The stereotype has been most popularly lampooned by Portlandia, but there's some truth to it: People who consume organic food tend to have progressive politics, and, at the very least, are passionate about where their food comes from.
For many, the appeal of organic food comes with political views that acknowledge the damage our current food system has wrought upon the environment and our bodies, and attempt to be intentional about purchasing food that sustains local economies. Indeed, since the mid-2000s, the popularity of organic food has continued to grow. A survey conducted jointly by NPR and Reuters in 2011 found that 58% of consumers prefer to buy organic over conventional. However, many organic manufacturers, either in their ethos or their marketing, do not share the progressive politics of their buyers.
This past April, Irin Carmon reported in Salon that Eden Foods has actively lobbied for restrictions on access to birth control nationwide. Not only has Eden pushed back against the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive provision, which became law this year, but Eden has also refused to cover birth control for its employees due to beliefs that birth control is immoral and unnatural. (This, despite the fact that women are prescribed birth control for myriad other reasons besides pregnancy prevention).
Ultraviolet, a feminist advocacy organization, has launched a petition to push back against Eden’s lawsuits to repeal the birth control mandate on religious grounds. While Eden’s previous political battles have been integral to the food movement (they been active in the fight to label GMOs in food, a regulation 90% of Americans would welcome but that's stalled by lobbying from agribusiness companies such as Monsanto), Carmon correctly presumes that Eden’s regressive politics in this case “would horrify many of its customers.”
While Eden explicitly has taken a political stance in direct contradiction to the beliefs of many of its buyers, other purveyors of organic food have taken a more subtle approach in their advertising. Advertising is still an industry that relies heavily on gendered stereotypes because they are legible scripts that people will easily recognize. For instance, Silk’s Pure Almond print ads rely on familiar narratives around guilt and cheating often used to promote “indulgent” foods. The packaging for their almond milk, which ranges between 30 and 120 calories per serving, boasts that you can enjoy the beverage “without the guilt.”
A September 2011 post on the website Sociological Images analyzing a Stevia in the Raw ad also notes this tendency to shame women for eating the wrong categories of food. The Stevia ad, under the auspices of recommending a brownie recipe to soothe a recent breakup, manages to be gender-essentialist in urging the women to indulge in the brownie recipe by doubling the ingredients, and policing her for it by reminding her that “the diet starts tomorrow.” Painting organic food as an indulgence in marketing campaigns may also contribute to false cultural notions about the utility of organic agriculture in comparison to conventional foods. (For instance, recall the oft-misinterpreted Stanford study from 2012 about the nutritional value of organic versus conventional produce.)
The gap between the presumed progressive politics of organic food companies and reality may also be a reflection of class differences within groups that are invested in the proliferation of organic agriculture. While those invested in food justice ultimately would like to see a more democratic shift in the way food is distributed and work to correct the more systemic reasons behind food insecurity, those who view organic as a choice tend to assume food-insecure people simply “choose” to eat fast food. In the process, they ally themselves with multinational corporations that use similar logics of personal responsibility while targeting underserved populations.
Those who see buying organic food solely as a matter of shifting purchasing power overlook the fact that organic produce can cost, on average, up to 50% more than its conventional counterpart, and these costs can act as a major deterrent to working-class families attempting to stretch a thin budget. By marketing to those who think of organic food only as a choice the most educated people make (a and cynical position that assumes that those who can’t afford or access organic simply aren’t smart enough to make the correct decisions in the grocery), these multinational conglomerates reinforce damaging but well-worn cultural messages without having to worry that their target demographic will be offended.
If anything, Ultraviolet’s petition to Eden Foods (and subsequent advocacy via social media) should serve as a reminder that political actions, whether they are taken by companies or by individuals, often bleed into the realm of our personal lives. Whether feminist organizations are fighting to ensure women have access to birth control, regardless of the religious affiliation of our employers, or food-justice organizers are pushing against systemic barriers to access, our actions must take into account our larger political environment and continue to push for more equitable outcomes for everyone.