Can’t say I ever really imagined myself feeling the need to defend a grocery store, much less a wildly successful national chain of grocery stores with an unlikable libertarian at the helm. Life takes a lot of strange turns, though, and it’s best to roll with the punches. So, about this new Whole Foods in Gowanus. It opened last month with much fanfare, “stampeding” crowds, and a slew of location-specific, hyper-local products (over 200 of which are made in Brooklyn, by the New Yorker’s count). And now, as the Observer points out, it’s also inspired a whole sub-genre of listicles about all the “ridiculous,” “absurd,” and “Brooklynest” things that are for sale there. You know, outlandish, offensive shit, like uh, beer that isn’t Bud Light Lime, and frozen pizza that isn’t Red Baron. And donuts.
Even the New Yorker’s write-up made sort of a snide mention of the store’s “cage-free, Sriracha-spiced mayonnaise and chocolate-peppermint almond milk.” And of course, we’re not exactly strangers to listicles about twee nonsense products ourselves. There’s a lot of stupid stuff out there, and a lot of stupid people who are paying far too much money for it! But also, fancy pigs in blankets sound delicious, as does the store’s beer collaboration with Evil Twin and Chocopologie, as do eggs that were produced outside of the gruesome factory farm system. As Henry Stewart has written elsewhere on this site, “there are neighborhoods where people literally can’t buy produce,” and even if I couldn’t afford to do all of my shopping there, I’d kill to have a source of food this high quality within walking distance of my apartment. The last time I went to my local Bed-Stuy NSA, the kale was literally covered in some kind of white fungus, and I now get off at a different subway stop on the way home if I expect to buy decent-quality fruit and vegetables. It’d be cool if I didn’t have to do that.
It’s also pretty hard to get mad at a company that goes out of its way to support local businesses instead of manufacturers who utilize middling ingredients and overseas production. Aggressive “Brooklyn” branding gets tiresome (and stupid expensive), but no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. (For what it’s worth, even the less-local stuff people are pissed about, like yoga mats and those “vaginal support” probiotics, are standard enough to be sold in places like Target.) None of this feels any different or better than that brief moment where everyone piled on Obama just for eating arugula, and more to the point, a store selling healthy food to a neighborhood that supports it doesn’t really feel like the enemy to me.
Put it this way: I grew up in the 90s, shoveling down chemical garbage being peddled to me by large corporations, cartoon characters, and even my public schools, which at the time had scores of vending machines and a program wherein students who read a certain number of books were given a coupon for a personal pan pizza at Pizza Hut. I look back on it pretty fondly (and sort of wish I could enroll in a similar pizza-for-reading exchange now), but can’t really be anything but glad that the going nutrition wisdom has changed, drastically. In a market full of mass-produced non-food designed to create obese addicts, it makes a whole lot of sense to me that so many people my age have focused their energy on all things locally-sourced, small batch, and made from real ingredients, even when the whole thing gets overwrought. I still buy Doritos at the deli with some frequency, but much better to be living at this end of the pendulum swing than the other.
If you want to take on the Gowanus Whole Foods as a harbinger of big box chain encroachment in the borough and a support system for insidious condo development, that’s a conversation that can—and should!— be had. So is the one about why, for so many people, food that isn’t poison is so widely unavailable and unaffordable. But taking them on just for selling relatively healthy food that was made in Brooklyn? Try harder. Or maybe just focus your ire on those fedoras they have for sale. Those, even we can’t defend.
Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.