Bodies Inside the Store

Photo taken by author

I wanted a break – a mini-vacation from the turmoil of the last year and a half.

I also wanted and needed vine-ripened tomatoes.

Race, Social Class, and the Selective Ubiquity of Amazon at Whole Foods

It. Is. Bright.

And … I am not referring to the lights in the building. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon on the Monday before Easter, and the Whole Foods Market at Garden City Center in Cranston, Rhode Island is busy. According to the Providence Journal, the store opened in 2007, heartily welcomed by the local community – ready for an upgrade from the former occupant of the space, Shaw’s Market.

Since Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods in 2017 and the onset of the Covid pandemic in December 2019, the people who comprise the majority of foot traffic through the store has changed. Over time, in addition to the standard white upper-class clientele, the bodies inside the store include an ever growing cadre of Amazon Prime shoppers, who are prominently neither wealthy nor white.

Photo by Sundry Photography

Bodies Inside the Store?

As I cross the sliding doors to enter, I adjust my face mask and chuckle at how effortlessly these words come to mind.

This expression, simultaneously innocuous and catastrophic, matters more in Covid Times. Too many bodies milling about makes it difficult to stay six feet apart while customers shop and employees restock the displays. If avoiding a traffic jam in the aisles made sense before Covid, now it’s potentially a matter of life or death.

Once inside, I am greeted by a display of sumo mandarins that sits at the front of the produce section with a row of violet and white orchid pots behind it. Behind the orchids are other displays of different varieties of oranges, mandarins, and lemons. The contrast in different hues of color is a welcoming reminder of spring … and hope. I stop to appreciate the sight and breathe in the fragrance of oranges that mingle with the scent of flowers. Except I can’t. Not with a mask on.

For me, taking in the gorgeous fruit and vegetable displays and carefully selecting every piece of colorful produce is a financial investment and a meditative experience – a mini-vacation that I look forward to.

Photo taken by author

Like so many others, I think about how this scene would have gone a year ago and wonder how soon, or if, it will be that way again. In Before Times, I would have stopped to sample the orange slices that would have been a part of the display.

No matter. I shake off any invasive melancholy and get on with my mission – buying ripe tomatoes for a homemade sauce. I’m surprised by the activity at the tomato display – large carts with crates full of different types of vegetables, employees replenishing stock, and shoppers. All are masked and most are trying to safely coexist.

Tomatoes On the Vine

I spot what I want, tomatoes on the vine, and leave my cart next to the plastic produce bag dispenser on the main aisle.

I swiftly rip off one of the flimsy, green bags and it tears completely. Sighing, I carefully take two more. Yet another reminder of Covid Times. At the beginning of the pandemic, when it wasn’t clear how the disease spread, Whole Foods, along with other grocery stores, banned all reusable produce and shopping bags. While these bags are no longer verboten, it feels safer to opt for the plastic alternative.

With bags in hand, I step over to the section with tomatoes on the vine. They’re on sale. I smile and alternately shimmy my shoulders up and down in a little dance of joy. I gingerly examine the vines, looking for the ripest of the lot. One catches my eye – four bright red tomatoes, plump and ready to burst.

Photo taken by author

My tomatoes are ready to be picked and I am ready to oblige. Except, they are right next to an employee, a young Black man who is restocking boxes of cherry tomatoes. This is notable. In the nearly fifteen years I have shopped at this Whole Foods, I had rarely seen employees of color. The growth in diversity at the store appears to have coincided with calls for corporations, like Amazon, to address equity, specifically from the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters.

I take a step, leaning in to take my prize.

“Excuse me, I just need to grab those tomatoes.”

Suddenly, in exasperation, the employee tosses two boxes of cherry tomatoes onto the display, gesturing with raised arms that he’s had enough.

“I can’t do my job!” I hear him muffle behind his mask.

He stalks away from the produce section, leaving me stunned. Maybe I had gotten too close, maybe he had similar experiences with hoity toity customers all day, all week. Maybe his encounter with me  – perhaps in his eyes another hoity toity, clueless customer – was the tipping point. I could not know.

And just like that, the illusion melts.

My mini-vacation is over.

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Photo by Jumana Dakkur

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Laura Vares

With a focus on gender equity, social inequality, xenophobia, and racism, Laura uses storytelling to investigate the social significance of stories we learn and repeat. She has over ten years of research and teaching experience in higher education and earned a Ph.D. in anthropology and a master’s degree in international affairs.

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One Reply to “Bodies Inside the Store”

  1. The ending is such a cliff-hanger! Although I boycott Amazon, I also went to Whole Foods recently and believe the quality of produce has decreased. I could easily find the same produce at more affordable grocery stores. I never liked to grocery shop, but now look forward to shopping at Portland’s New Seasons. This local chain was recently purchased by a Korean company. But New Seasons has stayed the same, thank goodness.

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