YOU AREN'T WHAT YOU EAT
Washington City Paper
Jan. 21-27 2000
Fresh Fields embodies everything gross about the new Gilded Age -the hypocrisy, the self-centered excess, the commercialized social consciousness that has, according to this story, replaced real political activism.
Getting gouged for fruffy food at Fresh Fields is viewed as honorable-admirable, even-a sign that you are willing to waste a lot of money to benefit the environment and your health and safety.
"The worst thing about Fresh Fields is, it's selling the idea that 'if you can't afford our fruits and vegetables, you shouldn't be eating them.'" -Dennis Avery, director of global food issues for the Hudson Institute
"The cheese aisle is lethal. So it doesn't have nitrates in it, but it will kill you anyway." -Fresh Fields customer Kevin Whelan
"There are a lot of yuppies here." -Fresh Fields customer Catherine Bernard
"So thoroughly has this habit of
approving the expensive and disapproving the inexpensive been ingrained into our
thinking that we instinctively insist upon at least some measure of wasteful
expensiveness in all our consumption, even in the case of goods which are
consumed in strict
privacy..." -Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class
Fresh Fields helps its customers justify spending vast sums on premium peanut butter by subtly suggesting that by shopping there, they aren't just making their world better, they're making The World better.
"Luxury has gone so down-market that anybody who is willing to spend a disproportionate part of their income can have luxuries." -University of Florida English Professor James Twitchell
Fresh Fields sells the myth of a better world, one overpriced vegetable at a time.
This week, Fresh Fields will begin construction on a new store planned for P Street, between 14th and 15th Streets NW, not two blocks from my house. Theoretically, I should be thrilled with this development. It's the first major new store to open off riot-scarred 14th Street in 30 years, and compared with the neighbor-hood's current grocery store options, it looks like a godsend. Right now, I have the choice of shopping at the P Street Metro Supermarket, where the dusty perishables cohabitate with gallon jugs of Gallo and the operating hours often fluctuate unpredictably. Or I can muscle my way into the infamous Soviet Safeway at 17th and Corcoran Streets NW, instead. This small, cramped operation offers painfully long lines at any hour, and the store is so small and so busy that by 6 p.m. on a weekday, the produce section looks like the sale tables at Macy's the day after Christmas. Lettuce is shredded, cucumbers are picked over, and the seafood counter is just a vat of ice. The patrons are remarkably civil, having grown used to the routine, but the half-hour I spent in the express lane last week buying a bag of dog food was insufferable.
Fresh Fields will offer some relief -and I'm sure it will be a boost to neighborhood property values, including mine. But I'm also dreading its arrival. Oh sure, Fresh Fields are beautiful stores. The seafood counter that draws me in occasionally is unparalleled. The chain has turned produce into art, crafting stacks of red peppers and cucumbers into architectural monuments. The shiitake and portobello mushrooms spill out of little terra-cotta bowls like in quaint European markets. Even the shriveled, pockmarked little organic navel oranges that go for 50 cents each look somehow enticing. Despite the sex appeal of its cilantro, though, Fresh Fields embodies everything I find gross about the new Gilded Age -the hypocrisy, the self-centered excess, the superficial, commercialized social consciousness that has replaced real charity and political activism. I feel it every time I thump melons alongside the 50-something men with gray ponytails who look as if they might once have camped out on the Mall protesting the War. They're always padding around the Tenleytown store in $200 hiking boots, $400 Gore-Tex jackets, and alpaca sweaters, filling up their carts with organic white chocolate, buffalo mozzarella, soy milk, gluten-free crackers. And Haagen-Dazs.
At Fresh Fields, you can't buy Coke, but you can buy Haagen-Dazs, which wins approval from the wrinkled noses of the food cops at Fresh Fields because its astronomical fat content is all-natural. If you're looking for float fixings, there's always a six-pack of organic sodas to go with it. They cost twice as much as Coke even though they, too, are 99 percent water and sugar. At the Metro market, prices like that are considered a rip-off. At Fresh Fields, they'll be considered a privilege. In fact, getting gouged for fruffy food at Fresh Fields is viewed as honorable -admirable, even- a sign that you are willing to waste a lot of money to benefit the environment and your health and safety. In an amazing feat of marketing savvy, Fresh Fields has turned carrots and apples into luxury accessories, wrapping its edible jewels in the self-righteousness of political correctness.
Fresh Fields is Danny Seo politics: With no sacrifice at all, it proclaims, you too can make the world a better place just by shopping. And the more you buy there, the better it is for the Earth. The store gives life to the illusion that somehow outlandish consumer spending is neither gross nor obscene, but an expression of environmental values that everyone, really, ought to participate in. Talk to people about why they shop at Fresh Fields, and they never fail to mention the gorgeous produce, but it seems to me that people really shop at Fresh Fields for the same reason they shop at Neiman Marcus-status. I mean, maybe I lack the proper breeding, but who can really tell the Fresh Fields carrot from the Safeway version once it's sitting on the kitchen counter? Rather than just acknowledging Fresh Fields' appeal to their inner snob, customers embrace its professed do-gooderism and turn their shopping trips into morality plays. As a result, those who don't choose to spend $3 on a can of Fresh Fields organic tomato soup are no longer considered thrifty, but frowned upon like ruffians who don't recycle: They are part of the problem.
"The worst thing about Fresh Fields is, it's selling the idea that 'if you can't afford our fruits and vegetables, you shouldn't be eating them,'" says Dennis Avery, a retired State Department agriculture expert and director of global food issues for the Hudson Institute. "Talk about class warfare! It's snobbery in a really despicable form."
Fresh Fields' arrival in my neighborhood poses a real dilemma for me, because I'm susceptible to its message-and its sumptuous produce. As much as I recognize Fresh Fields' marketing fiction, subconsciously, I don't want to be a bad person who pollutes the planet or encourages cruelty to animals, either. And I certainly don't want my peers to think that I am part of the problem. But if I succumb to Fresh Fields' charms and convenience -and abandon my regular spot in line at the Soviet Safeway- I will become what I assail. As you might expect from the earnest mission statements writ large in every Fresh Fields, corporate parent Whole Foods Market Inc. is draped in crunchy, commodified good intentions. Peopled with earnest folks like Fred "Chico" Lager, the former CEO of Ben & Jerry's, and Linda Mason, president of Bright Horizons Children's Centers, Whole Foods' board is topped off with a bona fide progressive icon: Company President Chris Hitt has a master's degree in health policy from Harvard, and, according to a 1996 Washington Post profile, he worked for George McGovern on a Senate committee, where he co-authored the 1977 Dietary Goals of the United States. Later, he headed a nonprofit that developed sustainable farming practices before moving on to agricultural consulting. Whole Foods, one of Hitt's clients, hired him in 1986 as a store "team leader." He worked his way up to president from there.
While Hitt may be the motor behind Fresh Fields now, the idea for the store germinated from a distinctly nongranola source-a 31-year-old Goldman, Sachs whiz kid with a Harvard MBA: Mark Ordan saw the profitable possibilities in making health food hip when he founded Fresh Fields in 1991. He gave health food the Restoration Hardware treatment, sanding off the rough edges and sending edibles out the door in trendy shopping bags made with recycled brown paper and soy ink. Whereas ordinary supermarkets were low-profit, utilitarian places people zoomed in and out of, Ordan created voluptuous epicurean temples that induced people to linger, grope the vegetables, and buy expensive things on impulse. "We romance the food," says Sarah Kenney, Fresh Fields' marketing director.
Today, Fresh Fields doesn't really sell food. It sells a lifestyle, appealing to people who tsk-tsk the cookie-cutter blandness of strip-mall suburbia. That's why each store is decked out with little stories about where the fish come from and homey pictures of mom-and-pop organic farmers. Instead of doing a lot of traditional newspaper or TV advertising, Fresh Fields stores also give money to local charities and get the name plastered on T-shirts as a sponsor of fundraising events, lending them the
cachet of a hip club that you hear about by word of mouth-from the right people, of course. Fresh Fields also targets a virtually untapped grocery market: men. The stores are designed as sites for "adventure shopping," according to Kenney. Fresh Fields is the supermarket equivalent of the backyard barbecue-a domestic realm men can safely dominate. The strategy clearly works. Every time my husband sets foot in the place for a single piece of fish, he comes home with things like beet chips and cultured raspberry milk that costs $4 a pint -and then wonders why it all tastes so bad.
Fresh Fields' attempt to take the dowdy old health-food store up-market might not have succeeded without the help of Meryl Streep. In February 1989, 60 Minutes aired a report based on a study from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which said that a chemical growth regulator used on apples, Alar, was "the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply," especially for children. The story set off a food panic. Supermarkets started dumping apples, apple juice, and applesauce. The Fairfax County school system even briefly took apples out of school lunch. No matter that things like sunlight posed a far greater cancer risk, or that Alar has never been proved to cause cancer in humans. A month after the 60 Minutes report, Streep made headlines by testifying before Congress about chemicals in food. She started appearing nationally in NRDC commercials as a concerned mom, dutifully scrubbing her produce to remove pesticide residue. Shortly afterward, federal officials found two Chilean grapes laced with cyanide in a warehouse in Philadelphia. The media went wild, churning out stories about salmonella in chickens, red worms in sushi, heavy metals in fish, and hormones in dairy cows. Newsweek and Time both ran cover stories fanning the food-scare flames. In a nice piece of market timing, a year and a half later, Ordan opened his first Fresh Fields, in Rockville. Since then, the food scares have only flourished.
In 1996, the media picked up on a kooky theory that was eventually promoted by Al Gore in a forward to a book by Theo Colborn and Diane Dumanoski: Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival?-A Scientific Detective Story. The book claims that synthetic chemicals, particularly estrogens, cause low sperm counts, genital deformities, infertility, breast and prostate cancer, hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder in children, and a host of other problems. Like the Alar scare, the Hormone Horror theory has been widely discredited, but that hasn't stopped people from obsessing about the food in their refrigerators. Michael Fumento, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who has written about the hype behind the food scares, says, "There seems to be a need on the part of people to have something to fear. People will take little things and mushroom them into big ones."
By the time Fresh Fields first opened in 1991, Americans were rapidly running out of things to fear. The Cold War had just ended, and peace had been declared. At the same time, the favored political causes of the American left -apartheid, the Contras, Latin American politics- were all but disappearing. With environmentalism co-opted by industry and Bill Clinton soon safely ensconced in the White House to protect the disadvantaged and abortion rights, liberals were stuck with animal rights, food scares, and
chemical-sensitivity syndrome. Concern for these second-tier social issues required the consumption of special "natural" products-fluoride-free toothpaste, unscented laundry detergent, nontoxic window cleaner, soy milk -that don't naturally occur at the Giant down the street.
Still, Fresh Fields might have remained on the fringes, along with some of its customers, if the economy hadn't kicked into full gear. Once people suddenly had a lot more money to waste on overpriced organic food, recycled paper towels, and milk from hormone-free cows, the company took off, adding an average of four new outlets a year. By the time Ordan sold Fresh Fields to the publicly traded Whole Foods Market in 1996, it had more than 20 stores in the chain. Since then, Whole Foods has gobbled up dozens of smaller health-niche grocery stores across the country. It is now the largest natural foods supermarket chain in the country, doing $1.6 billion in sales in the last fiscal year. And it is still growing by leaps and bounds. It has 101 stores in 21 states and D.C.
More are sure to follow now that there's a new food scare on the horizon: "Frankenfood." Already, Fresh Fields has peppered its stores with brochures filled with doomsday facts about the hazardous side effects of genetically engineered food, which Fresh Fields has promised not to sell. So long as the stock market holds up and the bull market in food scares continues, business should continue to boom. By commercializing food paranoia, Fresh Fields has become a monument to upper-crust neuroses. It caters to that special breed of people who suffer from a whole host of afflictions that somehow never seem to plague anyone at Shoppers Food Warehouse: The lactose-intolerant, the chemically sensitive, the chronically fatigued, those claiming to have such delicate sensibilities that they get the vapors at the slightest whiff of milk from hormone-treated cows. Even the dog-food aisle isn't spared from the scary little tags plastered all over Fresh Fields warning of the dangers of artificial colors and flavorings.
The irony, of course, is that the wealthy, white, college-educated people who shop at Fresh Fields are demographically the least likely to suffer from chronic health problems or early cancer. They're living longer than ever, and their cancer rates are declining, but if you listen to Fresh Fields customers talk, they are all at risk of imminent death from protons of pesticide particles on Safeway broccoli. "Yuppies want everything to be risk-free. Other people can't afford to be worried about the parts per quadrillion of methyl bromide [on their vegetables]," says Fumento.
Americans have the safest food supply in human history, but somehow it's not safe enough. Like the makers of SUVs and car seats for 5-year-olds, Fresh Fields is happy to seduce people with the myth that its products will usher them safely through a dangerous world. But, like the magic of $25 eyedroppers of valerian root for sale at Fresh Fields, the extra health and environmental benefits of many of its "natural" products are largely an illusion. Take organic foods, a Fresh Fields staple that encompasses everything from potatoes to frozen pizza. People believe that fewer pesticides and chemical fertilizers used in organic farming means fewer chemicals in the earth and less carcinogenic residue on your food-and less chance of cancer or other ailments. Despite the hype, though, organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional food, and they certainly are not much safer, especially in the short run. Part of the reason is that conventional produce just isn't that bad.
A 1997 "market basket" test conducted by the Food and Drug Administration found that 60 percent of all conventional fruits and vegetables had no detectable pesticides at all, and only about 1.2 percent had levels in excess of the federal limit. If that figure seems high, consider that organic food doesn't always come out that much better. In 1997, Consumer Reports tested a thousand pounds of tomatoes, peaches, green bell peppers, and apples for 300 synthetic pesticides. Researchers found traces in 25 percent of the organic vegetables, and one sample that violated federal limits. How could this be? Well, aside from the fact that some pesticides still linger in the soil from earlier farming, organic farmers do use some pesticides. You can read about one such pesticide, Bt toxin, in brochures at Fresh Fields produced by Frankenfood opponents, who are protesting the introduction of potatoes and corn that have been genetically engineered to produce Bt toxin naturally. One of the objections to Bt corn is the possibility that insects might become immune to it -which might force
organic farmers to use something else.
The organic food frenzy seems especially overblown when you consider that in 1996, the National Research Council -an arm of the National Academy of Sciences- found that the synthetic chemicals are far outnumbered by the carcinogens that appear naturally in food. But the council concluded that
these natural compounds are essentially harmless, because people consume them in such small doses. Avery, the Hudson Institute's food specialist, compares trace amounts of pesticides to salt, another toxic substance that people safely consume daily. "You can't find any food that won't poison
you if you eat too much of it," he says. Even the American Cancer Society concedes that you're much more likely to get sick from failing to eat enough pesticide-grown asparagus than from eating too much of it. Nearly every public health official in America is currently bemoaning the fact that hardly anyone eats the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables needed to protect against things like heart disease and colon cancer, so it's hard to see how people could be consuming enough pesticides to become sick from them.
According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), today's biggest food threat is bacterial-lethal new strains of salmonella, E. coli, and other such bugs. Unlike trace amounts of pesticides, these bacteria can kill people quickly, and survivors can suffer from liver and kidney damage and other long-term health problems. The bacteria are causing 25,000 people a year to get sick, and 250 each year to die, according to the CDC. The risks are still relatively small, but the odds are much higher that you'll find dangerous bacteria on organic produce, particularly raw leafy greens and sprouts, than on the plain old produce Giant cranks out. The reason? Organic stuff is grown in fields fertilized with manure, a perfect medium for breeding bacteria, unlike the chemical fertilizers used by conventional farmers. As for organic food's being better for the earth, well, the benefits are all relative. They may not use as many polluting toxic chemicals, but organic farms generally lose about 25 percent of every crop to spoilage -inefficiency not found in industrial agriculture, according to Avery. Consequently, growing all the world's produce organically would require a landmass of about 20 million square miles-about three more continents. How exactly this would be good for the environment is hard to say, since it would require mowing down millions of acres of forests and wilderness areas just to feed people.
And how about those pricey hormone-free free-range chickens? In 1998, Consumer Reports found that these high-priced birds, including some sold to Fresh Fields, were more contaminated with bacteria than those from industrial giants Perdue or Tyson. The reason is that free-range birds are free to peck each other and to eat feces from rats, mice, and other birds, which contaminate them. Caged chickens get a more controlled diet to prevent these problems. The hormones in the regular chicken may somehow get you in the long haul, but the designer chickens are more likely to make you sick almost immediately.
So why exactly are people willing to pay so much for this stuff? Perhaps because of the Veblen effect. Cranky 19th-century economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption," is the guy who first noted people's tendency to value expensive things sheerly because of their high price. In his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen explained it this way: So thoroughly has this habit of approving the expensive and disapproving the inexpensive been ingrained into our thinking that we instinctively insist upon at least some measure of wasteful expensiveness in all our consumption, even in the case of goods which are consumed in strict privacy
and without the slightest thought of display. We all feel, sincerely and without misgiving, that we are the more lifted up in spirit for having, even in the privacy of our own household, eaten our daily meal by the help of hand-wrought silver utensils, from hand-painted china (often of dubious artistic value) laid on high-priced table linen. Any retrogression from the standard of living which we are accustomed to regard as worthy in this respect is felt to be a grievous violation of our human dignity.
Writing today, Veblen could have put organic radicchio and free-range game hens on the hand-painted china. Deep down, people shop at Fresh Fields for the same reason no self-respecting member of the cultural elite would ever admit to having a fondness for Kraft macaroni and cheese. What you eat reveals your social status just the way your clothes and car do. At first blush, a health-food store seems like a strange place to buy status. Long associated with Birkenstocked women with hairy legs, health-food stores used to be famously dowdy, brimming with huge bottles of aloe vera and Castile soap with dull labels. But in many ways, health food is custom-made for conspicuous consumption. It fits what Veblen calls the "exultation of the defective," that habit of well-bred people to shun mass-produced plastic goods in favor of flawed old wood floors, rusty antique furniture, or handmade sweaters.
Without synthetic chemicals, organic produce is often small, colorless, and studded with bug holes by the time it hits the market. And, like diamonds or mink, it's also expensive because it's in short supply-and it always will be, given how inefficient and labor-intensive it is to produce. (The owner of one of the area's largest organic farms told the Washington Post in 1995 that all his farm's weeding was done by hand.) Obscure health food and organic produce also appeal to upwardly mobile people's desire to differentiate themselves from the masses through conspicuous consumption. With this recent run-up of the stock market and lowbrow places like Target selling Ralph Lauren, it's getting much harder to acquire things that no one else has. "Luxury has gone so down-market that anybody who is willing to spend a disproportionate part of their income can have luxuries," says University of Florida English Professor James Twitchell, who is working on a book called The Spoils of Plenty: America in an Age of Opuluxe.
Baby boomers in particular -those people who used to wear T-shirts that said, "He who dies with the most toys wins"- have every gadget, gimmick, and home furnishing possible. Once they've got the Sub-Zero refrigerator, the only way they can up the ante is by being fussy and profligate with what they put in it. Walk into the Tenleytown Fresh Fields and wheel your cart past the farmer's-market stands of winter squash and fresh flowers. Roll past the free-sample tray of fresh clementines. Follow the cobblestones past the neatly stacked fresh organic herbs and rustic barrels of whole nuts. Against the wall, you'll find the bulk-food bins, chock-full of things like sorghum, wasabi peas, and seaweed peanuts. It's the section that customer Kevin Whelan thinks should be called "the whole category of stuff you would never in a million years buy."
Whelan, 40, does all his grocery shopping at Fresh Fields. A classically trained French chef who is a freelance producer for a documentary film company, he's an avowed food snob who won't live anywhere that isn't within a Metro stop or two of a Fresh Fields. Nonetheless, like many Fresh Fields shoppers, Whelan has a kind of love/hate relationship with the place. He hates the sillier products, like herbal flea collars and "the cleaners that never clean anything." He can even rant about dried blueberries, which he recalls costing $14.99 a pound: "Even fresh ones don't cost that much." But he loves the equally expensive chocolate-covered pecans. "I've never seen anyone buy them, but I've seen everyone eat them," he says. Whelan thinks people feel entitled to dip into the pecan bin for a free snack "after paying $3.99 a pound for tomatoes that Safeway sells for 89 cents." The store's mixed messages aren't lost on him, either: The organic brownie mix. The Sottocenere, an Italian cheese full of seasonal truffles that goes for $17.99 a pound. "Just because something is a 'whole food' doesn't mean it's good for you," Whelan says. "The cheese aisle is lethal. So it doesn't have nitrates in it. But it will kill you anyway."
Still, says Whelan, "I do love the place. I could go there every night." Washington is a perfect setting for a store like Fresh Fields. The city boasts rotten produce, a dearth of bakeries, and a shortage of grocery stores. And its residents aren't known so much for being rich as for being smart and having interesting or powerful jobs. These smarty-pants middle-income folks are Fresh Fields' bread and butter. They can't afford a Jaguar, but they can manage a $20 slab of Sottocenere from Fresh Fields as token evidence of their elite sensibilities. That's why, says Twitchell, "It's not wealthy dowagers shopping in these places, but really young aspiring yuppies."
Indeed, according to Fresh Fields marketing director Kenney, few people do their main grocery shopping at Fresh Fields -only the roughly 20 percent of customers who are strict vegans and vegetarians. "We find very few people who have their carts stuffed with stuff," says Kenney. People go to Fresh Fields, she says, for special occasions, dinner parties, holidays. "People really do think of us as a treat. They'll come out and get that free-range turkey," she says.
But just because Fresh Fields shoppers have bought a chunk of status doesn't mean they've acquired the palates to back it up. Last November, a Rockville-based caviar company was indicted for allegedly mislabeling American fish eggs as pricey Russian beluga and selling it to Fresh Fields and other gourmet shops. Funny thing, though: According to the Washington Post report, not a single Fresh Fields customer anywhere in the country had ever complained that the caviar was bad. Which means that, in all likelihood, Fresh Fields customers couldn't tell Russian sturgeon roe from American shovelnose eggs, but they were buying the expensive brand anyway. Why else but for the status?
If you have any doubt that Fresh Fields appeals to people's desire for prestige, ask yourself why men-the world's pre-eminent status-seekers-make up a higher percentage of customers at Fresh Fields than at other grocery stores, according to Kenney. Tenleytown customer Charlie Roberts, a freelance translator, interpreter, and human rights activist, acknowledges that as much as he hates to shop, he doesn't mind coming to Fresh Fields. He drives over from Mount Pleasant for the organic produce and says he is "otherwise sucked in by the free food." After a friend told him to try organic apples, he says, "I won't even eat the other kind of apple now. They taste better." He laughs at the idea that marketing people might know what goes on inside his head better than he does. His wife, he says, shops at Safeway.
One day recently, New York graduate student Catherine Bernard browses the homeopathy aisle at the Tenleytown Fresh Fields while her boyfriend looks for something for a cold. She says she's never bought any of the exotic remedies, although her sister once got her to try oscillococcinum -a homeopathic remedy derived from duck heart and liver- for the flu. "I have no idea if it worked," she says with a laugh. Bernard also doesn't go for the vegetable hair dye or $14 hand cream, but she says, "I like to look at it." "Our primary motivation for coming here is the produce," she says. A longtime patron of Whole Foods Market in California, where she attended Stanford University, Bernard likes the idea that Fresh Fields is more environmentally conscious than other stores. She and her D.C. boyfriend bring their cloth bags and come in for some natural foods, like garden burgers and additive-free meat, and organic stuff if it's affordable. Moving aside for an older man talking on his cell phone while searching for vitamins, Bernard notes, "There are a lot of yuppies here." But, she says, she recently realized that "yuppies eat really good stuff." As an afterthought, she adds, "I don't know if that makes me a yuppie, but there is definitely some overlap."
No one, it seems, ever admits to being a yuppie, even at Fresh Fields, where the mere act of shopping almost makes a person a yuppie by definition. In her book The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downscaling, and the New Consumer, Harvard scholar and weekly Fresh Fields shopper Juliet B. Schor writes: American consumers are often not conscious of being motivated by social status and are far more likely to attribute such motives to others than to themselves. We live with high levels of psychological denial about the connection between our buying habits and the social statements they make.
Most Americans would deny that, by their spending, they are seeking status....Indeed, what stands out about much of the recent spate of spending is its defensive character. Puritan roots and liberal guilt nag even the newly flush upper middle class. Paying extraordinary amounts of money for something as deeply ordinary as groceries induces a measure of discomfort. To get people past the shame and through the checkout line, Fresh Fields helps its customers justify spending vast sums on premium peanut butter by subtly suggesting that by shopping there, they aren't just making their world better, they're making The World better. The store will give money to charity, recycle, and do good as long as you shop there. If you buy swordfish and feel guilty about it (environmentalists boycott swordfish because the species' numbers have been depleted), the Whole Foods Web site will provide you with a form letter to the Department of Commerce protesting the overfishing of swordfish and demanding better regulation. (Kenney says Fresh Fields' swordfish comes from environmentally appropriate sources.)
Yet the environmental and health rationalization has a rather pernicious side effect: Fresh Fields has made luxury-food consumption a moral imperative, not just a waste of money. By doing so, it has raised the bar on what constitutes global citizenship. Less affluent but equally concerned citizens may find themselves maxing out their credit cards to keep up. Twitchell argues that the rich have always equated their luxury consumption with standards of decency that should apply to the rest of us -even if we can't afford them. As Fresh Fields expands its reach, it makes ever more people believe that gluten-free pancake mix is a staple of righteous living. By that logic, Twitchell says, Fresh Fields promotes the idea: "Our 'is' is your 'should.'"
And it works. Once Fresh Fields opens near my house, like everyone else in my local demographic pool, I'll probably succumb to it. Before long, I'll be spending way too much on groceries, feeling guilty about it, and praying that the store will assuage my guilt by letting homeless folks munch bulk food for free. But maybe, instead of cooking up some kind of noble justification for my behavior, or pretending that I can tell whether the apples taste better, I'll just concede the horrible truth: My name is Stephanie, and I am a yuppie.