The addition of Whole Foods to Lynnwood’s city center was the most anticipated 2012 business opening in the SnoKing neighborhood. Local civic and business leaders, envisioning a walkable Lynnwood city center, hope it’ll serve as an anchor to attract more development capital, more upscale businesses and clientele. Many are thrilled to have Whole Foods bring “healthier” options to an area known for fast food and restaurant chains, over-sized pizzas and burgers, and all-you-can-eat buffets. Area residents are counting on Whole Foods certifying Sno-King neighborhood, which has experience significant decline in value since the recession,as a good buy.
I’ve always thought that SnoKing, despite its lack of culturally significant restaurants, has the best selection of grocery stores in the region (because it’s one of the most socio-economically and ethnically diverse neighborhoods) and I didn’t think the addition of Whole Foods would do much to improve it. For gourmet/upscale, there’s Central Market Mill Creek and Central Market Shoreline, the former offering exceptional selection and service. There’s H-Mart, a New York based Korean-centric Asian grocery store. There’s Ranch 99, the LA based Chinese-centric Asian grocery store. There’s JD’s Market, which caters to the South Asian, African, and Mexican population. There are Korean grocery stores of various sizes everywhere. There are several small ethnic groceries — Eastern European, Mexican, African — throughout the area. There’s the Lake Forest Park farmer’s market that features produce from local growers, and produce stands that offer an impressive array of ingredients at reasonable prices.
I wasn’t expecting to be impressed with Whole Foods Lynnwood, and I wasn’t. I did appreciate not being bombarded with, as at some other locations, emotionally manipulative life sized posters of local small farmers paired with exhortations to support them, to join in the fight against corporate farms (though Whole Foods sources much from corporate farms, as they control 90 percent of organic market), against corporate foods in general (though Whole foods carries drinks owned by Pepsi and Coca-Cola, such as Naked Juice). I hate emotional manipulation — “If you love me you’d…” “If you’re progressive and caring, you’d…” — hate, hate that shit. But otherwise, I didn’t think it could match Central Market (esp. one in Mill Creek) in price, selection, and service. In fact, selection looked like upscale, organic version of what’s available at QFC in Mountlake Terrace. Beef is grass-fed, salmon is wild and sustainably sourced, organic version of everything, exorbitant prices for most items except for popular staple items like Almond Milk (reasonably priced).
Perhaps that should be expected, as Central Market sells the love of food and cooking (samples galore and cooking demonstration every weekend), while Whole Foods sells a sense of moral superiority, that one’s helping the world with each purchase of coddled free-range chicken, pampered grass-fed beef, and fair trade coffee beans. That’s why Central Market carries like twelve varieties of oysters, obscure mushrooms, and devotes considerable shelf space to *authentic* ethnic food (stuff you’d find at Ranch or H-Mart), while Whole Foods mostly provides what people are familiar with. Central Market introduces customers to new cuisines and unfamiliar ingredients, while Whole Foods familiarizes customers with bohemian food politics and political activism. Both emphasize healthy living.
Though the popularization of Whole Foods’ brand of politics is problematic, they should be commended for raising awareness about the politics of food and eating, the consequences of lifestyle choices. Whether one agrees with Whole Foods’ politics — and I disagree with much of it — is irrelevant. Before Whole Foods, few considered how their food purchases could impact land management practices throughout the world; or how food production practices could impact the environment; or the fairness and impact of subsidies and protectionist tariff on agricultural products. Most people simply purchased and ate, rarely giving thought about where what was eaten came from, how it was processed and delivered. Whole Foods made people aware that food isn’t just central to life — something we need to survive — it’s the center of life, the primary site where we reveal who we are, whether we realize it or not.
What’s most problematic about Whole Foods brand is that it delivers its politics as something upscale, elite, something only those who *attended some East Coast bohemian prep school then off to Sarah Lawrence or Oberlin where they slummed with local hobos followed by grad school at Columbia where they spent too many years writing incomprehensible papers about Marx and Derrida* can afford. Whole Foods, from its (intimidatingly) down-to-earth upscale design and prices, tells middle-class Americans that in order to be healthy AND cool like us, you’re going to have to pay. A lot, because this is an exclusive clique.
And many middle-class Americans — increasingly suspicious, insecure, desirous of upward mobility, and envious — are willing to pay, just as they gradually learned to pay $5 for a cup of coffee, and are learning to pay $20 for a bullshit burger. They’ll pay because Whole Foods has convinced them that Whole Foods is where the wealthy shop, even though the wealthy don’t shop there any more than do middle-class folks. But not pay too much, as I didn’t notice anyone doing their weekly shopping. People were very selective about purchases, doing their best to get the most out of their money, to savor the experience without blowing their grocery budget. Perhaps an organic banana here, a small scoop of grass-fed something, hummus, almond milk, and a few sales items, items they can’t find at their primary shopping site.
And what of the poor, what’s Whole Foods saying to them? That healthy living is only available to those with money so sucks to be you you lose keep eating your donuts there’s no point for you to even try because you don’t have the cash? The idea that healthy living is possible only for the wealthy isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous, crippling. It gives the poor a reason to quit life. It breeds middle-class insecurity. It can destroy a nation.
Is the arrival of Whole Foods in Lynnwood a sign that SnoKing neighborhood has “made it,” is on the verge of becoming part of upper middle-class America, or does it mean that Whole Foods, like Starbucks during the 90s, is becoming a part of middle-class America, giving middle-class Americans the sense of security and importance they crave? If the latter is the case, then does Whole Foods offer good value or, as Bourdain wonders about many food industry trends, have they, “…after terrifying consumers about our food supply, fetishizing expensive ingredients, exploiting the hopes, aspirations, and insecurities of the middle class — have simply made it more expensive to eat the same old crap?”