I will confess that I have mixed feelings when it comes to Whole Foods and other stores in that category. As I follow my wife around the store and try to stay mildly entertained by perusing the mountain of products, some of which I struggle to pronounce, I wonder why anyone would pay so much for something that I am sure can be purchased under a less pretentious name for much less elsewhere. I am often guilty of engaging in the now trite joke of “whole paycheck”. Are the cashews, unsalted of course, really that much better at Whole Foods? The bananas? The pasta? Really?
I will admit that I like their prepared food section and their pizza is actually some of the best in the area. Their bakery produces some very delicious items. Of course, despite the fact that you can get tofu items and items made with unrecognizable vegetables and legumes in their prepared food section, there are also many items like the mac and cheese and ribs that are just as fat laden as the nearest barbecue joint. And the bakery uses no less sugar or other unhealthy ingredients, unless you are looking for a gluten-free ( and taste-free) desserts. In that case you might want to take out a loan.
The reason for this random musing on Whole Foods and their ilk is the latest movement among regular grocery stores to start tapping into some of the fresh, healthy, organic market. Geographically I am used to Stop and Shop, Big Y and Shoprite. You can substitute Publix, Albertsons, or whatever chain you frequent. Many of these stores are jumping on the organic bandwagon. And in most cases you can get the items you are looking for cheaper than “Whole Paycheck” ( Sorry. Hard habit to break.)
Recently, Amazon, Walmart and Aldi have begun to embrace the idea of offering fresh and healthy food for less than it can be had at Whole Foods. Aldi is even changing the appearance of its stores make them look a little more understated, peaceful and welcoming. Gone will be the stark shelving and glaring lights.
New Look Aldi
These challenges to Whole Foods, who is portrayed as the bully on the block, are important for more reasons than just the competitive balance they may provide for the challengers. We have a serious issue in our country and in the world with nutritional imbalance. Only those who achieve middle class status or beyond can really afford to eat healthy. Fruits and vegetables are among the most expensive items at the grocery store. And organic fruits and vegetables, or free-range chicken, or grass-fed beef are really only a regular option for upper-middle class families and one percenters.
People who live from paycheck to paycheck do not have these options. They are relegated to cheaper processed foods and frozen foods that contain preservatives and chemicals and literally cause obesity and other food-related illnesses. It is sometimes cheaper for them to eat fast food specials than to shop for healthy options.
Even if people who lived in poverty, and in many urban centers, had an inclination to try to feed their families healthier options, it is made more difficult because many live in what is referred to as “food deserts”. A fully stocked grocery store is not an option for many especially those lacking transportation. They are often forced to purchase food from the local convenience store or bodega. Most of them do not offer healthy options.
There is a food imbalance is this country and it has a ripple effect. Without healthy food options and without regular preventative health care, those who live poverty exacerbate the draw on health resources costing the country a great deal overall. It is not just their problem. It is a problem for us all.
I am not going to pretend that I have a solution to these serious problems from my little corner of the world, but I do recognize that chains like Walmart and Aldi can play an important role in trying to bring the food and nutrition imbalance closer to being in balance which has wider ranging effects than appear on the surface. I applaud them for taking on the “bully on the block” even if the reason is purely increased market share and profits. There is nothing wrong with working hard and making money. I think that making money and being socially responsible can co-exist. There are plenty of examples of that principle already in existence.
It raises the question if affordable health care is a human right, is healthy nutrition also a human right. I understand that this is a very complex question and could cause lengthy argument. Nothing wrong with a little healthy debate. I know that schools meal programs are now designed to ensure balanced and healthy meals. That helps in making inroads to the problem, but it does not solve the whole problem.
Maybe the competition will cause Whole Foods, who prides itself on being socially conscious, to not only worry about free trade and the sustainability of farms, but also who their customers are, where they come from, and if they represent the people with whom they trade and secure their products.