Content Warning

The following post contains disordered eating and self-harm.

Content Warning

The following post contains transphobia and racism.

Essays
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I never knew how many different brands sold refrigerated hummus and pesto until I was made to unload the boxes from the loading dock at Whole Foods Market. When I began working there in January of 2021, the amount of salsa verde people went through in the dead of winter was shocking—though maybe not as shocking as the existence of brownie flavored dessert hummus. 

But unpacking boxes of dip was only part of my job; customer service was the priority.

One Saturday morning in January, the store’s doors were unlocked just as the nor’easter forecasted to hit suburban New Jersey was beginning. I watched through the window as customers spilled in from their idling Suburus and Priuses. The tops of reusable bags streamed from the pockets of their overstuffed LL Bean puffer coats as they walked briskly across the lot. The automatic doors opened as they filed in, stomping their snow-dusted Hunter boots into puddles at the entrance before moving in to commence their shopping. Despite the seemingly unique chaos, I had seen this scene dozens of times before. 

Watching the customers shuffle in, I was slowly stacking the plastic disks of dip into cold shelves when a snow-chilled finger cut through my thoughts. Touching my shoulder, a middle-aged woman looked down at her shopping list, then back up at me before telling me which brand of tzatziki she needed. I surveyed the woman; shorter than me, she waited with her chin slightly tilted upward, but she avoided my eyes when I tried to catch hers. I realized that she was not looking up at me, but over me. I pointed to the brand she had wanted with a forced smile under my mask, which I hoped would translate with my eyes alone.

“No, dear. Put it in my cart.” 

I laughed bitterly to myself. 

As I would learn that Saturday, satisfying the whims of such customers was a key aspect of my new job. Some would ask me to explain the difference between heavy cream and buttermilk, while others wanted me to read the entirety of cookie labels aloud to determine if they were gluten-free. Having worked in various jobs across the food industry for nearly a decade, I knew the average American consumer would not be familiar with the process with which saba vinegar is made, or what ingredients are in furikake, so I had grown accustomed to the constant questions. 

I never knew how many different brands sold refrigerated hummus and pesto until I was made to unload the boxes from the loading dock at Whole Foods Market. When I began working there in January of 2021, the amount of salsa verde people went through in the dead of winter was shocking—though maybe not as shocking as the existence of brownie flavored dessert hummus. 

But unpacking boxes of dip was only part of my job; customer service was the priority.

One Saturday morning in January, the store’s doors were unlocked just as the nor’easter forecasted to hit suburban New Jersey was beginning. I watched through the window as customers spilled in from their idling Suburus and Priuses. The tops of reusable bags streamed from the pockets of their overstuffed LL Bean puffer coats as they walked briskly across the lot. The automatic doors opened as they filed in, stomping their snow-dusted Hunter boots into puddles at the entrance before moving in to commence their shopping. Despite the seemingly unique chaos, I had seen this scene dozens of times before. 

Watching the customers shuffle in, I was slowly stacking the plastic disks of dip into cold shelves when a snow-chilled finger cut through my thoughts. Touching my shoulder, a middle-aged woman looked down at her shopping list, then back up at me before telling me which brand of tzatziki she needed. I surveyed the woman; shorter than me, she waited with her chin slightly tilted upward, but she avoided my eyes when I tried to catch hers. I realized that she was not looking up at me, but over me. I pointed to the brand she had wanted with a forced smile under my mask, which I hoped would translate with my eyes alone.

“No, dear. Put it in my cart.” 

I laughed bitterly to myself. 

As I would learn that Saturday, satisfying the whims of such customers was a key aspect of my new job. Some would ask me to explain the difference between heavy cream and buttermilk, while others wanted me to read the entirety of cookie labels aloud to determine if they were gluten-free. Having worked in various jobs across the food industry for nearly a decade, I knew the average American consumer would not be familiar with the process with which saba vinegar is made, or what ingredients are in furikake, so I had grown accustomed to the constant questions. 

Even in the middle of a global pandemic, the average Whole Foods shopper’s concern for food sourcing continued to lack any acknowledgement of my personhood or the role of labor in the food system. This, combined with the demanding nature of their requests, left me stunned. Daily confrontations made me acutely aware that while customers continued to prioritize their own dietary concerns, their wellness rituals remained focused solely on the self.

Through its campaigns, Whole Foods has specifically positioned itself as an “ethical brand.” The company has become known for its Whole Trade Guarantee, which assures customers that all products are non-GMO, certified organic, and Fair Trade. Since its introduction in 2007, the Guarantee has been used to cultivate a consumer base of health-conscious individuals and families who seek to support brands that reflect their morals and values, like eco-friendly practices and produce grown without the aid of pesticides. The company is expert in understanding the desires of their clientele and delivering the peace of mind they require in knowing their food has the very best of origins. 

The latest Whole Foods multi-platform ad campaign on social media, Sourced For Good, was launched in early 2021. The program is meant to identify, with a sticker, produce that has come from farms aligned with the company’s “Core Values.” The PR release for the program states that it is meant to “evolve” the Whole Trade Guarantee

With their cliched sticker-based produce program, it appears that this evolution was, in fact, very modest. Each social media post made in connection with the Sourced Food Good program includes an image of fresh vegetables with the tagline: “Products with this seal support workers, communities and the environment.” These ideals are not revolutionary for a company that has touted similar slogans for decades. Despite the undoubtedly high cost of designing and launching new campaigns, Whole Foods has found it in their best interest to continue to uphold the same trite ideals without much change in policy. Particularly since Whole Foods was acquired by Amazon, it is largely clear to the public that their employees lack significant material support. 

The company’s national brand image relies on the notion that they are socially conscious and consistently ethical. The real benefit of the Sourced For Good marketing campaign is not about spreading awareness for a difference in shopper experience, or even really to advertise what the program is. The campaign is a gesture of support without any new company policies that materially impact their workers. Sourced For Good exemplifies the awkward navigation many “ethical” companies must handle: Inserting just enough “activist” language into their brand for it to persuade the average consumer without that language giving workers the power to turn the company on its head. 

In a 2020 article, Jade Ashley Yong remarks that “any post in which it is clear that there [is] a greater focus placed on aesthetics instead of the information being shared is a great example of how marketability, profitability, and selectivity are all intertwined with the boom in social media activism.” Corporate marketing teams take note of social media culture in order to reflect the aesthetic virtues of activism that they perceive as desirable to potential consumers. The frame never allows us to think about the direct relationship to employees on the Whole Foods payroll.

Whole Foods workers feel the disconnect between the company’s brand image and the way they are treated on a day-to-day basis by the policies imposed on them, including a lack of benefits. An anonymous Glassdoor review from a Princeton-based cashier’s assistant cites the company’s “thin facade of interest and care.” Explaining, they write that Whole Foods “claim[s] that employee welfare is one of their cornerstones, yet as soon as stocks drop your hours are cut and your ‘guaranteed’ yearly raises are hard capped.” 

Even in the middle of a global pandemic, the average Whole Foods shopper’s concern for food sourcing continued to lack any acknowledgement of my personhood or the role of labor in the food system. This, combined with the demanding nature of their requests, left me stunned. Daily confrontations made me acutely aware that while customers continued to prioritize their own dietary concerns, their wellness rituals remained focused solely on the self.

Through its campaigns, Whole Foods has specifically positioned itself as an “ethical brand.” The company has become known for its Whole Trade Guarantee, which assures customers that all products are non-GMO, certified organic, and Fair Trade. Since its introduction in 2007, the Guarantee has been used to cultivate a consumer base of health-conscious individuals and families who seek to support brands that reflect their morals and values, like eco-friendly practices and produce grown without the aid of pesticides. The company is expert in understanding the desires of their clientele and delivering the peace of mind they require in knowing their food has the very best of origins. 

The latest Whole Foods multi-platform ad campaign on social media, Sourced For Good, was launched in early 2021. The program is meant to identify, with a sticker, produce that has come from farms aligned with the company’s “Core Values.” The PR release for the program states that it is meant to “evolve” the Whole Trade Guarantee

With their cliched sticker-based produce program, it appears that this evolution was, in fact, very modest. Each social media post made in connection with the Sourced Food Good program includes an image of fresh vegetables with the tagline: “Products with this seal support workers, communities and the environment.” These ideals are not revolutionary for a company that has touted similar slogans for decades. Despite the undoubtedly high cost of designing and launching new campaigns, Whole Foods has found it in their best interest to continue to uphold the same trite ideals without much change in policy. Particularly since Whole Foods was acquired by Amazon, it is largely clear to the public that their employees lack significant material support. 

The company’s national brand image relies on the notion that they are socially conscious and consistently ethical. The real benefit of the Sourced For Good marketing campaign is not about spreading awareness for a difference in shopper experience, or even really to advertise what the program is. The campaign is a gesture of support without any new company policies that materially impact their workers. Sourced For Good exemplifies the awkward navigation many “ethical” companies must handle: Inserting just enough “activist” language into their brand for it to persuade the average consumer without that language giving workers the power to turn the company on its head. 

In a 2020 article, Jade Ashley Yong remarks that “any post in which it is clear that there [is] a greater focus placed on aesthetics instead of the information being shared is a great example of how marketability, profitability, and selectivity are all intertwined with the boom in social media activism.” Corporate marketing teams take note of social media culture in order to reflect the aesthetic virtues of activism that they perceive as desirable to potential consumers. The frame never allows us to think about the direct relationship to employees on the Whole Foods payroll.

Whole Foods workers feel the disconnect between the company’s brand image and the way they are treated on a day-to-day basis by the policies imposed on them, including a lack of benefits. An anonymous Glassdoor review from a Princeton-based cashier’s assistant cites the company’s “thin facade of interest and care.” Explaining, they write that Whole Foods “claim[s] that employee welfare is one of their cornerstones, yet as soon as stocks drop your hours are cut and your ‘guaranteed’ yearly raises are hard capped.” 

A review written by a former employee in Marlton, New Jersey tells of “expensive health insurance for families” that is not comprehensive and “doesn’t cover childbirth.” The review concludes that the company has “no compassion for working parents,” and that “they only pretend to invest in their employees.” These sentiments have a clear correlation with where the company’s real concerns lie. A core tenant of the Whole Foods ethos is explained by CEO John Mackey on the company website: “Customers are our most important stakeholder and the lifeblood of our business.”

The website encouraged us “team members” to “Earn Trust,” “Just Get It Done,” and “Be a Servant Leader.” Of course, one can’t always be a leader and a servant simultaneously, but these were contradictions which we internalized and learned to work with. This duality has been baked into America’s views of customer service for decades. It was not the pandemic alone that created the impossible working conditions which define the food industry, but for many, like myself, it is what made us realize the extent of our discontent. 

In my three months spent stocking shelves at Whole Foods, I asked coworkers who had worked on the floor through the entirety of the pandemic what it was like interacting with customers. While I was still encountering customers with some lasting panic, it was clear it was only residual. When handing over a shift to the night supervisor one afternoon, I asked him about his experience. Standing in front of the milk refrigerators, he rolled his eyes, pulled down his mask, and popped a half-bar of Xanax. Managing customers’ emotions on top of his own had become a difficult task.

At a time when middle-class consumers wanted desperately to maintain business as usual, Whole Foods, through Sourced for Good, reinforced their ideals. The world—and consequently, the supply chain—has changed so much in such a short amount of time, and yet, so much remains the same.