Eco Shopping: A Matter of Class

Why do they put your groceries in ten flimsy plastic bags when they would fit in three? Annoyed, I watch the tired Safeway cashier stick a loaf of bread in one bag, a quart of milk in another, a couple of oranges and some bananas in a third. Doesn’t he care about all the plastic that goes to waste? It takes 1,000 years for a regular plastic bag to break down in a landfill.

wfm_organic_today_s_18671It’s a completely different story at Whole Foods, which famously banned plastic bags earlier this year. There, they sell chic designer grocery bags made from recycled plastic bottles that you can buy to prove that not only do you care for the environment – you can also afford to belong to the green club.

Besides selling reusable grocery bags, Whole Foods gives you 5 cents for each used paper bag that you bring back and fill with groceries. It feels so right, but our family is burning too much money at Whole Foods – at least $700 a month, in addition to the shopping we do at other grocery stores. Our monthly food bill easily exceeds $1,100 for a family of four. While surveys show that you actually pay less for organics at Whole Foods than you do at other chain stores, we could save money by picking up “conventional” lettuce, crackers, ground beef and bread at Safeway or Giant.

The class gap is evident when you travel a couple of blocks from Whole Foods to Safeway in downtown Silver Spring, Md. Gone are the tempting displays, the free food samples, the exotic fish counter, the self-assured professionals – and the recycled grocery bags. Tired moms with kids in tow hurry through the wide aisles with their endless rows of cereal boxes and chips bags. I leave Safeway disgusted, having acquired only half the items on my list. Of course, I tell myself, I should spend more at Whole Foods to get chemical-free snack bars and lunch meat for my kids! And certainly, it’s worth paying $4.50 for a loaf of bread when it’s both nutritious and fresh.

But many regular families on a tight budget may not have that choice. For if you’re poor in America, you tend to be relegated to disposable plastic bags, industrial spongy bread, sprayed fruit, and snacks laced with preservatives, artificial flavors and coloring. You’re no more likely to eat organic beef than you are putting solar panels on your roofs or driving a hybrid car.
365_organic_1_percent_lowfat_milk1
The market for organic food has exploded in the past decade, with sales increasing by between 20 percent and 30 percent annually, according to the Nielsen Group, a market research firm. With the economy falling into the hole in recent months, consumers are becoming less likely to pay $3.50 for half a gallon of organic milk when conventional milk can be had for $2. U.S. sales of organic products for the four weeks ended Oct. 4 grew 11.2 percent, down from 27.1 percent a year earlier, Nielsen reported.

And even before the economy took a turn for the worse, research showed that people buy eco food when they can afford it. A study released last summer by an economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rachael Dittman, confirmed that people with higher income (annual household income of at least $70,000) and higher education are more likely to spend more on organic food than poor Americans (annual household income below $30,000) or people of color.

Conclusion: Shopping green and eating healthy is still about education and cultural values, but even more about economic class. And me? I’m stretching my budget every month to stay in that coveted club.

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