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Thompson: Pre-packaged foods cater to a culture of laziness and impatience

Pre-cut fruit and veggie platters have long been a staple for summer barbecues, graduation parties and holiday get-togethers, as they were designed as a way to provide a quick and easy appetizer for the host to feed mass quantities of people. However functional these trays still are for large gatherings, the now-excessive amount of small, pre-cut, individually-packaged and overpriced foods that line grocery store shelves no longer serve a real purpose. Rather, the rapid increase in packaged apple slices and Keurig “K-cups” is the way competing supermarkets cater to the growing impatience and laziness of middle-class American consumers.

Whole Foods has been particularly guilty of this kind of marketing with much of their produce, and the company’s excessive plastic waste was criticized earlier this month when a customer noticed dozens of peeled and packaged half-oranges on their shelves. The customer’s tweet, “If only nature would find a way to cover these oranges so we didn’t need to waste so much plastic on them,” instantly went viral and angered those of us who care to be environmentally-conscious with our waste.

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Whole Foods tweeted in response, “Definitely our mistake. These have been pulled. We hear you, and we will leave them in their natural packaging: the peel.” Yet wasteful convenience marketing remains effective for two main reasons.  

First and foremost, Whole Foods targets shoppers of upper-middle-class status who tend not to have much idle time on their hands — the businessman on lunch break or the busy soccer mom. Given that “whole” foods are more expensive than those from equally-healthy supermarkets like Vitamin Cottage — especially when they are pre-cut and individually packaged — this demographic can afford to foot the extra bill that the convenience of cut apples provides. In this way, wasteful consumer habits like the constant disposal of Keurig cups and unnecessary fruit packaging becomes an indicator of social status.

Likewise, those who can afford the convenience of a $6.99-per-pound peeled and boxed half-orange can also afford to fall into the lazy lifestyle this type of consumerism fosters. If the extra money these products cost isn’t an issue, for example, these people face a constant temptation to turn to Whole Foods’ prepared-food section after a busy day, as opposed to buying ingredients for a recipe to try at home. 

This lifestyle of the upper-middle class can be detrimental to work-life balance because those who habitually participate in convenience consumerism are less likely to spend quality time in the kitchen with their families. Fewer and fewer Americans are prioritizing kitchen time with family — and with themselves — amid the daily capitalist chaos, and I believe that middle-class laziness and apathy are mostly to blame.

Last year, I discussed the social importance of cooking with Kathleen Baumgardner, co-founder of the FoCo Café.

“We’ve kind of lost the art of cooking and it’s also a real social experience that’s really unfortunate if we lose,” she said. “Like Thanksgiving — where does everyone hang out? The kitchen. We celebrate around food for a reason.”

Although I’ve chosen upper-middle-class Whole Foods shoppers as the extreme to critique in this writing, the issue of wasteful convenience consumerism applies to each of us who buy our own groceries, as we are constantly being marketed to in this way.

Contemporary American culture thrives on the convenience of necessities like food and water — so much so that many of us don’t mind paying an extra few dollars for pre-measured coffee and bottled water and are unconcerned about the excessive waste this causes. For many, cooking alone and cooking for others is no longer an enjoyable use of time but a burden that detracts from time on the computer and in front of the TV. This convenient, apathetic lifestyle is rapidly increasing in popularity, creating a much-needed re-connection between people and food.

Collegian Columnist Laurel Thompson can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @laurelanne1996.

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