The Urban Gardener: Comparing (organic) apples to apples

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Photo by Amber Salinas

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 Market in Edmonds.

“Have you been there yet?” asked the clerk.

“I can’t shop there,” the woman said. “It’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 Joe’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. I learned some very interesting things, especially about animal products, that have helped me to be sure that my food dollars are well spent. 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! 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 shoppers would disagree with the assertion that any jar of spaghetti sauce, or carrot, 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 between 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 Dozen” (produce with the highest concentrations of pesticide residue.)

To conduct my price comparison, I 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 Joe’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 or 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 organic 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 fed Country Natural beef, which is West coast cooperative that has been endorsed by animal welfare expert Dr. Temple Grandin.  The organic chuck roast sold for $7.59 per pound, and the County Natural beef sold for $4.69, 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 Joe’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 “price signaling.” 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 consider my grocery staples to be a signal to bury me under high price margins.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for another in-depth article, Lara. I came to a similar conclusion, that local and organic is actually worth the price difference. Wish you would have included TOP and Petosa’s in your study as well, to stick with the Edmonds theme.

    For “rhswift” – I fully understand your conclusion. It’s important to save money – feeding the family is THE highest priority. But other factors can be brought into play, IF you have the income margin to support it. You get what you pay for, be it for food, or other products.

    It’s like shopping for anything locally – I might be able to go to a giant store in Lynnwood and get a lower price, but I’d rather pay a small bit more to have my money go to a local business, that employs people in my neighborhood. And, then I also drive less. The food is cheap at Fred Meyer because first, it’s industrial food (non-organic), and second, it’s able to shipped thousands of miles cheaply due to cheap oil.

    Consider, if you can afford to, paying a little more for your food, in order to support the principles that you believe in. If you believe in the principle of using less oil – then buy as much as you can from local sources. If you believe in reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides.. and in non-genetically-modified food, then buy organic. At least avoid buying produce flown in from Chile or New Zealand.

    Our everyday choices, no matter how small, make a difference.

    My bottom line – grow as much as I can at home. Buy what I can from farmers directly, and fill out the shopping list from local supermarkets with as much local and organic as I can afford. (Fred Meyer is in Lynnwood… not much help for our little city, so not on my list)

  2. Interesting insight in to the cost of foods. I did a survey a while back between Whole Foods, PCC and Central Market for organic only items – and found PCC cheapest of all three for organic goods.

    Interestingly, I have found prices to be cheaper at local farmers markets, when the certain produce is in relative “high season” (that is, not the first couple of weeks at the market). Sometimes by a surprising amount.

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