The CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, recently shared some thoughts with The New York Times about the waistline of America and the ravages of coronavirus, pointing to comorbidities like heart disease as “one of the reasons the United States has had more of a problem with covid” before suggesting that “people have got to become wiser about their food choices.” Basically, he thinks Americans are dying of coronavirus partly because they’re too clueless to understand what to eat. The interview is a perfect illustration of how the specter of “the obesity crisis” makes a whole host of societal problems the sole responsibility of individuals, serving to obscure deep systemic problems.
Mackey sat down with the Times for their “Corner Office” column; he founded Whole Foods and, since its sale to Amazon, serves as its CEO. He had this to say about his quest to get Americans to eat healthier, connecting the American death toll from coronavirus to obesity:
Statistically, we definitely moved in the wrong direction. The whole world is getting fat, it’s just that Americans are at the leading edge of that. We’re getting fat, and we’re getting sicker, by the way. I mean, there’s a very high correlation between obesity and Covid deaths. And one of the reasons the United States has had more of a problem with Covid is simply that the comorbidities like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, they’re just higher in the U.S.
Asked about the fact that not everybody can afford to shop at Whole Foods and what “other companies or the government might be able to intervene to offer better, healthier options,” Mackey had this to say about personal choice and how Americans just don’t know how to eat:
In some sense, we’re all food addicts. We love things that are rich, that are sweet. We love ice cream. We love popcorn. We love French fried potatoes. And the market is providing people what they want. I don’t think there’s an access problem. I think there’s a market demand problem. People have got to become wiser about their food choices. And if people want different foods, the market will provide it.
He went even further! “Whole Foods has opened up stores in inner cities. We’ve opened up stores in poor areas. And we see the choices. It’s less about access and more about people making poor choices, mostly due to ignorance,” he said, before comparing “food addictions” to alcoholism, and suggesting that change will come through “education and through people becoming more aware and conscious about eating healthier,” to which the market will then respond. You can put a Whole Foods in every low-income neighborhood in America, but it won’t make their products affordable, and it’s offensive to essentially suggest that poor, predominantly Black and brown people just don’t know how to eat.
In fact, the toll of coronavirus in America is the result of systemic failures that range from the fact that a preventative doctor’s visit is potentially a gateway to any number of scary medical expenses, to the longterm effects of structural racism. Americans are dying of coronavirus because we’re so busy with “market-based solutions” that we simply do not have the willingness as a country to blanket America with testing stations and contact tracers, we don’t have enough ICU beds for surges, and we’ve barely managed to get enough PPE. But the “obesity epidemic” has been bandied about again and again during the pandemic; in the UK, Boris Johnson urged Britons to lose weight to fight the virus, when his own government’s poor management allowed the virus to get a firm foothold in the UK in the first place.
And in Mackey’s case, he has a direct financial interest in this narrative—make good choices and shop somewhere healthy (i.e., Whole Foods) or you deserve what you get. Nevermind that Whole Foods is so expensive that “Whole Paycheck” is a tired-but-true joke about the place and they largely plunk their stores down in areas that are affluent, or at least on the cusp thereof. Hell, forget the money—you think somebody working a precarious low-wage job at a warehouse for Whole Foods’s corporate parent, Amazon, has the energy to cook a balanced, healthy meal at the end of the day? In fact, some researchers have associated food insecurity with obesity, rather than simple “bad choices.” But tropes about lazy, poorly educated fat people handily obscure that reality and redirect all the blame back to the individual, rather than the structural.