Shopping at Whole Foods: Class, Business and Yuppiedom at Baruch College

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Whole Foods: enter at your own risk.

At the beginning of every semester, students in my speech class interview each other about their life ambitions to collect material for their first mini-speeches of the semester.  And every semester I hear more-or-less the same thing: they want to make a lot of money.  Of course there are anomalies, but money is the dominant goal, at least within what students are willing to share with a room full of strangers.

At the same time, though, I notice a trend of judgment toward certain consumer practices deemed to be evidence of bourgeois privilege.  While I was leading a workshop in a Business Policy course a few weeks ago, a discussion of the business strategies of Whole Foods triggered a set of interesting responses.

A group of students studying the company suggested that Whole Foods sold not only natural foods and nutritional products but also an image of health, purity and affluence. Students were quick to disassociate themselves from the consumer body of Whole Foods shoppers.  Claims of “I don’t shop there” rang out around the room.  A student shared an anecdote about a relative who shops at the dreaded natural food store only for her baby.  Exorbitantly expensive organic bananas received their due share of ridicule.  I kept my dirty little secret to myself: I have been known to walk well out of my way to have lunch at the Whole Foods salad bar.

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Organic bananas for the baby.

I wondered: what does “shopping at Whole Foods” connote in the context of Baruch College?  Is it a useful metaphor for understanding something about the interplay of class aspirations, education and business in this particular academic community?

As readers will know, the CUNY system at large has historically been held to the standard (and has sometimes been seen as falling short) of enabling class mobility for New York City’s working, middle class and immigrant populations.  Dusana’s post back in February asked us to consider why so many students’ Business Policy presentations seem to advocate business strategies “rooted in exploitation and inequalities” when Baruch’s student body represents so many class, ethnic and immigrant groups who have born the brunt of these same inequalities.  At the same time, though, I think my anecdote conveys a strain of Baruch undergraduate culture that pushes back against the idea that success in business fields must go hand in hand with the assumption of lifestyle and consumption habits associated with affluence.

Baruch is an environment in which outer trappings of professionalism are valued.  Students are often required, for example, to dress professionally for class presentations.  For many students this is not an exercise or performance; they are professionals, coming to class after a day at the office, or heading off to an internship for the afternoon.  Of course, these outward signifiers are not neutral in their cultural connotations any more so than is shopping at an expensive organic grocery chain.

If we choose to read “shopping at Whole Foods” as a metaphor for a set of eschewed behaviors within the milieu of Baruch undergraduates, what specifically does it signify?  Perhaps it is a sign of being duped by a marketing coup that self-respecting business students pride themselves in detecting?  In the student’s anecdote, it was, tellingly, the baby only who ate organic products.  Maybe “shopping at Whole Foods” can be read as a sign of being born into privilege, rather than wealth and comfort achieved through education, work, and entrepreneurship.

These anecdotes encouraged me to consider the difference between professionalism and economic success on the one hand, and performance of affluence in culturally specific ways on the other.  Or at least they attuned me to the inevitable particularity of whatever the approved ways of spending one’s wealth are in a given social context.

But I’ll end this here, because I can no longer ignore my craving for organic gluten cubes and $12 local cashew juice.

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Cashew juice: an investment to be taken seriously.

Comments

  1. Catherine says:

    Julia, so interesting! But do you really buy that $12 cashew juice on a fellowship stipend?!? If you say yes, I will definitely be judging you for being born into privilege…

    I always think about these external signifiers of success when I get on the elevator carrying my black nylon backpack and am surrounded by manicured students carrying Coach and even the occasional Louis Vuitton bag. What do they think of me? What do I think of them?

    While I’m busy furrowing my brow at a student’s watch or purse, I know if I revealed the amount of debt I took on as an undergraduate with no career plan whatsoever, a countenance of major consternation would be looking right back at me.

  2. Les Hunter says:

    Really astute observations, Julia. I think you’re right in looking at this aversion to Whole Foods from a standpoint that says that people who shop there are wasting money. This is, I think, kind of a schadenfreude of poor choices, as in, “can you believe how much money those people waste on that gross looking cashew juice?” And I think there are different kinds of performances of wealth. For some, it might be the Vuitton bling ( to which others might say “can you believe how much money they spent on that gaudy purse!”), while for others still, it might be white truffle oil and the back of a very long line at the Canal Street Whole Foods.

    On another note, as you know, I teach in a similar environment at a SUNY school, and I often wonder about my students’ ambitions and professional desires. Many of them are second generation immigrants and truly believe that if they work hard, that they will be wealthy. Admittedly, I come from a position of privilege having had access to many things that my students have not had. And it may be a product of this privilege that makes me somewhat ambivalent about their commercial desires. I do challenge them to confront that the American Dream is a cultural construct based on many assumptions, stories, myths, and realities. And I think they are willing to listen, but I do wonder how much of my own asking of the question reflects my own subject-position and not their own.

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