At the co-op, we’re constantly working to stay on top of the happenings in the food world and find the best possible options for our community. For example, not too long ago, almond milk meant a shelf-stable blend of water, natural flavors, and yes, technically some almonds. But now there are more and more options: certified organic, no fillers, gums, or preservatives, 25% almonds by weight (as opposed to the usual 2% that the UK government thankfully mandates is on the label), and we’re doing our best to be at the forefront of this wave. Some people call it a trend, but we prefer to think of it as a way of living, and it’s one that is changing faster and faster in our modern world.
Back when health food cooperatives first really started gaining traction in the 70s and 80s, it was a place for outcasts, those who lived on the fringes of society, and they dealt with a revolving litany of labels in good humor. These people were “granolas” or “hippies” or sometimes even “health-nuts” or “health-freaks,” and they wanted nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way America (and the world) looks at food. We want the same thing today, and it’s time to realize that we are witnessing this, right now, the mainstreaming of health and sustainability.
There are three pieces of news, some recent, some already a little dated, that show how mainstream the “granola” movement has become. The first, from last year, is organic Gatorade. Yes, that’s a thing. Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture.
Coupled with that is more recent news of organic Doritos. I know, it’s even harder to believe, even with photographic evidence. Could it be photoshopped? Is it opposite day? Or, is the impossible true, has organic finally gone truly mainstream?
Finally, the most recent news: Whole Foods has been bought by Amazon.
The question we are left asking ourselves as we continue our constant search for the top of the line, most regenerative, sustainable, local, and yes, organic products, is this: how does all this news make us feel? Honestly, it feels a little weird. Kinda like when everybody is suddenly in to that low budget limited release movie/album/book that you knew about ten years ago but recently became a best-seller. And there are a few different approaches for how to respond to such things.
First, the good. Don’t forget, we wanted this. Way back in the day, when there were maybe three companies making health food, we were clamoring to share our love for healthy food with our friends and neighbors, going around like door-to-door evangelists trying to spread the word, hoping against hope that people would wake up to the industrial food system feeding them things that look just like food but were off somewhere in the uncanny valley. And here it is – Walmart is now the biggest organic retailer in the country. Doritos has gone organic, Gatorade has done it too, and General Mills is gobbling up small organic food manufacturers at a stunning rate. And many of those little organic companies are so grateful that they suddenly have the financial backing, distribution, and marketing to spread the word, and who are we to take that away from them?
Of course, there’s also the bad. Organic is the only federally regulated, independently certified label on food in the marketplace, and it exists because farmers and food activists wanted it back in the 80s as a way to clarify just what was meant when thousands of people used that word to mean thousands of different things. In 1990, the US Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act to codify its meaning. That cleared up a lot and kept the greenwashing down, at least around the word “organic,” but it had a major downside. The big companies wanted in, but they didn’t want to have to pay more to produce what they were already making cheaply, so the NOP (National Organic Program) has been slowly diluting rules and making exceptions since then under the lobbying pressure of American industrial food processors. Or, as the director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International puts it, “Organic is a floor, not a ceiling.” Organic now is a starting point, and the most innovative and sustainable companies realize this – they are getting certified organic, then moving on to producing a fresher, cleaner, healthier product to reach that ceiling we’re all striving for. Meanwhile, companies like Doritos and Gatorade have reached floor level, doing just the bare minimum to be able to even pretend they care about the environment or the health of their consumers. They still have a long way to go.
The ugly in this situation is the pervasive attitude around food. You see, organic food is a baseline, a great place to start to make something truly regenerative. But many, many people believe that it is the be-all end-all of food, that organic is the top of the line, the bees knees, and if Doritos is going organic then it must be just as good as local organic sweet corn from Lattin Farms. And, as most of you know, this is just not true.
So what’s the best response to news like this? Well, we’d like to give a cautious and half-enthusiastic high-five to companies like Doritos, Frito-Lay, and Pepsi. You made it to the ground level, maybe a little bit late, and definitely for the wrong reasons, but we’re glad you’re here. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we will be busy at the front of the wave, pushing just like we always do for stricter standards, cleaner food, healthy pay for farm workers, local sourcing, and everything beyond organic that we can find. We hope to see you there.