Whole Foods Doesn’t Have to Mean Whole Paycheck

I am a regular face at my local Whole Foods Market, and my wife and I shop at the Rookwood store in Cincinnati every week. Although we used to get our proteins and some produce from Findlay Market – before it started to become unmanageable on the weekends – we have been getting all of our groceries from WF for about a year.

While the prices can indeed be steep for certain items – such as essential oils, snacks and kids food – we have never struggled to stay within our grocery budget. To be more precise, we set aside $170 a week for groceries, which makes all of our food for the week except two lunches and one dinner out. Including breakfast, that means we average around $4.70 per serving for the groceries we buy at WF. Additionally, this grocery budget includes non-foods items as well, such as soap, toothpaste, aluminum foil, etcetera.

Now, tell me that’s not a great deal? After all, we’re shopping at the highest-priced national grocery retailer for less than the price of fast food.

I think it’s important to begin by explaining that we shop at WF because we want to buy quality ingredients. We care about sustainability and organic agriculture, and while WF carries plenty of products that aren’t perfect, overall their food quality is hard to beat. We also don’t have to constantly check labels like we once did at Kroger, trying to avoid MSG and GMOs. Finally, we like the convenience of being able to get all of our groceries in one place, and it’s nice to see so many local products being sold at WF that we once thought could only be found at Findlay Market.

That being said, I’m not endorsing WF per se. Rather, I am advocating for conscientious grocery shopping. Buy local, buy organic and buy fresh – that is what’s most important. For us, WF serves this purpose great, but there are plenty of other amazing stores out there. EarthFare, for instance, in the NC and TN mountains is another exceptional grocery chain.

Coming back to the title, I have heard so much over the past year about WF’s moniker, “Whole Paycheck.” In the media, it seems directed specifically at unusual and outrageously expensive items like asparagus water. However, when used outside of print, I detect in the vitriol an underlying resentment towards organic (read high-priced) food in general. While price-gouged extravagancies certainly need to be avoided, I think it’s high time our culture reconsiders how much food really costs.

The Real Cost of Food

Here’s an example to illustrate my point. My wife’s grandfather raised and sold Angus beef. His cattle were prime quality: they roamed the pasture eating grass, they were never given hormones or steroids and they weren’t slaughtered till they were at least two years old. That’s two years of investment for one cow. Although he had a couple of hundred head of cattle and although he was selling them at comparably high prices, it was far from being a lucrative business. If he was struggling to make a living on prime beef, sold exclusively to pricier grocery stores like Harris Teeter, imagine what it’s like for the typical farmer.

On the other side of the coin lie those farmers that take shortcuts. In my hometown, chicken farming was big business. For the most part, farmers raised and sold chickens to Tyson, which had a processing plant in town. Since their livelihoods depended on it, these farmers did everything they could to increase their profits. Without going into the gory details, suffice it to say that they treated the chickens inhumanely, pumping them full of steroids and growth hormones, leaving them in perpetual daylight and selling them off at around five weeks old. In this scheme, while Tyson earns the largest share of the revenue, these farmers get by and are able to support their families.

While these two examples focus on the meat industry, the same proves true for produce. After all, it takes months for tomatoes to ripen and a year for an apple to grow, so these farmers too struggle against nature to make a living wage.

In order for things to change, we need to pay attention to the farmers. If we go into the grocery store expecting to buy chicken breasts for a dollar or a liter of apple juice for four bucks, we are perpetuating a system of mass-produced food that is unsustainable for the suppliers. To fix this problem, we have to accept that creating a food culture that once again values quality meat and produce, begins with ensuring that the farmers can earn a living.

Let’s be honest, no farmers partner with Monsanto to grow GMO corn because they want to see biodiversity disappear. They want to be able to put food on the table, help pay for their kids to go to college and not default on their mortgages. If they could earn a substantive wage and not merely a pittance – which is more than worth it considering the hard labor that goes into being a farmer – then I’m sure most would relish the opportunity to grow products that are better for the environment and healthier for the consumer.

By paying higher prices at the grocery store, especially at retailers like WF that do much better than most at making sure their producers (and employees) receive adequate compensation, consumers are helping to ensure that the algebra of food capital is being balanced more evenly between the suppliers and the buyers.

How To Hack Whole Foods

Once we learn to accept this, we must stop seeing realistically priced food as a burden. Instead, consumers need to be smarter about the way they shop. When someone shops at a store where groceries are priced affordably for the farmers, it means that prices on pre-packaged or inessential items like chips or candies will seem outrageous compared to similar products at Walmart or Kroger. And indeed they are. These items are luxuries, and as such they come with an equivalent price tag. However, one can easily avoid these items.

More importantly, though, consumers need to cut out the middleman. Prepared foods cost most because someone else had to cook them and package them. Therefore, if people buy the same ingredients and cook the food themselves, they will see substantial savings.

While the list below provides only general guidelines, it nevertheless makes a great way for shoppers to begin reevaluating their buying habits.

Make a Grocery List

Determining what and how much you need for the week will help you avoid buying unnecessary items. It is also a great idea for ensuring that you get all of the ingredients you need so you don’t have to make multiple trips to the market.

Buy Fresh Seasonal Produce

When produce is in season, it is usually priced much more affordably and is often on sale. On the whole, seasonal produce means it comes from local producers. This cuts on transportation costs, puts money back into the local economy and supports diverse agriculture.

Buy Canned or Frozen Out-of-Season Produce

If produce isn’t in season, opt for frozen or canned alternatives. These products last, so transportation and storage costs are low. My wife and I prefer canned products because WF uses BPA free lining and the aluminum can be recycled. However, freezing foods can often lock in nutrients and make certain vegetables, like broccoli, healthier.

Try Different Cuts of Meat

Choice cuts, like rib-eye steaks, rack of lamb or boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cost more because of their popularity. Therefore, going for less popular options – lamb neck, pork shoulder, chicken thighs – can make for significant savings.

Always Use the Bulk Bins

Buying from bulk bins saves money because it cuts down on packaging and storage costs. Also, it allows you to buy only what you need. Spices are especially cheap when bought in bulk. If you need an uncommon spice for a dish – like cloves for a roast ham – you can get just the right amount in bulk for a few cents versus getting a whole jar for ten dollars.

Don’t be Scared of Premade Sauces

Sometimes, going with premade items does save money. Especially for foods you aren’t familiar with or when you need sauces that are both time-consuming and expensive to make in small batches, don’t hesitate to go for what’s already made. We usually do this with curries and mole sauce.

Trial and Error

Finally, remember that what works for one person may not be the best fit for you. When you start budgeting and making a grocery list, it becomes much easier to look at your receipt and determine where you could save money. Be open to change, and make sure your choices are exactly what you need.

Consumer Power

Although this isn’t a comprehensive list of money-saving advice for navigating a pricier grocery store, it is a great start. More of us need to invest in sustainable agriculture for the well-being of our world and our bodies, and since not everyone can afford to shop at WF like they can at a Kroger, we need to start shopping smarter.

In a culture where people invest so much money in technology, shopping around for different plans and never hesitating to get top-quality items, I don’t think we lack the skills necessary to put our consumer power to work to make the food industry a better place.

I strongly object to the gentrification of food and the absurd costs that attend trendy items, but I nevertheless think we as a culture need to stop resisting the necessity of paying higher, more sustainable prices for general foodstuffs. Instead of writing off stores like Whole Foods by joking that they cost the whole paycheck, we should embrace a food economy that pays farmers well, be smarter and not just cheaper about the way we shop and never stop pushing for environmentally sound agricultural practices.


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