Last month, I sounded off about the new Whole Foods campaign rebranding collard greens as the next big superfood. Their efforts have resulted in public backlash over cultural appropriation and the rising costs of food—a phenomenon writer Mikki Kendall succinctly dubbed “food gentrification.”
I’m going to be frank with you: within the bigger sphere of global food justice, making fun of Whole Foods is the easy stuff. It’s easy to pick apart an ad campaign written by ignorant copywriters; it’s easy to ridicule trend-sensitive food bloggers. They’re the little fish here: symptoms of something much, much bigger. Those things are relatively easy because they skirt around the tragedies and pain that many of us experience when we can’t feed our families or are made to feel shame because we can’t feed them in a certain way. The root of the whole issue, as I think many of us can feel in our gut, is the question of how and why so many people in one of the most prosperous nations in the world cannot get enough decent food to eat every day.
The phrase “food gentrification” is a lightning-quick synthesis of complex values and ideas into a compact form. Though it may seem unduly weighed down by its provocative nomenclature and its association with the plagues of coffee shop Columbuses that have descended on places like Brooklyn, Oakland, and New Orleans, gentrification’s original meaning holds true: it represents renovation, refurbishing, rebranding—and, some would add, rebirth—seemingly for the purpose of accommodating WASP tastes. At times, food gentrification and neighborhood gentrification can be seen to work in tandem, as in cases where community gardens have attracted wealthier residents to working class neighborhoods. Whether it’s the fetishization of hole-in-the-wall restaurants, twerking, or Sriracha, the gentrification cycle has birthed the momentary relevance of countless ideas and materials. Their blip on the mainstream radar is at once both novel and tragic; typecast Cuban groceries and Korean BBQ joints function as both pawn and king in the game of conspicuous consumption that manifests through venues ranging from Instagram to the Academy Awards.
A quick glance at any food-related hashtag or blog will show you that the presentation of our meals has become a kind of dilettante art form. Like aristocratic incense sniff-offs of Heian-era Japan, amateur-level foodies flaunt works like an arms race where the winners are the ones who can pull out the most obscure ingredient and the most sophisticated combination of aromas. Like it or not, Whole Foods has successfully mastered this process and is now able to mobilize a substantial PR fund to kickstart new trends from the ground up.
For example, Whole Foods’ work to establish certain produce items as cancer-fighting “superfoods” has proven to be an effective and profitable marketing tool. In the European Union, it is illegal to sell a product as a “superfood.” According to a BBC article on the subject, the marketing of an item as a “superfood” has correlated with price increases. In the United States, we can see this at work with kale, which has been heavily marketed as a superfood since 2011. Since then, the average price of a bunch of the hardy green has increased by 25 percent: from $0.88 a bunch to $1.10.
Another master of this marketing strategy is the pomegranate juice company POM Wonderful—the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on POM for promoting their juice as a “superfood” with “false and unsubstantiated claims that their products will prevent or treat heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction.” POM appealed the case but when a federal judge upheld the violation, POM turned around and quoted the judge’s statements that pomegranates have some health benefits in their advertising.
Though it can be said that the acrid odor of snake oil marketing has always been a hallmark of American laissez faire capitalism, we’ve entered an age where consumer choice and moralizing have combined to turn grocery shopping into an incredibly neurotic experience. If you want to be cosmopolitan, you’ll buy star anise, kimchi, and coconut oil. If you want to prevent cancer, buy collard greens, blueberries, and omega-3 eggs. If you want to eat food free of pesticides and high fructose corn syrup, buy organic meat, flour, and dairy. Compound all of these seemingly innocuous exercises in American Dreaming with diet fads like “clean” eating, Westernized veganism, or the paleo diet, and you’ll get a supermarket full of people staring at labels, searching the copy for proof of ideological and medical purity. I need to buy this if I want to be good, if I really want to take care of myself and my family As it turns out, this moralistic way of framing choice is extremely profitable for food processors, restaurants, and produce retailers: we’ve been effectively held captive by our own consciences.
Unfortunately for families of modest means who want to eat organic food, the prohibitively high cost of such goods makes them all but inaccessible. The even more unfortunate irony of the situation is that organic produce has become the gold standard of food gentrification as we know it—partly due to its successful rebranding as a health food category by popular health publications, food processors, and grocery retail outlets. According to national data aggregated by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, the overall retail price of organic food consistently outpaces conventional food (according to the most recent data available, for 2012). Staple commodities like eggs, flour, and milk currently have the largest disparity in price between organic and non-organic varieties. Organic foods are practically inaccessible to families who receive SNAP benefits, which are doled out according to official USDA estimates of how much it costs to feed a family per week. For a family of four, the cost of a week’s worth of (non-organic) groceries is now a minimum of $145.20, and at the current rate of increase would reach $200 by 2024
If wage inflation matched grocery inflation, price increases wouldn’t be an issue. However, the average American’s wages have become subject to a de facto race to the bottom since the recession of 2008. Using data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, a study by the Economic Policy Institute found that from 2007 to 2012, real median weekly earnings for all US workers remained stagnant, with a -0.2 percent decrease. Over that time, women of all races received an overall 1.6 percent increase in average wages, When race is factored in, Black women are shown to have experienced an actual decrease in average wages. At the same time, the USDA’s estimate of how much it costs to feed a family increased by 18 percent. Recent cuts to the federal SNAP budget have made this gap even more critical.
It’s hard to believe that these forces are working simultaneously: how can we fetishize the act of eating so much while also making food more inaccessible to the people who need it the most? Who is benefiting from this? The setting-aside of food as social capital is logical within the aspirational framework of late capitalism; it makes sense for us to be celebrating the product over the worker and to implicitly shame the ones who cannot afford to shop in the same supermarket aisles as we can. It makes sense for us to colonize others’ traditional foods while critiquing new interpretations of those traditions by the same communities who strive to reinterpret their legacy back into the realm of meaning. In this way we enact little imperialisms that make it possible for us to pat ourselves on our backs, safe from “normal” food and the industrial processes that sustain an illusion of consciousness: trapped in an endless cycle of sleep, false awakening, and BPA-free Breakfast Bars.
Soleil Ho is a chef and writer living in New Orleans—her last Bitch article about food and identity was "Craving the Other." This article was written with help from Maribel Hermosillo. The infographics were illustrated by Laura Jones Martinez.
Related Reading: Our recent Food issue digs into many meaty issues of food and social justice.