The Illusion of Choice

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When I enter a grocery store now, I’m a bit overwhelmed. So many things take me by surprise—things I never really noticed before. The sheer quantity of items is astounding. There are aisles upon aisles of specialty “foods,” an eclectic array of marketing slogans, celebrity spokespeople, and animated spokes-species, all helping you choose the products you see on television, the radio, print or other forms of media. There is no concept of time here. Shelves are packed with items that have enough preservatives to ensure they last forever. There might be snow outside, yet here strawberries, apples, bananas, grapes, tomatoes, and countless other foods are in abundance. There is no concept of place here. Ripe citrus is available, even though an orange tree would never prosper in the New England climate.

As I walked to the checkout counter I began to tense up. There were the magazines of exaggerated photos and headlines, illuminating exaggerated lives, trying to convince me that I should be less like me and more like them.

As I waited to pay for my bag of yerba matè, I scanned the carts of other’s standing in line. An elderly woman had unpacked soda, chips, hot dogs, ice cream, frozen peas, and microwave dinners. A mother and her child were unpacking cookies, soda, canned fruits, and energy drinks. I began to feel sad and agitated. Then I realized what was bothering me: this place only has the illusion of choice. It’s not real choice. So many of the food items contain either corn or soy, because of subsidies cashed in long ago by the corporate farms and laboratories responsible for the cumbersome ingredient list on the back of nearly everything here. The plastic-wrapped meats are the parts and bits of animals that led a sickly and confined life on a concentrated animal feed lot. The “healthy” items on the end aisles, usually where the fruits and vegetables reside, aren’t from here—not even close. Most have been shipped from California, Washington, Arizona, and as far away as Argentina. The artificially low prices, again aided by subsidies, force us to make the choice that we can most afford, and unfortunately these are the items that least resemble real food.

As consumers, in the Industrial food system, we're consistently herded towards complicity in decisions that demean worker's rights, destroy our environment, brutalize animals and contribute to epidemic levels of non communicable diseases like obesity, hypertension and diabetes.  

Nothing about these foods connects us to the place we live. In fact, they hide the reality of the small family farmer growing these same items and selling them for a livable wage at the weekly farmer’s market down the road. Here there is no real differentiation. No real taste. Our purchases are meant to be influenced by which marketing pitch was most effective; which jingle stuck inside our head the longest and followed us all the way up until this moment; which image we associate most with ourselves, our family, our friends.

I left the grocery store wondering what the cumulative effect of this place is on a population. I’m not sure I will ever know.

This article originally appeared on It is re-posted here with permission of the author.

THE WRITER: Adam Williams is a native of Brunswick, Maine and holds a degree in Environmental Studies from Sonoma State University. With over 5 years of experience working with youth and adolescents in Wilderness settings in Maine, California, Arizona and Utah, Adam has sought to increase an awareness and appreciation of the natural world and its inextricable link to human wellness. (from

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