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.