Food Fight: A Whole Foods Honcho And The Politics Of American Eating

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is a vegan who's against universal health care, and in some ways he's the embodiment of contemporary American food rhetoric: contradictory, self-righteous, and inflammatory.

Nick Paumgarten's smart, skeptical New Yorker profile paints Mackey as a grocer-provocateur, a sometime hothead whose ideas once revolutionized how Americans buy food. He started the first Whole Foods in Austin in 1978, after a checkered education and some time in a vegetarian collective. Of that store, Paumgarten writes,

They stocked not just lentils and granola but, in contravention of the co-op ethos, indulgences like meat, beer, and wine; there were aisles full of five-gallon bottles of distilled water, to avoid the embarrassment of empty shelf space. The idea was to go beyond the movement's old tofu severity, the air of judgment and self-abnegation. Their version of decadence seems Spartan now, but at the time it represented a cultural shift.

The company grew, to the point that now Mackey is famous enough to make embarrassing public statements ("The union is like having herpes. It doesn't kill you, but it's unpleasant and inconvenient, and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover.") and to write op-eds for the Wall Street Journal. One op-ed, to be precise, detailing how the country could improve its healthcare system by moving "toward less government control and more individual empowerment." His words angered a lot of people, and his general pro-capitalist ethos (he also reads Ayn Rand) may trouble those for whom responsible eating is a signifier of a particular kind of social justice. But the very fact that it's become such a signifier may reveal some fundamental flaws in the way we conceive of food.

Mackey may be mad that he was "viciously attacked" for the op-ed, but he clearly relishes his role as figurative and literal pot-stirrer. He says,

People want me to suppress who I am. I guess that's why so many politicians and C.E.O.s get to be sort of boring, because they end up suppressing any individuality to conform to some phony, inauthentic way of being. I'd rather be myself.

"Being himself" includes both giving the country public policy advice and, perhaps more importantly, running a store that plays by its own rules even now that it has come to epitomize the food anxieties of American liberals. Of Whole Foods, Paumgarten writes,

It's a welter of paradoxes: a staunchly anti-union enterprise that embraces some progressive labor practices; a self-styled world-improver that must also deliver quarterly results to Wall Street; a big-box chain putting on small-town airs; an evangelist for healthy eating that sells sausages, ice cream, and beer.

Of course, none of these "paradoxes" is really all that unusual — or unique to Whole Foods. In fact, most Americans not only vote but also eat in the spirit of compromise. For many, compromise is a necessity — lots of working people, especially if they have kids, would like to eat fresh, organic meals but don't have the time, money, or resource access to prepare them. Even those who do have the luxury of worrying about the ethics as well as the cost of their food often make exceptions for environmentally questionable but tasty treats, or for foods that satisfy their families if not their convictions. Food is extremely complicated even in a life of abundance — and many Americans, at the close of 2009, are not living that life.

Because of this, it's perhaps especially unfortunate that food has become the political shorthand du jour. That's what Mackey's story really shows — that those who eat organic arugula are now supposed to espouse left-wing ideals, and that we're shocked when they don't. It's true that eating sustainably can be a way to support such worthy causes as environmentally friendly cultivation and small farming — but even these two sometimes conflict, and every American with enough means and time now has his or her own culinary-moral code. This is not to say that our food choices aren't important, only that we shouldn't make the mistake of giving them more weight than they deserve. Gandhi notwithstanding, plenty of people have made positive political change while eating burgers, and plenty of totally awful people are exemplary eaters. Every vegetarian has heard about Hitler's diet about a million times, but it's worthwhile to remember that moral eating habits do not make a moral life.

John Mackey makes a lot of bad arguments in Paumgarten's piece. He says, for instance, that people were angry about his op-ed because "when you bring up arguments, or a position, that people have never reflected upon and never really thought through, [...] it's threatening to them," and according to Paumgarten, he at times seems to believe that "if every company had him at the helm, there would be no need for unions or health-care reform, and that therefore every company should have someone like him, and that therefore there should be no unions or health-care reform." But he does say one pretty perceptive thing: "people had an idea in their minds about the way Whole Foods was. So when I articulated a capitalistic interpretation of what needed to be done in health care, that was disappointing to some people." People do have an idea — or rather, many ideas — of what Whole Foods is, what sustainable food is, what organic food is, and what it means to eat responsibly. These ideas are so various that they're difficult to keep track of, but they have one thing in common — the premise that the way people eat is a reasonable metric for judging how they live. And this might be giving food too much credit.

Food Fighter [The New Yorker]