Grocery Shopping in Philadelphia: The Whole Foods Problem

Food shopping at the market near my home sometimes makes me feel really bad about my life.

If Whole Foods was a celebrity, it would definitely be Gwyneth Paltrow. I know this because I shop there on a regular basis (it’s the closest grocery store to my house), and because I have seen enough in this life to recognize the impossibly sublime when I see it.

As food markets go, I can think of none in this city that fall so clearly into the aspirational grocery-store category as Whole Foods. A certain type of perfection (where health meets indulgence meets virtuosity) hangs in the air here, thick as the aroma from the gluten-free honey oat bread baking in the back. The dairy aisle is packed with parents buying organic soy milk for toddlers named Finn or Jemma; couples in workout gear stand perusing large refrigerators of tofu-based products.

I find it all oddly isolating. Sure, I might be shopping with these people, but I am not really with them, in that I imagine they consider this “grocery shopping,” whereas I consider this “Whole Foods shopping.” How can I explain the difference? At Whole Foods, I am not buying I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter spray for my air-popped popcorn; I am buying cold-pressed rosemary extra virgin olive oil from Italy, for drizzling. I am not buying Ivory; I’m getting rough little soaps made from goats’ milk and sand. I am spending the whole of next week’s lunch money on an expensive block of cheese culled from an Argentinian farm. I actually consider giving up gluten because the gluten-free aisle is so huge.

It’s no wonder that co-founder and CEO John Mackey recently proposed the Whole Foods solution to health care in the Wall Street Journal: When you’re this amazing, why wouldn’t you be moved to share a little political wisdom with the unenlightened masses?

Over the course of the last year, the pressure of multiple monthly Whole Foods trips has taken its toll on me: I have begun to resent this sort of double life that’s impossible to maintain—well, impossible to maintain without copious amounts of eye-rolling and giant wads of cash, anyway. I resent everything from the cashier who looks on me with obvious disappointment when I forget my own bags (hey, it’s just like this Portlandia sketch!) to the 47 different kinds of chard in the produce section (but no frozen snowpeas, really!?) to the chalkboard sign that smugly proclaims the 10 healthiest produce items I should be buying. I resent Finn and Jemma.

Of course, I’m not the first person to point out that along with its organic baby microgreens, Whole Foods is in the business of selling customers a lifestyle. But the truth of it is, despite all the organic garlic and whole grain fusilli that I buy, I am about as close to living the Whole Foods life as I am to living Gwyneth’s life.

I miss the days of shopping at the vaguely goofy but reliably good Trader Joe’s (the Woody Harrelson of grocery stores), where there is only one kind of chard, where the olives live in jars instead of those braggy barrels, where I do not spend more on ingredients for chili than I would eating at Osteria. Comparatively speaking, even SuperFresh (the Kristen Stewart of stores?) has its its major pluses—among them, the ability to occasionally buy such un-virtuous foodstuffs as Fritos or milk chocolate.

And so while the simple convenience of geography may continue to lure me, Whole Foods will never fully win this heart or mind. I’m really just not in the market for lifestyle when I shop—even it’s a perfect, healthful lifestyle filled with awesome organic guacamole. Mostly, I just want to buy food and go about my real, perfectly nice life. Which sometimes includes I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter in a spray bottle.


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  • lks920

    The tone of this editorial fails to reflect the fact that just because one person, here the author, does not need to shop at Whole Foods, that means other people don’t need to and are merely partaking in some health food fad. The author resents the two toddlers who drink organic soy milk but what if their mother told you that the kids suffered from failure to thrive and that dairy was the cause? That the only way these two kids can avoid having to take steroids and are able to live a normal life is by avoiding dairy. That Whole Foods stocks products, suck as dairy free mac and cheese or gluten free animal crackers, that gives children with food intolerance some normalcy in their lives. Knowing all of this, would you change your mind about Finn and Jemma?

    I have celiac disease and trendy or not, Whole Foods has been a life saver for me. For the majority of people buying those gluten free products you see in Whole Foods, it’s not by choice or trying some new diet. It must be nice that the author can consider going gluten free, but for those of us with celiac it’s not that easy. Unlike those who can shop at Super Fresh or eat what they want without checking every single label, I require food that is fresh, unprocessed and properly labeled. Generalize all you want, but as a busy student who doesn’t have time to cook every single night, I am thankful for the fact that I can walk into Whole Foods after a long day in the library and buy their prepared food knowing it is labeled for allergens and safe for me to eat. Next time you are in Whole Foods, you should look at those around you and be thankful for the fact that you don’t have dietary restrictions. Enjoy the butter spray and fritos because I can’t.

  • Jennifer

    I am not a millionaire, heck I am not even a hundred thousand-aire but I shop at Whole Foods and it annoys me when people say that it is SOOOO expensive. It isn’t, not when you compare, actually do the math and compare. If you are buying organic maple syrup every week and truffle oil and artisan cheeses, yes, you are going to do a lot of damage. If you are buying good food for your regular meals, you are not overpaying. it is a place where you actually get what you pay for. That is refreshing considering certain companies want you to believe Froot Loops and Lucky Charms have healthy whole grains.

  • peter1

    lks920, I think that your response has proved part of the point of her article…that the love of Whole Foods is almost cultish, and that a lot of the people who shop there religiously are humorless d-bags…and that’s from someone with two celiacs in the family and a wife who often shops at Whole Foods.

  • kna109

    Failure to thrive from dairy? Sounds a bit off to me, as a dietitian I have never heard of dairy being a direct cause of failure to thrive, but thats nether here nor there.
    The articile is a satire meant to have a laugh at how serious whole foods can take itself.
    Sure it has some fun yummy gourmet products that are great for special diets and I appreciate that, but cmon WF chill, we are all human sometimes I dont have my burlap reusable grocery bags, stop thinking all of your food is so virtuous and healthy (some things have so many calories per serving its insane) and it is expensive sorry they just are.

    But I am a vegetarian so I will stil always come back to you for yummy veggie protein sources, just dont spit on me when I walk across the street to Superfresh to get my diet pepsi!!