Deconstructing Organic

See which of the country’s largest food producers are behind your favorite organic snacks.
Words By Phil Howard
Illustrations By GOOD magazine

GOOD and Phil Howard show you who really owns the family companies that make your smoothies and cracked wheat.

Good Magazine

I lived in the ICC housing co-ops in Austin, Texas, in the 1980s, while I was an undergraduate, and we bought all of our food either through food clubs or a local food cooperative called Wheatsville. At first, Wheatsville was nothing more than a kind of warehouse; you volunteered a few hours in order to become a member and you got access to all sorts of fresh food, mainly produce and whole grains.

Eventually, Wheatsville grew into a proper if small grocery store, owned and run by its employees and members. I never worked there, or even became an active member, but I shopped there regularly and I kept up with the often raucous debates that seemed to always drive the decision making over the direction of the co-op. Everything had to be decided collectively: irradiated foods, plastic bags, how and what to recycle, the redesigned storefront.

Even from a distance it was maddening and frustrating and exciting all at the same time. Often, too, when you went to Wheatsville you felt more than a little of a kind of self-righteous competitiveness. The bike people glared at you because you came on a motorcycle; the backpack people probably didn’t like the people who used paper bags; the people with dreadlocks thought the punks with bleached hair lacked commitment.

Still, Wheatsville opened up the world of food and politics for me in many ways. It was the first place I ever saw whole-bean coffee and Melitta coffee pots and filters. I used to love their deli made pimento cheese salad and turkey sausages. Wheatsville was the real thing: a new form of ownership designed to encourage a very different way of thinking about food that was environmentalist, feminist, progressive.

At about the same time, just south of the river, Whole Foods opened. At first it seemed similar: a small store that carried fresh vegetables, local brown eggs, cheeses that you could not get anywhere else. The same crowd: punks, Rastafarian wanna bes, college students. When floods destroyed the first store, everyone chipped in to help, just as they would at Wheatsville. Whole Foods had a completely different agenda, though.

It was privately owned, for one thing, and it wanted to be profitable and to grow beyond a single store. It had a creepy, messianic feel to it and an equally creepy if passive aggressive anti-worker agenda. Whole Foods declared itself too advanced to need unions. Maybe the Wheatsville rhetoric seems a little tired and dated, but its shadow twin has now become,”the world’s leading retailer of natural and organic foods, with more than 270 stores in North America and the United Kingdom.”

I went overseas for several years and when I moved back to Austin in the 1990s Whole Foods was well on its way towards becoming the Wallmart of the organic foods retailers. The Whole Foods story prefigures the evolution of the organic food industry illustrated in Howard’s charts. It took a great idea, drained it of all of what made it important and new, and then mass marketed the resulting empty shell. It’s a sort of institutionalized hypocrisy that’s become all too common.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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