The Fast Pace of Slow Food.
An observation on the behavior of “conscious” consumers.
Are Whole Foods and Walmart shoppers the same?
John nearly fell backwards on his heels as the woman swooped in, nosing him out of the way as she clawed the last four jars of fig jam from the shelf. Her maneuver was quick and clean; as we blinked after her, she marched towards the checkout with a self-satisfied click in her step. I bit my tongue and glanced at my friend, still crouched over, a jar of strawberry jelly in each hand.
We had undertaken a quest to round out our pantries, driving to the nearest Trader Joe’s market in search of bananas and bread. We had no further plans but to make sandwiches in the back of the car before heading home. I suppose we are drawn to Trader Joe’s for the same reasons every other patron is: affordable packaged foods and pantry staples, a variety of hard-to-find items, and a relatively quirky and fun experience. John and I were surprised by the jelly aisle incident; it seemed absurd that in a Hawaiian-themed grocery someone should be so brusque.
As attention to healthy living grows, so too do the energy and culture around the concept. Where once the local food co-op was a lonely entity in a sea of colorful supermarkets, cars now flood the parking lots of natural foods stores, and foot traffic around bulk sections causes jams in the aisles. The busy-ness indicates something, but is it solely driven by a desire for better wellbeing?
The image of the organic Eden, pushed by alt-food-manufacturers, is a silent irony when stamped onto packages destined for busy groceries. The closest most shoppers come to pastoral tranquility in a long checkout line might be the illustration on a box of cereal. The so-called “foodie” phenomenon (a blanket term referring to the noise about farmer’s markets, urban gardening, up-and-coming chefs, and the push for eating un- or less processed foods) vilifies factory farming and assembly-line eateries, pushing instead the notion of slow food. It seems, however, that against an insidious, invisible anxiety, the spirit of the slow food movement is at risk.
I work with a farmer during the growing season, helping set up, sell produce, and break down the stand at two busy markets in downtown Cleveland. After the appearance of raspberries, our tent starts to garner a crowd, and with the advent of the summer’s first peaches, we draw a line sometimes twenty people deep.
The affectation of the early birds, perching determinedly in front of the table long before we open at 8am, is tense. People tersely engage in polite small talk; friendly exchanges seem only to materialize when both parties have their choice produce in hand, guaranteed. Further down, customers peer over the line to see how many pints of berries are left, and if they aren’t actually tapping their feet, their faces betray their frustration. While no one’s ever thrown a punch, people have gotten into nasty verbal tiffs, talking about line-cutting rules like fifth graders. Behind the stand, my partner and I have been criticized for not working hard enough or fast enough, and have even weathered the critical growls of a man frustrated by his wait in the rain.
Asked about their motivation for buying produce directly from the source or dining at restaurants known for sourcing local ingredients, any of these people will happily explain that they value hard work and local commerce. Their desire to discover a calm, wholesome way of living starts with food, followed by the mindfulness and appreciation that ought to accompany every meal. In theory, shoppers’ reasons are as pure as the supper they might prepare with their market spoils, but in practice, they often act on the same competitive drive that their ideals should like to renounce.
Decidedly American or not, I don’t know, but this consuming, pervasive sense of rivalry beats under the surface of many, if not most, pursuits. It is obvious in sports and business, and even thickly mortared into high school and college environments. An inescapable need to “perform and succeed” has changed the way we think and feel about education, entrepreneurship, and relationships. Even the trends that went from the mainstream in the name of neutralizing such desperately earnest anxieties have a traceable thread of ferocity.
During the holiday season, reporters share stories of violent mobs wrestling over deals at superstores and shopping malls; no doubt, a self-proclaimed slow-food enthusiast smirks with some pity at these clips. Still, how different are the people arguing in a Whole Foods from those wrestling over a product at Walmart? They are still fighting over a commodity in limited supply: free-range, organic or not.
Frances Killea is a perpetual motion machine. She currently writes from Cleveland, Ohio. You can reach her at [email protected].
Editor: Seychelles Pitton