My best friend grew up in Northampton, Massachusetts, a liberal enclave known for its unusually high population of academics, therapists, and lesbians.  Because she was brought up by and around a lot of lefty types, unlike me, there are certain tropes of liberal living that she's always seemed a lot more experienced with than I am, ostensibly because she was just exposed to them earlier--veganism, openly gay teachers, reading the New Yorker.  I can wish all I want that I'd known a few more alternative eaters and teachers with partners when I was growing up, but they still aren't a native language for me; I'm liberal against my early life's best indoctrinations, not according to them. One modern yuppie phenomenon she's notably more comfortable with than I am is buying groceries at Whole Foods.  At first I couldn't put my finger on what it was about the national chain that made me so uncomfortable--angry, even.  It sells more attractive produce than most grocery stores, and I'll admit to enjoying asking a Whole Foods bakery employee to write "Be Somebody" on the chocolate cake my friends insisted on buying at the store for another friend's birthday.  I want to support sustainable agriculture and local farmers, and hormone- and preservative-free eating is usually to be praised, yes?  Right??

Usually it is--but not unconditionally.  After several years of ranting (and once, smoking a cigarette directly outside the sliding automatic door, deliberately blowing smoke inside--I admit, not the most productive direction of my rage), I figured out that what frustrated me so much about Whole Foods was the way it markets not just healthier food, but food you should feel good about buying.  The choice to shop at Whole Foods is rarely made because it's the closest grocery store to your house (unless you live in SoHo, or Berkeley, or maybe Northampton); choosing to shop there is a lifestyle choice, a statement of status, education, and a sense of responsibility.  To my mind, Whole Foods is just another bloodless exercise in white liberal self-congratulation.

The status part of that argument is what gets me.  There's a reason naysayers call the store "Whole Paycheck": because most people can't afford to shop there.  I'm not saying it shouldn't be hip to be green, or that a mystique of coolness isn't an asset in making people do things they should do but wouldn't without persuasion--I'm saying that, in a bottom-line way, good nutrition shouldn't be a commodity that most people can't afford.

Clearly there are also racial factors at play in this debate.  Everyone knows that poverty is linked to obesity, especially in urban areas--that, put simply, if you live in a city, it's cheaper to eat badly than well.   Whole Foods' corporate imagery reflects this white-blindedness: its website features sunny pictures of African and Indian women with the headline "Empower The Poor Through Microcredit", but these images of "the poor" are the only nonwhite faces to be found in the company's online collateral.  Virtually all of the other faces on the website--of store employees, of the company's founders, of 80% of its board of directors, and of course, of Whole Foods shoppers--are white.

Slate's Field Maloney makes an important point, too, about Whole Foods' branding (or, as the case may be, outsourcing) of so-called sustainability:

Let's say you live in New York City and want to buy a pound of tomatoes in season. Say you can choose between conventionally grown New Jersey tomatoes or organic ones grown in Chile. Of course, the New Jersey tomatoes will be cheaper. They will also almost certainly be fresher, having traveled a fraction of the distance. But which is the more eco-conscious choice? In terms of energy savings, there's no contest: Just think of the fossil fuels expended getting those organic tomatoes from Chile. Which brings us to the question: Setting aside freshness, price, and energy conservation, should a New Yorker just instinctively choose organic, even if the produce comes from Chile? A tough decision, but you can make a self-interested case for the social and economic benefit of going Jersey, especially if you prefer passing fields of tomatoes to fields of condominiums when you tour the Garden State.

Economic decline isn't something that should be celebrated, but Whole Foods' status-symbolism has crumbled notably in the financial hurricane of the last twelve months.  In August of 2008, the New York Times reported a 30% profit decline for the chain in 2008's third quarter; by the close of Q4, the store was reporting a net income of $1.5 million, dramatically down from a net income of  $33.93 million at the end of 2007.  Not a unique story in current American business news, but telling in light of what Whole Foods is marketing.

Americans are hungrier, and we're all having to make hard choices, about where we live, what we buy, and how we eat.  No one's arguing that sustainability isn't worth the price, but in the case of Whole Foods, I question strongly what I'm paying for: is it really better food, or just back-patting branding?  Food ethics, or at least those that Whole Foods is selling, don't come cheap enough for most Americans, and this one isn't buying them.