We have all heard…or maybe even made the jokes and called it ‘Whole Paycheck’ with a smug snicker.
But when you really think about it, Whole Foods Market changed the way Americans think about natural foods…no, I take that back. They changed the way we think about and shop for food.
When I was young, my mother was one of the original hippies, so to speak. She shopped at ‘health food’ stores, her copy of ‘Prevention’ magazine clutched in her hands. I was raised to be environmentally aware and to pay attention to the quality of food I chose to eat. Obviously, it has paid off in my life.
But as a kid, I dreaded our treks to the health food shop. It was run by long-haired, Birkenstock-wearing men and women who seemed to ignore all rules of grooming and the smells in the store were earthy and pungent and not at all appealing to my young self.
All these years later, I know…and love these same ‘hippies’ ( who turned out to be environmentally aware food and health activists…which I am also proud to be) and I now experience these ‘smells’ as the perfume of naturally dried foods like shiitake mushrooms and dried daikon.
But I am not your typical American food shopper. I have been exposed to this kind of food for many years and to me…it’s my normal.
Which brings me back to Whole Foods Market.
What began as a natural foods supermarket in Austin, Texas has grown into one of the most influential forces in the natural food…no, the food business. The visionary minds behind Whole Foods Market had one goal in mind at its inception: to make natural foods available to mainstream Americans and to remove their trepidation about setting foot in a ‘hippie-dippie’ health food store.
Through a commitment to superior quality foods and incredibly clever marketing savvy, Whole Foods Market has, in a word, changed the way America shops…even if they do not shop in a Whole Foods Market. They made us think about food differently.
Before Whole Foods Market took over our collective consciousness, no supermarket worth its salt would consider natural foods as part of their inventory…and if they did, it was at such a miniscule level as to be non-existent. Who cared? But since Whole Foods Market? I challenge you to walk into any major supermarket chain and not find natural foods, organic produce and locally-sourced items on their shelves.
Organic has become a household word. Locally sourced has become a term we all know and want to embrace. Sustainable is a way of life we all aspire to.
Okay, their influence in the food world made that happen. You get that.
But what about the prices?
Well, a couple of things here. First, you know the old rule? You get what you pay for? It’s true, you know. You can shop at super box stores and super saving giant markets and you will find food…or something that resembles food.
But you will get what you pay for.
Now before you jump to conclusions and call me a food elitist, hear me out.
According to a large government analysis project, eating healthy food doesn’t necessarily cost more than eating junk. That old argument may die out now says Andrea Carlson, an economist and co-author of the report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
The report shows that in fact, carrots, onions, pinto beans, lettuce, mashed potatoes, bananas and orange juice are all less expensive per portion than soda, ice cream, chocolate candy, French fries, sweet rolls and fried chicken patties. The key is the phrase ‘per portion.’ Looking at portion sizes, the price of potato chips is nearly twice the price of carrots.
The report chose more than 4000 foods and ranked their price based on calories, weight and portion size. They categorized the foods so they were comparing similar kinds of ingredients and came to the conclusion that many healthy foods were no more costly than unhealthy foods. They also found that when you look at portion sizes, whole grains, fruit and vegetables were overall lower in cost than overall unhealthy foods.
So how did eating healthy food get the reputation of being expensive and out of reach for most people? A diet based on the government’s guidelines tells us to eat 2 ½ cups of vegetables which is a big portion and that can look more expensive because it’s a lot of food. The government also recommends that the average person consume 2000 calories each day to maintain a healthy weight (less if one is trying to lose weight) so if you look at a portion of potato chips and a portion of broccoli, you will see the problem. On average, a 1-ounce serving of potato chips has 154 calories. To get to 100 calories of broccoli, you would need to eat nearly 2 cups in a serving…and that’s more than most of us would eat.
Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian in New York says, “Many of my clients are surprised to find that their grocery bills don’t go up when they swap processed goods for fresh foods, especially when they buy in-season produce and they’re eating ideal portions.”
She adds that just giving up soda to drink fresh-brewed hot or iced tea, or water with a wedge of in-season citrus fruit can be a huge cost savings, she says. “And many of the healthiest ‘super foods’ in the market are inexpensive, such as beans and brown rice.”
Whole Foods Market has made shopping a sensory pleasure. Walking into most of these well-lit, immaculately clean stores has you surrounded by fresh flowers and produce, the air replete with the perfumes of nature. Well-organized and easy to navigate stores make shopping a pleasure. It’s no accident that the employees of the store are usually smiling, friendly and helpful. It’s no accident that they proudly advertise that the animal products sold in their stores are free of growth hormones and other less than natural ingredients used in most commercial animal food. Is it more expensive? It surely is. But if you are choosing to eat meat, poultry, eggs and dairy, do you want products laced with hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals or do you want the best quality product you can feed your family…and yourself? I’m just sayin.’
In the end, Whole Foods Market has taught the food business a lesson or two about food. Their commitment to the best quality product they can provide has made them the ones to watch. Their commitments to the communities around their stores have made them more than just a place to buy carrots. Their commitment to our collective health has made them an example to follow.