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.