Recently a debate arose amongst our online community over the pricing strategies and employee turnover at our local co-op as compared to chain supermarkets, in particular Trader Joe’s. There is some question from the community as to how closely People’s co-op is sticking to its founding principles and mission of bringing high quality, healthy food to the OB community at a reasonable price. While that is definitely something that should be of concern to all of us, one thing that cannot be denied about member-owned cooperative food markets is that they represent a stark contrast from supermarket chains in the relationship between people and food.
How that relationship will be affected as co-ops evolve and grow seems to be where the greatest challenge will be, and is probably why many people who were present at the beginning of the revolutionary cooperative food movement feel as if maybe it has turned into something unfamiliar – a victim of its own success, so to speak.
It is generally agreed upon by human rights advocates that access to healthy food is a human right, particularly as new studies have been able to link malnutrition in children to many of the developmental trends prevalent in impoverished communities. Due to lower income levels, profit-driven supermarket chains tend to avoid inner-city or vast rural communities, giving residents who live there limited access to healthy, affordable food. Authors, activists, community organizations, and hunger experts who have studied these trends have come to the conclusion that many of these communities are essentially “food deserts”.
When it comes to food, low-income urban and rural communities tend to be limited by their low-income to a few other lows as well: low quality, low cost, and low nutritional values. A number of markets have popped up in urban areas that target low-income folks by offering affordable prices – but can only do so by offering lower quality foods and products (here is an article examining this dilemma in Central Harlem, New York City).
With all that in mind, it is good to know that there are people working to change that. Grassroots organizations in cities across the country have been developing creative ways to raise food standards in urban communities, increase access to healthy and affordable food, and demand fair pricing strategies that meet the needs of their communities. None of this would be necessary, obviously, if basic food needs were not attached to a capitalist industry.
The non-profit, co-op model is not only a safe and reliable food source for the community it serves, but also supports people living in food deserts by not contributing to the growth of chains that ignore the basic food needs of poor people.
Unfortunately if you happen to be a loyal customer of Trader Joe’s, you are unknowingly contributing to this cycle. Trader Joe’s is owned by the same German company that owns ALDI discount stores, a chain that operates on the same basic principles as Wal-Mart – that is, cut out the middle and use only a select group of manufacturers that are willing to meet corporate price demands. ALDI operates stores in most of the United States as well as all over Europe, and has gone ahead with planned expansions even during the depressed economy.
So how do they do it? Well, simply put, they simplify. Use only one company to provide a certain item, present only that one option for that specific product to the consumer, and market it as an ALDI brand item. By doing this, ALDI is able to sell these items for basement prices. The economic ramifications of this type of strategy is well known due to the impact of Wal-Mart’s growth on American small businesses, but the actual product quality varies dramatically – sometimes from week to week.
Products are manufactured by companies all over but the item is labeled as an ALDI product. There is no real way to know how a product was made, what kind of condition the production facilities are in, and in the produce section, where the fruits and vegetables were grown. It is as no-frills as it gets at ALDI, and if you look closely, many of those practices are mirrored at Trader Joe’s.
In a co-op or collective environment where profit is NOT the main objective, the barrier between producer and consumer is eliminated, making available all the information we need to make educated decisions about our food. For example, some brands or produce grown at organic “mega farms” carried at People’s (such as Muir Glen and Cascadian Farms, which were once small, family owned companies that have since been bought by corporate giant General Mills) have business principles that educated consumers may be turned off by. But I KNOW that, because I can look into it and research it myself. At a place like ALDI (and Trader Joe’s) that information is kept a secret – forcing consumers to trust that products hand selected by a corporation relying on volume sales are safe and healthy. This makes it impossible for customers to make educated, healthy food decisions that a more transparent business model would allow. That is not to say that the product quality is low at Trader Joe’s – but there is definitely a misrepresentation in the marketing of these products as Trader Joe’s brand and not as products manufactured by individual brands.
What I find to be the strangest thing about Trader Joe’s is the low quality of produce in the San Diego stores, particularly the produce that is pre-packaged in plastic. This prevents the instinctive shopping practice of checking fruits and vegetables for rot. When a corporate entity can dictate price levels to farmers and manufacturers while promising high volume purchases in return, quality and freshness will inevitably suffer. Again, the economic repurcussions of that business model on local economies has been typified by Wal-Mart. Even chains like Vons and Ralph’s understand the importance of local produce. Because of ALDI’s inevitable influence Trader Joe’s will continue to offer lower prices, while the competition will be offering folks familiar regional products.
Two more stingers for TJ fans: Greenpeace just ranked Trader Joe’s lower than Target and Wal-Mart in regards to seafood sustainability practices and the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center has found that one of Trader Joe’s supply chains for shrimp uses child and slave labor. The friendly image that Trader Joe’s portrays of a safe, healthy alternative to organic markets is a very successful marketing ploy.
The point of this long, barrage of criticism launched at Trader Joe’s is not meant to point the finger solely at them. There are many other companies who have far lower moral standards and play a bigger role in the cycle of hunger and poverty. Instead, this was meant as a way to present an evidential defense of grassroots food sources over the status quo. This article shows how food sources and supermarket chains interested solely in volume sales can have a destructive impact on local economies – and contribute to hunger in low-income communities.
Small local chains like Stump’s and Baron’s are much healthier businesses for San Diego than a Trader Joe’s or a Vons because they do not anticipate operating hundreds of stores; instead they serve local people and cater to a smaller target group, meeting our community food needs and not focusing solely on large scale profit margin.
The only way we are going to end domestic and global hunger is to approach food not as a privilege, but as a right. It starts by making educated, ethical decisions about the food we eat and where it comes from. It may cost a few dollars extra to be more thoughtful when buying food, but in the long run it will benefit everyone by strengthening the local economy and empowering communities to make practical decisions about food.