroy you! Whole Foods is my friend. Whole Foods tells me what I need.

I kid (sort of), but there is something very troubling about the marriage of money and health in this country, highlighted currently by the health care debate. Pointedly, this BBC article introduces Whole Foods as "...the shop where wealthy American liberals buy their groceries." And isn't it true? Though I am not wealthy, I am debatably financially capable of spending $17 on a half-off premium fish oil special.

But that is not the primary point. At issue is that when I leave Whole Foods, toting my single bag and down a week's pay, I consistenly experience a moment of panic: what if the herbal stress reducer is worthless? What if the truth is not contained in the flax oil I've purchased to soothe my joints, but in the precision to which I am tuned to my body's needs?  I am hit with the queasy realization that I am the target consumer, and in this busy parking lot in Oakland, I am alone with a single question: why am I buying all this crap? My answer is not easy, but I am so glad I asked.

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

"...where wealthy American

<p>&quot;...where wealthy American liberals buy their groceries.&quot; Well, yeah. They have to buy them somewhere. And the snark is misplaced--the problem isn't that wealthy liberals shop at Whole Foods, it's that Whole Foods is beyond the reach of people who aren't wealthy (and that its commitment to sustainable farming isn't shared by conservatives, who simply don't care about the ill effects of pesticides and factory farms.)

</p><p>Today when I went grocery shopping in my neighborhood, I had my choice of two excellent local natural food co-ops (I am a member of <a href="">this one</a> and live around the corner from<a href=""> this one</a>) as well a nearby farmer's market. Because I live where I do, I am able to eat mostly organic, local, sustainably farmed foods without emptying my bank account.
</p><p>However, as you point out, for the vast majority of Americans, this is not the reality. Had I remained in my Virginia hometown, the only option for this kind of shopping would have been Whole Foods. I probably would have emptied my wallet in order to shop there, as I have a family history of cancer that makes a healthy diet a high priority for me.  But there's something fundamentally wrong with our food chain (and society) when the majority of shoppers have so few choices, and the healthy products Whole Foods are belittled as the choice of wealthy liberals instead of something all Americans of all incomes should be able to buy for their families. </p><p>

Becky Sharper</p>

From a Whole Foods employee

This is all very true. I work for WFM and I see people spend hundreds of dollars on a few items from Whole Body (the department with all the vitamins, supplements, etc). It is kind of ridiculous. There may be benefits to some of those products, but I think WFM is really just prying on people's fear of aging and death- here, take this product that may keep you alive for another year or two, it will only cost $40 a bottle. I mean come on! Even with my discount I don't go anywhere near that crap. Supplement wise, I take a multivitamin I buy at CVS for $7.

But while WFM is an overpriced store heavy with corporatism/capitalism, it is a pretty good company to work for. Employees get a slew of benefits and a very generous discount. And WFM actually does philanthropy (Whole Planet Foundation), which is nice. John Mackey is still an idiot for arguing against single-payer health care, though, because the majority of customers (from what I can judge) are quite liberal.

And as for the linkage of health and money, it has never been more evident now, and especially evident that throwing lots of money at something won't make it good (i.e., the US's spending habits on health care v. our actual health care quality). People should be spending their time (and some money if they have it) on eating healthy and exercising, instead of all that Whole Body crap at WFM. Okay, that's my rant.

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