MyEdmondsNews urban gardening columnist Lara Alexander offers her thoughts on the true cost of the food purchases we make.
I was in the check-out line of a name-brand grocery store last year when I overheard the woman in front of me talking with the clerk about the newly opened PCC Natural MarketÂ in Edmonds.
“Have you been there yet?” asked the clerk.
“I can’t shop there,” the woman said. “Itâ€™s sooo expensive!”
I wanted to chime in but thought better of it. I, for one, was very happy to have the organic-grocery co-op open up in Snohomish County. Besides regular trips to the Lynnwood Trader Joeâ€™s, I usually waited until I happened to be in Seattle to do my grocery shopping. Besides little Manna Mills in Mountlake Terrace, the north end did not have much to offer for shoppers looking for fresh, local, organic foods.
I try to prioritize how I spend my grocery money, using the same basic principle as Urban Homesteader Jules Dervaes.
If not from backyard, then locally produced
If not locally produced, then organic
If not organic, then family farm
Last summer, I read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and was motivated to research some of my food-buying habits.Â I learned some very interesting things, especially about animal products,Â that have helped me to be sure that myÂ food dollars are well spent.Â Here is a link to the blog post that I wrote about it.
If I thought the woman in the check-out line would have appreciated my point of view, I would have told her that PCC is not necessarily more expensive than other grocery stores, if you make a fair comparison.
A couple of years ago, the Seattle P-I ran a story comparing the cost of purchasing a particular grocery list at a range of different stores. PCC topped the list for price, by more than $100!Â But then I saw how they did their comparison:
“Each team had an identical list of products — such as a 1-pound bag of carrots or a 26-ounce jar of spaghetti sauce — and instructions to note the cheapest price offered.”
The Seattle P-I authors argued that a carrot is a carrot is a carrot, no matter how, or where, it was grown. I think it is safe to say that most environmentally and socially conscious shoppersÂ would disagree with the assertion that any jar of spaghetti sauce, or carrot,Â is “identical” to any other. In fact, one of the shoppers in the study called one discount store “the place that food goes to die.”
How useful is a price comparison betweenÂ a wilted carrot at a discount store and a fresh, organically-grown carrot from a local farm? I don’t think a headline that screamed, “Brown shoes cost more at Nordstrom than Payless!” would stop the presses.
Reading the Seattle P-I article, I began to wonder how a price comparison would look if equal items were being compared. I wrote out a 17-item shopping list to use for my comparison, including milk, eggs, meat, produce and dry goods. My list included items that I commonly buy, with a focus on local and organic foods. Conventional (non-organic) items made it onto the list too, if they were not included in the “Dirty Dozenâ€ (produce with the highest concentrations of pesticide residue.)
To conduct my price comparison, IÂ surveyed prices at four stores: PCC, Trader Joes, QFC, and Fred Meyer. If an item was on sale, I priced it at the sale price. If an exact item was not available, the closest item was priced instead (conventional broccoli was not sold at PCC, and organic was substituted; Trader Joeâ€™s and QFC did not sell local organic milk, so a national brand of organic milk was substituted).
– The total for QFC was $76.70, including “member” sale prices, but no local milk, free- range eggs orÂ organic meat was available. Most of the produce lacked origin labeling.
– Trader Joes was $71.50, but vegetables had to be purchased pre-packaged, and no local milk or organicÂ meat was available. Local items were not readily available.
– Fred Meyer offered the best deal at $57.10, but didn’t carry organic meats and most produce was not local.
– The total for PCC was $78.60, or $70.74 if I had used my monthly 10-percent-off member coupon
The most interesting thing that I found in comparing all four stores was the price of meat. Only PCC offered organic beef, or specified clearly where the meat was produced. In addition to certified organic Eel River beef, PCC also carries pasture fedÂ Country Natural beef, which is West coast cooperative that has been endorsed by animal welfare expert Dr. Temple Grandin.Â The organic chuck roast sold for $7.59 per pound, and the County Natural beef sold for $4.69,Â which was only 20 cents more per pound than the conventional beef sold at QFC and Fred Meyer, and cheaper than the beef sold at Trader Joeâ€™s.
For shoppers who prefer locally grown food, PCC has clear labeling on the origins of their products. Considering that much of the benefit of organic foods is lost in a plume of exhaust if it is shipped half way across the country to get here, clear origin labeling it is important if you want to know where your food was grown and raised. Most of QFC’s produce lacked any origin labeling at all.
Here is another point to keep in mind when choosing where to shop for groceries. In marketing and price-setting, retailers and shoppers take cues from each other. It is expensive for me to be an “organic shopper” at a conventional store, because my shopping habits signal to QFC that I am willing to buy “luxury” items and won’t notice, or care about, the price. But I don’t consider my local eggs to be a luxury item. And neither does PCC; they consider it a staple, like I do.
Just as retailers take cues from the buying patterns of shoppers, retailers send cues to shoppers through their pricing patterns. Pricing staple items at very low prices is called â€œprice signaling.â€ Grocery stores use these low-priced staple items as signals to the consumer that all items in the store are competitively priced, even if they are not. Once you are in the store to buy the sale-priced block of cheese and gallon of orange juice, they hope that you will fill your cart with prominently displayed, less- competitively priced items.
This is why I always buy orange juice and Tillamook cheese at brand-name grocery stores: they are always on sale, because they are staple items used for price signaling. And I buy my local eggs and organic apples at PCC, because PCC won’t considerÂ my grocery staples to beÂ a signal to bury me under high price margins.