The Whole Foods Effect: “Foodie” Culture and Culinary Gentrification

Dalia Ramirez
6 min readJul 27, 2020


Image: CNBC

Gentrification, the process of economic and cultural redevelopment to appeal to a whiter, wealthier resident base, works by making individual tastes as profitable as possible. Consumers can be catered to through housing, amenities, design aesthetics, and much more — but food commodification is one of the biggest culprits.

Food is key for survival, culture, and community development. Its gentrification involves cultural appropriation, poverty, access to nutrition, and social division, making it a destructive force in rapidly changing communities.

“If you are what you eat,” and if “what you eat is culture that you pay for,” then “you are taste commodified,” writes Sociology professor Joshua Sbicca.

Food can demonstrate a city’s changing demographics, trends, and economic transformation. Food not only facilitates gentrification — it becomes gentrified itself, making it essential for the future of urban policy and the increasing displacement of low-income people of color.

“White people’s omnivorous tastes and economic advantage position them to colonize the tastes and places historically occupied by low-income people and people of color,” Sbicca warns.

Food can, in this way, be a sort of snapshot of urban power relations, as well as a “vehicle for physical displacement” of people and their foodscapes. Specific processes such as ‘supermarket greenlining’ and authenticity marketing catalyze this displacement; stores like Whole Foods are signifiers for higher-income and whiter consumers that a neighborhood’s culture is being redesigned to accommodate them.

“Inequality impacts what reaches your palate, too,” writes Journalist Terrell Jermaine Starr.

Retail options reflect the economic and social fabric of a neighborhood, and food-based marketing and consumption add a layer of cultural appropriation and health disparity to the process of urban renewal.

The concept of “authenticity” plays heavily into the development of food gentrification, becoming a tool for new (wealthier/whiter) residents to ‘cleanse’ and claim the space occupied by an existing community, Sharon Zukin writes in her article “Consuming Authenticity.”

This reclamation of space is enacted through media leveraging and legal zoning changes, as the ‘new class’ of residents mobilize around their alternative consumption practices, especially in direct reaction to the consumption modes of the existing community. These alternative consumption practices most often take the form of modern-style entrepreneurial spaces like bars and restaurants, health-conscious farmers’ markets, and specialty food stores.

These spaces allow new urban consumers to ‘perform’ authenticity by fabricating an aura of “abnormal” taste. They capitalize on the tastes of these young, hip clientele by advertising an ‘authentic’ historical background or ‘genuine’ backstory to the products. This can be one of the first visible steps of gentrification, soon followed by larger stores and luxury real estate development.

“Food is a sort of a ground zero for gentrification… for whose culture is respected and whose is not,” says community activist Levene Harvell.

It becomes clear through food alone that new, ‘alternative’ consumers are complicit in the process of exclusion that transforms a neighborhood by displacing working-class and ethnic minority residents.

These processes of residential conversion, promotion of ‘alternative’ design and cuisine, and the collapse of small businesses have culminated in a new ‘symbolic economy,’ where neighborhoods thrive on a new ‘renewable resource:’ authenticity.

These “reclaimed” spaces are only seen as authentic from the outside; they are judged by external standards, and those who grew up in a neighborhood, and are connected to its community, are unlikely to label it ‘authentic;’ it simply is.

“White people like to live in up-and-coming neighborhoods because they get credibility and respect from other white people for living in a more “authentic” neighborhood where they are exposed to “true culture” every day,” says Sbicca.

These “hip” gentrified neighborhoods form an exclusive, performative economy that capitalizes on the communities it displaces. Food is one of the first signs of this “symbolic economy;” trendy “foodie” culture is like a foot in the door for gentrification. It shows that a community is becoming profitable for investors, largely because it is now palatable for a young, white, wealthy consumer base.

Gentrification also changes food retailers that comprise the local food environment, sometimes creating “food mirages,” with high-quality food purposefully priced for newcomers, not longtime residents.

The available food itself becomes gentrified as well, through marginalized communities’ dispossession of culturally important foods. These dishes and ingredients are resignified as “cool” or “hip,” emerging in new restaurants, grocery stores, bars, cafes, and gardens at unaffordable prices. Foods like ramen, kale, and hummus have always been essential to their respective ethnic groups, but they have been overtaken by the white and wealthy and “reclaimed” as trendy.

Supermarket greenlining is an especially damaging example of food-based displacement. High-end supermarket chains purposefully target inner-city neighborhoods for their growth potential and profitability, establishing ‘healthy’ and ‘natural’ food venues that displace the affordable eateries that have long stood in low-income minority communities.

Health food as a signifier of “authenticity” creates inequality, which favors a wealthier target audience and excludes longtime residents. In their cultural and economic takeover of a neighborhood’s necessary amenities for survival, food gentrifiers become colonizing forces in poor communities.

“At this rate, my kids won’t be able to afford soul food… when we talk about food gentrification, we’re talking about the impact of a traditionally low-income food becoming trendy… Black Americans have been told relentlessly soul food was to blame for obesity. Now collards are the new kale,” blogger Mikki Kendall tweeted in 2014.

Kendall’s experience shows that food gentrification is not only a process of economic exclusion, but of cultural appropriation as well. White and wealthy people are not only displacing but commodifying the cultural foods and food sources of poor communities and communities of color — while those communities bear the consequences of poor health and inadequate access.

This appropriation is purposeful and profitable.

If newcomers reject the food of an existing community it can lead to economic loss, but if gentrifiers refashion these foods, making them trendy and upholding them as ‘authentic’ examples of the neighborhood’s culture, they become both more attractive to affluent people and less accessible to long-standing residents, eventually displacing existing businesses.

Food gentrification does not stand alone: it directly affects the housing gentrification that forces low-income communities out of their neighborhoods.

“Whole Foods is like a gateway for white people to feel that the neighborhood’s culture is being redesigned to accommodate them,” writes Starr.

It’s a process that’s symbolic and tangible at the same time.

City officials and developers are fully aware of the way urban amenities increase the prices of nearby residential units: real estate website Zillow conducted a study showing that the typical home near either Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s costs more and “appreciates twice as much” as the median U.S. home (Cohen 4, Anderson, 2017).

This phenomenon, dubbed the “Whole Foods Effect,” demonstrates the interwoven cycle of food and housing gentrification, and the motivation developers have to invest in “desirable” neighborhoods and redevelop them. This increase in investment is dependent on the modern cultural interest in ‘health’ food and ‘authenticity,’ a change that has motivated cities to adopt supermarket incentive policies framed as “food justice” and “obesity prevention efforts.”

Food retailers marketing sustainable, healthy products to higher-income consumers clearly signal that the community is changing, causing nearby property values to increase. Yes, urban policies that incentivize new supermarkets to set up shop in low-income communities may increase food access, but they will more likely serve to make the neighborhood more attractive for affluent newcomers.

Food, in many ways, is an entry point into the politics and processes of gentrification. It is a sort of microcosm for the broader gentrification process, is enacted by both economic and cultural drivers, existing as both an anchor and a signifier of community development.

There is an inherent inequality in food production and consumption. Because of this, we must be conscious of the impact our food access and spending have on race- and class-based displacement in vulnerable urban communities.


Anguelovski, Isabelle. “Healthy Food Stores, Greenlining and Food Gentrification: Contesting New Forms Of Privilege, Displacement and Locally Unwanted Land Uses in Racially Mixed Neighborhoods.” International Journal Of Urban And Regional Research, Doi:10.1111/1468–2427.12299

Cohen, Nevin. “Feeding Or Starving Gentrification: The Role of Food Policy.” Policy Brief, Cuny Urban Food Policy Institute. 7 March 2018.

Sbicca, Joshua (2018). Food, Gentrification, And The Changing City, Fuhem Ecosocial, Boletínecos. Ecos 43, Issn-1989–8495

Sharon Zukin (2008). Consuming Authenticity, Cultural Studies, 22:5, 724–748, Doi: 10.1080/09502380802245985

Starr, Terrell Jermaine. “There Goes The Neighborhood: How Food Helps Drive Gentrification.”

‘Food And Gentrification,’ The Root. 8 June 2018.



Dalia Ramirez

Bilingual writer, passionate about health, education, culture, and social justice. Recent graduate from Wesleyan University.