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The Politics of the Grocery Store Utopia

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Think about your local grocery store. It could be some independent seller, a Vons, Trader Joe’s, or even the Swarthmore Co-op. You probably can easily conjure images of its glossy, white-tiled, hyper-compartmentalized aisles, denoted by a celestial numbered sign, suspended in fluorescent skies.

Envision yourself mindlessly Pac-manning about the aisles to your desired product — Aisle 1 for PopTarts, three modules to the right to Aisle 4 for Popchips — programmed like a cog in a machine in what is probably one of the most desperate expressions of capitalist zeal.

Utopian conceptions of the grocery store regime derive just from this, the ease and simplicity of navigating about these pathways. In deconstructing the biology of your local grocery store, in parceling the nodes of its hyper-rationalized, operationalized organs, you probably don’t really stop to consider how there is a Fordist framework at play, an attempt to achieve utopian systematic efficiency with every “Breads” or “Ice Cream” delineation. Not here to be the girl who screams “CAPITALISM” but, CAPITALISM.

Ok, pero like, this is a column on how you grapple with the intangibility of multi-racialness in contemporary power monopolies, and as much as we love to play the capitalist blame-game, what do grocery stores have to do with race?

I was at a friendly neighborhood Whole Foods in Tucson, Arizona over spring break. My friend was looking for coconut milk (@TheCityofLosAngeles) and I was aimlessly meandering into Aisle 4: “Flour/Sugar,” “Baking Mixes and Oils,” “Pie Crusts” (Yes, just the crusts), “Cereal,” and other mundane food items were featured in this aisle. However, as I walked closer to the illuminated number four towering from its seat in the heavens, I took note of a category I had never seen before: “Hispanic Foods.”

Now honestly, I should be thanking Whole Foods for satisfying my Hispanic palate — after all, the coconut milk was becoming too commonplace for my leche likings. The “Hispanic Foods” section housed all of my Chilean fancies: black beans, tortillas, Cholula and pan dulce, even though conchas in Chile are actual shells, not sugary pastries.

And that was it, with one swift, technocratic strike, Whole Foods had reduced the entirety of the Spain-related and Spanish-speaking world to a 5-foot long section of Aisle 4 in the only Whole Foods in Tucson, Arizona.

According to Food Marketing Institute’s count in 2005, Hispanic consumers spent more on groceries than average U.S. consumers: an average of $133 per week per household versus $91. Doesn’t it make more fiscal sense to streamline the grocery market process and provide these consumers their own food niche, even it if it offshoots further minoritization? A system that assumes that Cholula is the ethnic iteration of hot sauce and tortillas are just exoticized white bread?

“I think there is an increase in appetite across the board for more international experiences, particularly in Hispanic grocery,” said Stephen Palacios, executive vice president at consulting company Cheskin Added Value. “The ethnic-specific aisle is eventually going to evolve into everybody’s aisle.”

CAPITALISM.

What disturbs me in this grocery store utopia is not how management fails to realize an integrative social landscape in the American public, not how “Hispanic” merely delineates a historical link to a major imperialist power, but mostly how we were placed right next to the “Pie Crusts” and not the “Asian Foods” niche in Aisle 6.  

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