August 22, 2005

Organic Luxury

New York is probably the only city in America with 24 hour health food stores. Don't worry, if the groceries of NY are any barometer, you'll get one in your town soon enough. From the rapidly expanding Whole Foods to the ever nimble Korean delis, grocery shopping in New York is transforming into a luxury/health food experience.

Whole Foods, or as some prefer to call it, "whole paycheck", is the pacesetter. There is a moment of vertigo I experience nearly every time I am inside one. The best trigger is bulk goods section, the bins of nuts and dried fruit. Suddenly I realize "this is a freaking health food store!" A few years ago a health food store was a strange smelling place stocked with food fit only to be eaten for its imaginary medicinal properties. But with a good eye you could cherry pick out a few quality products, fresh made peanut butter, organic juice, an unknown cereal. Now health food is luxury food, money food, another successful marketing operation.

It was quite fitting in a Whole Foods in San Francisco that I first saw the cooption, a large display of organic bananas, Dole branded organic bananas. Organic was once a reaction not just to farm chemicals, but to the massive commercial farming of companies like Dole. But they caught on quick, organic is a way to double prices, what big company isn't down with that?

The earliest warning signs must have been the soy. Soy is a posthippie vegetarians best friend, a great source of vegetable protein. The fake meat section of Whole Foods is another great vertigo trigger. Soy is also a commodity crop industry, a favorite product of the industrial farm giants. Its the soy milk that gets me, its pushed as a healthy alternative to cows milk, a favorite of campus activists nationwide. But milk is one of the last truly regional industries left. Ultra-pasteurization is threatening that, but for the moment most of the milk you find in your grocery store comes from 50 or 100 miles away. Local dairies, local industry. Not only are the health benefits of soy milk dubious, but its a multinational product pushing against some of the last regional products left.

Recently I started buying organic half and half for my coffee, tastes a bit better, or at least I imagine it does. But then I started looking at the small print. The organic half and halfs are run by national brands (although its worth noting one of the biggest is a co-op), the regular ones are from local dairies. Once again leftist food politics it seems are turning into a trojan horse for big industry. Its not all bad, you could say the same about organic profits being a trojan horse by which leftist food politics enter big industry. Is this an even sort of tradeoff at work? It's far to early to know...

In the meantime one thing is becoming clearer in New York, healthy food is becoming luxury food. The statistical link between poverty and weight is a known phenomena in America, could it be that its about to become an entrenched one?

Posted by Abe at August 22, 2005 12:24 PM


It seems to me that organic production methods are (should be?) a different issue to "leftist food politics". At least, I'm generally in favour of organic methods on ecological grounds, no matter who is doing it. (I'm gently left-leaning but basically politics-blind.) So another way of phrasing the change you've noticed might be that leftist food politics has made organic production methods a big enough issue to be taken up by big business. I guess I'm suggesting that the very fact that it _can_ be big business means 'being organic' isn't a core social issue in the way that supporting small-scale local production is. It's only when it's treated as one that it becomes a "trojan horse".

Thank you for the info!