The OB People’s Food Co-op Story – Part 2 of 4

by on October 5, 2009 · 9 comments

in Economy, Health, Labor, Ocean Beach, San Diego

Peoples Coop 001-ed-sm

The Pricing of Food

The first article in the OB Rag series on our local food co-operative generated two common threads in the comments posted by readers, which I’ve opted to summarize as:

  1. A perception that the mostly organic and vegetarian practices of the Co-op make shopping at the store more expensive than conventional stores.
  2. A perception that the store is elitist; re-enforced, perhaps, by the overly defensive positions taken by its advocates.

I’ll address part of the first perception in this post: the prices we pay for groceries locally. This got to be such a long post that I’m gonna publish two more parts, one dealing with the economics of groceries and another addressing the second perception that was expressed on these pages. And I’ll share some insights on the scope of the real challenges faced by consumers as they perform that most elemental task of self-preservation: feeding themselves and their loved ones.

First, let’s start off with a little transparency on my part. As many of my previous posts will attest, I’m aware and supportive of many of the underlying principles and practices that are at the core of the OB Peoples Co-op existence. I buy organic food whenever practical. I believe that sourcing locally makes sense as both an ecological and economic practice. And I think that cooperatives and other micro-market solutions are necessary steps towards breaking the stranglehold that the so-called “free-market” economy has imposed on our society.

I’ve also spent three decades working in the foodservice industry. Much of that time involved working on the purchasing side of the business. I owned a boutique restaurant that focused on direct farm-to-consumer relationships and have worked for a multi-million dollar Caribbean resort restaurant operation that sourced its food from around the planet. I helped start a very successful farmers market and even worked as a sales rep for one of the first farm operations in the country that opted to start selling its products outside the corporate food distribution chain. Having said all that, I’m not a co-op member. (We’ll get to more about that later this week)

organic-food-2

As part of my research for this story, I decided that I’d create an imaginary dinner menu for a few of my friends that I’d being having over for an imaginary get-together. It’s nothing complicated: A spaghetti dinner, with salad, bread and ice cream topped with strawberries for dessert. The meal was to be as organic as possible & vegetarian, of course.

I put together a shopping list for that menu, along with a couple of other items that I might need for my pantry. I visited five stores and calculated the costs of that shopping list, which included:

  • A bag of pre-washed assorted baby salad greens
  • Two pounds of ripe tomatoes (not gas-ripened, nor heirloom)
  • Two choices of salad dressings (Annies or Newman’s)
  • A good loaf of bread (Country Levan or equivalent)
  • Grated Parmesan cheese (4 ounces)
  • A yellow onion
  • A head of garlic
  • A red bell pepper
  • A jar (25 oz) of marinara sauce
  • One pound of spaghetti
  • A bottle (16 oz) of extra virgin first pressed olive oil
  • A 48 oz container of vanilla ice cream
  • A pint of strawberries
  • One pound of French roast coffee, whole bean.

The stores that I visited were: The OB Peoples Food Co-op, Apple Tree, Stumps, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s. Often items were not packaged in exactly the same sizes at different stores, so I broke down the costs on each item to their lowest common denominator (usually ounces) and recalculated the prices so that they would match the sizes sold at Peoples. Also, where organic item weren’t available, I calculated the price using a better quality non-organic item. (Interestingly enough, “non-organic” only happened on a few items.) I’m going to skip the item by item prices here and just give the total cost of the shopping list—I have another comparison shopping list that was done by Amber at the Co-op that I’ll share with you below. Here’s what the bills came to:

  • OB Peoples $52.24
  • Apple Tree $55.48
  • Stumps $57.13
  • Whole Foods $56.31
  • Trader Joe’s $48.90

Here’s the comparison shopping list excerpted from the October OB People’s Co-op Newsletter:

Recently we went shopping at one of San Diego’s big chain grocers to compare the price of their commercial (also known as conventional) produce to the certified organic produce that we offer at People’s.

While we weren’t surprised that the prices at People’s Co-op—San Diego’s only community-owned grocery store—were lower, we did ponder why a grocery store with such large buying power would charge more for food, especially when the items that we priced weren’t organic.

We think “Ingredients for Life” should be foods that aren’t sprayed and doused with pesticides, often so toxic that they’ve been banned in other countries. We also think that food should be affordable, and that’s why we do business as a cooperative; a store that’s owned by the folks who shop here. We thought you might enjoy seeing some of the everyday low prices (and that means “savings”) that you enjoy when you shop Co-op. All items are by the pound unless specified otherwise.

O.B. People’s Organic Food Co-op

  • Romaine Lettuce, organic $1.59 each
  • Red Leaf Lettuce, organic $1.59 each
  • Tomatoes, organic $1.69
  • Carrots, organic 95¢
  • Baby Carrots, organic & bagged $1.45
  • Yellow Onion, organic 79¢
  • White Onion, organic $1.09
  • Russet Potatoes, organic $1.09
  • Zucchini, organic $1.25
  • Broccoli Crowns, organic $1.69
  • Red Beets bunch, organic $1.75
  • Green Cabbage 89¢
  • Yams $1.59
  • Kombocha Squash $1.39

The Other Grocery Store

  • Romaine Lettuce $1.79 each
  • Red Leaf Lettuce $1.79 each
  • Tomatoes $2.99
  • Carrots 99¢
  • Baby Carrots bagged $2.49
  • Yellow Onion 99¢
  • White Onion $1.49
  • Russet Potatoes $1.29
  • Zucchini $1.29
  • Broccoli Crowns $1.99
  • Red Beets bunch $2.49
  • Green Cabbage 99¢
  • Yams $1.79
  • Kombocha Squash $1.69

After doing the math on our shopping list and comparing People’s organic produce against the other grocery store’s non-organic produce, we walked away with a monetary savings of $5.26.

In Conclusion:

Both shopping lists should show that the People’s Co-op is indeed doing a good job of being competitive. What they don’t show are the prices of many processed and luxury items that tend to appear in grocery stores. Impulse and convenience shopping at a place like Whole Foods—or the Co-op—can quickly inflate your total grocery bill. And I didn’t compare the prices of many “store brand” non-organic foods; that a whole other discussion that we’ll get to.

Given that this post is getting long, we’ll be publishing two more articles in this series over the coming days. The next segment will deal with the REAL cost of groceries that you buy in chain stores. It makes what our local food co-op is doing in terms of pricing look pretty amazing. (You know that steak you bought at WalMart? It’s REAL cost is on the order of $815 a pound. And no, that’s not a typo: Eight Hundred Fifteen friggin’ dollars a POUND!)

The final post will deal with the politics of the “foodie” movement, the various perceptions of the Co-op and how it relates or doesn’t relate to the larger struggles that are going on in the world.

See the other articles in this series:
Part 1, Part 3, Part 4

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar annagrace October 5, 2009 at 10:18 pm

An eye opener Doug. Thanks!

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avatar lane tobias October 6, 2009 at 9:34 am

well done doug. its obvious you are putting in quite a lot of time and thought, and the results are great. Maybe my idea of expensive is just plain wrong. Luckily I don’t shop at Whole Foods or Stumps anyway…..

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avatar r hoobler October 6, 2009 at 9:39 am

i can put together a spaghetti dinner for less than $20 at the local 7-11. chef boyardee ain’t so bad, especially if you’re missing a few teeth.

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avatar Dave Gilbert October 6, 2009 at 10:39 am

That’s also interesting what you wrote about Wal-Mart, Doug. While I don’t eat red meat, I still can’t stand that unholy chain of stores and how they’ve obliterated so many Ma & Pa stores and the lives involved.

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avatar PSD October 6, 2009 at 9:50 pm

“I didn’t compare the prices of many “store brand” non-organic foods; that a whole other discussion that we’ll get to.”

I’m sure you do indeed plan to address this later Doug, so I won’t get too deep into it here. But, sacrificing organic everything and going to one of the big corporate chains could obviously come near cutting the bill in half. If you’re committed to organics, no doubt People’s is very competitive price-wise and dominant in the realm of quality and selection…and I’ve got to add I’m surprised you could get the job done at all organically at Appletree.

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avatar PSD October 8, 2009 at 10:48 pm

Did the math via the online Safeway (Vons) calculator – $37, which is $15 (or 29%) cheaper if you’re willing to forego all-organics. Not nearly the 50% I claimed via the ‘pull-a-number-out-of-my-ass’ method, but probably enough to veer those with a limited food budget away.

Might I insinuate that factory farm subsidies encourage Americans to consume inferior quality foodstuffs in that the recipients of such welfare are able to offer lower-cost fare to the masses only because they’re on the dole and that local-centric, small-crop organic farmers have to charge more just to survive and thus drive away customers who’d otherwise make the healthier and more ecologically sound choice if the pricing playing field was equal? Naaah…that’d be way too nasty of a run-on sentence for anyone to comprehend…

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avatar doug porter October 9, 2009 at 7:57 am

as demand for organics has risen over the past decade, comparative prices with non-organic food items have dropped. still, organics are more expensive because you are paying some of the social cost up front. if you eliminated all the advantages agribusiness gets via subsidies, tax breaks and the cost to our environment and collective health organics are way cheaper. that said, sustainable agriculture only represents about 4% of the total market.

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avatar PSD October 9, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Kill subsidies and I think you’ll find that the reduced cost of bringing the product to market from local sources would offset any economies of scale agribusiness enjoys, thus eliminating the cost debate right there. Then you argue the health benefits of organic produce and the environmental benefits of not having to ship food thousands of miles, and organic local farms win the fight hands-down.

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avatar PSD October 9, 2009 at 9:06 pm

However, for the time being the burden lies on those who can afford the extra cost right now to continue making as many socially conscious purchases as feasible in order to increase demand to the point that the local model appears viable. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not playing as much of a part in that as I could…

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