Cover photo by Alexandra Oles.
Last week, London-based Whole Foods shopper Nathalie Gordon took note of a newfangled way to market oranges. She snapped and tweeted a photo of whole-but-peeled citrus fruits, individually packaged in plastic tubs. In fewer than 120 characters, Ms. Gordon illuminated the irony: “If only nature would find a way to cover these oranges so we didn’t need to waste so much plastic on them. ”
This strange sight — stacks of nude mandarins for sale — struck a chord. Like a salt-of-the-earth audience member on the receiving end of a surprise talk show makeover, the fruit appeared uncomfortable and embarrassed in its trendy, revealing plastic garment. Over 100,000 retweets later, the shame of the sumo mandarin was known the world over. Look, its pith is showing! #Orangegate quickly became 2016’s most viral food story. The consensus was clear: Orange may be the new black, but plastic is decidedly NOT the new orange (peel).
In the face of international scorn, Whole Foods was quick to mea culpa: “Definitely our mistake. These have been pulled. We hear you, and we will leave them in their natural packaging: the peel.” The mega-grocer with a good-for-you-glow pinned the blame on a “handful of stores [which] experimented with a seasonal product spotlight that wasn’t fully thought through.” Responding in kind with their own witty meme, Whole Foods posted a photo of some equally exposed fruit in mason jars, asking followers whether the glass packaging favored by homesteaders and hipsters alike was “more a peeling.”
At first, I wasn’t terribly interested in adding my voice to the chorus of food-focused academics and journalists pointing out that emperor Whole Foods, like its oranges, has no clothes. Although Whole Foods emphasized that the mandarins were “seasonal” and colorful labels proclaimed that the fruit inside was “fresh” and (inexplicably) “made right here,” it could make no claim that this was local food. But critiquing the practice of shipping mass quantities of oranges, peeled or intact, to a chilly northern climate is the intellectual equivalent of picking the low hanging fruit.
Later, as I considered how to discuss this incident with my Sustainable Food Systems students, I mused on the value of and values behind marketing a peeled orange. Indeed, I was ready to point to Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer, that poetic icon of the food movement, who would have no trouble decrying these unsustainable oranges as the everyday evidence of a world driven crazy by dreams of wealth, power, and ease. But, Katie Herzog, writing for Grist, had already ably demonstrated that the naked oranges were obviously emblematic of naked capitalism: “It’s an orange, but an upgraded, 2.0 version that is both more wasteful and, at $6 a pound, a hell of a lot more expensive than the regular kind.” Ditch the peel, pump up the profits.
Then, after the angry orange outrage died down, the softer responses from an oft-marginalized constituency—disability rights advocates—sounded. To those with motor and dexterity limitations, undressed oranges represented more than just a lifestyle brand cashing in on bourgeois excess. Disability studies scholar Kim Sauder bristled at the zealous environmentalists who seemed incapable of appreciating any reason beyond abject laziness that some people might prefer a peeled orange. Speaking from personal experience, she noted:
As a person with limited hand dexterity, I look at this and see an easier way to eat healthy food. I actively avoid eating oranges, not because I dislike them (they are definitely tasty) but because I have so much difficulty peeling them. Any attempt to peel an orange is likely to result in an unappetizing mess because I’ve squeezed the orange to hard while trying to maneuver it for peel removal.
To Sauder, as well as countless sufferers of arthritis and motor impairments, peeled fruit — like the many other varieties of washed and minimally prepped produce that are readily available and typically uncontroversial — represented accessibility not wastefulness. The removal of the peel is just a reasonable accommodation needed to democratize the experience of enjoying an orange.
As a food justice scholar, Sauder’s perspective reignited my interest in #orangegate. In my efforts to police environmental extravagance, had I overlooked the equity dimension of boxed fruit? In my rush to ridicule man’s insistent, ill-advised attempts to out-engineer nature, had I missed an opportunity to protect the needs of a barely visible minority and facilitate access to healthful food? I was chastened — but only briefly. After a moment’s reflection, I remembered that planet versus people is always false dichotomy. Whenever we say that we can care for only one at the expense of the other, we are taking the easy way out. As stewards of the environment, the food we produce from it, and the communities that depend on both, our constant challenge is to find deep, multidimensional solutions. We cannot call the problem solved or label an innovation meritorious until we make sure that the interests of humans and the only planet on which we are able to survive are both fairly advanced. This isn’t always easily done, but there is a trick to finding and staying on the right path. To surface truly sustainable and just solutions, people must seek ways of caring, not ways of capitalizing. If you look for ways to provide care, incidental opportunities to reap reasonable profits may show themselves. But if you merely seek to generate profits, care almost always falls to the wayside.
All of us, including our disabled neighbors, can have our oranges and eat them, too – without involving any plastic. But let’s be honest: Whole Foods did not market peeled citrus fruit to serve the needs of their disabled customers. Removing a mandarin from its natural, biodegradable packaging and placing it in a persistent plastic box was little more than a profiteering way to sell a truly “whole food” as a ridiculous “value-add” for those who don’t like the sensation of orange peel under the fingernails. It was nothing more than a misguided marketing maneuver with the potential to reduce the shelf-life of an otherwise slowly perishable food (thereby promoting food waste), justify a hefty mark-up, and help keep landfills true to their name.
If Whole Foods actually wanted to make oranges – or any other whole food – more accessible, the result would not have been so absurd, high-priced, or resource-intensive. Had Whole Foods asked, How can we care for our our customers with dexterity and motor limitations, perhaps they would have decided to simply offer a free peeling service. Imagine how easy, inviting, and accommodating it would have been if the stores in question hung a sign in the produce section informing shoppers that the staff is available to assist. With a little compassionate creativity, they might have launched a viral “we’ll start your orange” campaign. After all, studies show that peeling a loved one’s orange can strengthen our intimate relationships. It would stand to reason that small but genuine acts of kindness on the part of a grocer would also build customer loyalty and increase sales.
Writing for The Atlantic, Megan Garber did a nice job of reminding readers that this kerfuffle “is not only – indeed, not really – about oranges but about the kind of world we want to build, together.” Garber points out that those little, vulnerable looking mandarins are “yet another instance of something extremely small giving people an excuse to talk about things that are extremely large.” Framed in this way, #orangegate can serve as a catalyst for thinking about how food businesses can genuinely help people lead healthier lives, not merely profit off of their misfortunes and promote the unnecessary consumption of nonrenewable resources. Instead of just elevating absurdity, those awkward little cousins of oranges can remind us of a missed opportunity to build community through food. They just might refresh and inspire us to look out for each other and our shared environmental interests.