Whole Foods Market, Trendy Vegetables and Food Gentrification: Foodie Underground

kale chips

ColumnIs Whole Foods Market causing food gentrification?

According to Merriam-Webster, gentrification is “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” While we have reserved that word for the real estate world, many are starting to apply it to the culinary domain.

“Food gentrification” started as a hashtag by writer Mikki Kendall, who wrote about the impact of turning ordinary products into trendy ones, and the ultimate social impact. “My grandmother was a master of turning offal into delicious, and I still use many of her recipes to this day. But now, once-affordable ingredients have been discovered by trendy chefs, and have been transformed into haute cuisine. Food is facing gentrification that may well put traditional meals out of reach for those who created the recipes,” Kendall wrote in January.

Just like rebuilding neighborhoods has shot up real estate prices and pushed out locals, rebuilding the food movement, putting certain common-day vegetables on a pedestal, in turn making them more expensive, is pushing people away from eating them.

There was a time when we all had access to fresh food and ingredients. Think back to our grandparents. There were few things available, but the things that were available were real food. There were vegetables, there was fruit and there were no Doritos. Often there was a garden. People ate real food simply because it was the only thing available.

Nowadays things have changed, and in a world of agribusiness it has become harder and harder to buy actual food. Food products reign and the price of whole ingredients has gone up.

Many have looked to retailers like Whole Foods Market to champion the cause of bringing whole foods and vegetables back to the consumer, but even those efforts have come at a price. Not just a price, but sometimes a “whole paycheck” as the store is snarkily referred to.

When Whole Foods Market opened up its first location in Brooklyn last December, the New Yorker reported that, “According to Pavone, an ad agency that tracks food-and-beverage marketing, Whole Foods embodies a new kind of luxury brand, one that traffics in authenticity instead of exclusivity, or “a hip, eclectic sort of vibe that feels like a Berkeley revival with no credit limit.”

Broccoli and leafy greens have officially become luxury items.

The rise of Whole Foods Market has begun to make some uneasy, begging the question: what is the ultimate price of organic spinach at $4.99 per pound? Soleil Ho took up the issue in a recent piece in Bitch, titled “The Cost of Kale: How Foodie Trends Can Hurt Low-Income Families.”

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.

It should come as no surprise that trendy ingredients make good business sense.

Getting a nation that is facing an escalating obesity problem to eat more vegetables is a good thing, but we have to ask the question: who is getting to eat those vegetables?

The politics of food are complicated, and it’s about more than just access to fresh food. There’s a war being waged on the poor, and while some of us are stressed in the checkout line about which omega-3 supercharged item to get, others simply can’t get food on the table. It’s a complex web of economics, race and class.

Whole Foods Market has gotten a lot of negative attention because of their recent ad campaign “collard greens are the new kale.” This cultural appropriation enraged many and has put the question of food gentrification and its effects ate the foreground of food justice discussions. Why is this type of food promotion bad? “What all of this adds up to is a massive PR campaign aimed at rebranding collard greens, divorcing the vegetable from its working class and indigenous affiliations to place it squarely within the culinary crosshairs of the same massive gourmet health food apparatus that turned acai berries, quinoa, tofu, and chia seeds into “superfoods,” wrote Ho.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: whole ingredients shouldn’t be reserved for the 1 percent. While we should be promoting whole foods – and celebrating them – we have to be careful that in doing so we don’t push out the people that need them the most. We need to be investing in programs that provide real food to children in schools. We need to support food education. We need to stop subsidizing big business that makes it so that food products are cheaper than real food.

Above all, we need to remember this: real food should be a right, not a privilege.

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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.

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Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.