When Price is Not the Issue

The main reason I eat what I eat has very little to do with “health” or trying to eat “good” foods.

I am a cheap-ass skinflint.

I grew up in genteel poverty in the 1970s, the kind where our family’s (really, our parents’) self-conception was that we were solidly middle class white collar professionals (or, Dad was and Mom was a housewife, something she loathed with every fiber of her Mills College educated body) and we weren’t poor. Our shopping habits begged to differ with our social aspirations. My clothes came from the Salvation Army and the sales rack at Sears. We kids got one pair of shoes for school each year, and that had to last from late August until late May. By the end of the school year I would put cardboard in them to protect against the holes in the soles. Adlai Stevenson had nothing on me. We bought food at “Prairie Market,” a cut-rate bargain basement store a bare level above a dollar store. We never had butter or liquid milk in the house, just margarine and instant powdered dry milk. If we were given a treat of soda pop, it was Shasta brand, never Coke or Pepsi. There were no “nice” brands in our house. We ate a lot of very questionable hamburger. We ate a lot of canned stuff. Mom hoarded food.

She also made the best macaroni and cheese I’ve ever had and to this day I can’t figure out how to reproduce her recipe. When she wasn’t brought low by her arthritis, her psoriasis, and/or her incapacitating and untreated depression, my mother was an awesome cook. She could make spinach taste good without use of heavy sauces, just some vinegar. Her baking was fantastic – I did get her blueberry buckle recipe. Ever heard of tomato soup cake? I grew up with that, and requested it for my birthday every year. True, she also made lime and cream cheese jello salad for all major holidays, but I was the only person in the family not to enjoy that “delicacy.” I can still taste her tuna casserole just by thinking about it.

What I mostly learned by standing at the stove when Mom was in a good mental and physical place was how to make things without wasting a drop. No bacon drippings ever went down a sink drain. The last bit of margarine from the tub was scraped into the next container. The tiny bits of ends of cheese were used in the scrumptious mac-n-cheese. Oil from cans of tuna greased the pan to brown the onions. Moldy bread crusts were pared away and the slices toasted. If something dropped on the floor, wash it off and keep going. Waste not, want, well, not so much.

I also learned how to be an ace bargain shopper. From when I was 5, Mom would pull out the grocery shoppers and the envelope of coupons, and talk to me about where to get what for the best price. By the time I was 10, I could figure it out for myself and alert her to deals. I learned practical math by knowing how to convert “price per unit” into “price per ounce” and see if 3 for .25 cents really was better than 2 for .15 – the two had bigger cans and so cost less per ounce. Bingo!

Shopping lists, sales flyers, store coupons, not being too picky about brand names. This was the shape of my culinary childhood. Whatever was made for dinner, you didn’t have to eat it, but you also did not get to eat anything else, not even a peanut butter sandwich. You went hungry and the next time you weren’t such a picky little shit.

So, when I went off to grad school and then into early married life, I had little money and a lot of background in how to make that money go a long way. I wasn’t picky, but I also knew how to make stuff that was edible and would keep you filled up. Meat was not on the menu very much, legumes were, and grains made things stretch.

Fast forward twenty-five years. We are white collar professionals in IT and very much middle class. We can afford to eat out a lot, but we don’t. We can afford to spend a lot on food, but we don’t. There is more meat, especially in the summer grilling season, but we have meatless meals several times per week and honestly enjoy tofu. And there’s no way in hell that I’ll spend more money than necessary to put food on my family. My vegetables mostly come from a local chain, North Park Produce, that peddles second tier (and really varied and interesting) produce. It may or may not be organic, but it’s decently priced (Chinese eggplant for .99/pound anyone?) and a great place to find odd stuff since it caters to expatriate populations from the middle-east, East Africa the Balkans and south Asia. I also get almost all of my legumes and grains here.  If they don’t have it, then I have my step-ups: first Sprouts, then Trader Joe’s, then Ralphs/Albertsons. Condiments come from North Park, Trader’s, 99 Ranch, and Bombay Bazaar for the most part. Very once in a while, I’ll drop by Fresh & Easy for an advertised special. Meat is usually Costco, in bulk, to be split up and frozen. Certain staple items I get there, as well: Coffee, butter, tuna, tortillas, rice, sandwich rolls, Diet Coke.

To know what I spend, what I spend it on and to track food pricing trends, I’ve been keeping a database of all my food purchases since late 2010. It’s interesting and will get more airtime in the blog.

All of this came to mind when I read a relatively recent article about Whole Foods in Quartz, “Whole Foods thinks it’s too expensive,” which brought home to me how weird I am when compared to the rest of my social class.  The article is short; you should read it for yourself, and you especially need to see the main article image. It opens with a Reuters photo of organic produce delightfully arranged on a store shelf, every item placed just so and with the prices tastefully displayed up above the produce display and not in the same order as the vegetables. The haphazard nature of the labeling demonstrates that the store (and it’s not entirely clear that the store pictured is Whole Foods, by the way) doesn’t believe the shopper is going to bother to look at the prices. The shopper will simply select the item that she finds most delightful and aesthetically pleasing. Little of it is bagged (which would indicate factory packing) and all of it is very good quality, indicating some serious sorting and culling to be rid of the usual small-and-dinged nature of organically grown produce. Mind you, small and dinged doesn’t mean bad tasting (most of my seconds produce falls squarely in this camp); it just means you’re going to have a harder time charging top dollar for it.

The article focuses on the business conundrum facing Whole Foods. They are losing market share at a fast clip to competitors who have had the “a-HA!” moment that organic = big bucks, and who are moving in on Whole Foods’ turf. Stores like Sprouts (which started in San Diego as Boney’s, then became Henry’s, then became Sprouts through a series of family deals) are a real challenge as they feel much more “local” (often because they are, but also often because they look run down and slightly grungy, not so slick and corporate) (I call my Sprouts the place people angry and resentful that they can’t afford Whole Foods go shopping) and because they have slightly less pristine offerings for substantially less money.

Whole Foods has countered by dropping its own prices in some cases. This is totally doable because so much of their food is identical to what you can find in Trader Joe’s or Ralphs. Their 365 peanut butter is literally produced in the same factory on the same production like as the peanut butter at Trader’s, you know, the one that was caught up in the Salmonella recall? Yeah, that one. So, given that their peanut butter may be twice the price of the competition, they can cut the price and still make more profit. The article quotes Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey that they will be aggressively dropping prices as well as innovating and differentiating.

The problem here is summed up in a study done by Piper Jaffray about shoppers’ priorities when choosing where to shop. According to their surveys, Whole Foods shoppers aren’t motivated by price, unlike the majority of the rest of grocery shoppers. They want “Selection/Assortment,” the beautiful, aesthetic mounds of vegetables pictured at the opening of the article. Or, to put it another way, what people are buying at Whole Foods isn’t the food, it’s the experience. They don’t have to worry about the price. They are buying the fantasy of health, clean living and virtue that is the brand of Whole Foods. They buy at Whole Foods so that they can avoid places like Trader Joe’s, and especially places like North Park Produce with it’s women in hijab and packages with labels that aren’t in English.

This is Whole Foods Nation, a psychological place apart. It is a reflection of economic and social stratification more than a place to buy food. It’s where the othering of the poor takers place by pricing them out and valorizing what they cannot approach.  Just as what I buy is not primarily an attempt to be healthy – though I enjoy eating dishes that are made up of ingredients that will put a smile on the face of most nutritionists – the shopping at Whole Foods is not really about physical health. It’s about maintaining the fiction of the virtuous haves who can tsk-tsk the unvirtuous have-nots, the people who occupy the lower links of the economic food chain and aren’t smart enough to stop eating toxic sugar.

My family could have a meal for five from a box of hamburger helper and cheap, barely within pull-date hamburger. Toss in a half a bag of frozen green beans, and we were eating like the experts said we should – a green vegetable, meat, dairy (hey, that was cheese sauce on the cheeseburger macaroni!), and some noodles for starch. Price was the issue then, as it continues to be now for far too many in this country.

Pathologizing the poor does nothing to improve the food they can afford.


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Posted in Economics, Politics

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