The recent announcement that Amazon is acquiring the popular (and, often considered overpriced) organic grocery chain Whole Foods has raised a lot of questions about the issues of affordable, high-quality food and social justice.
Not All People Have All the Options
Many Americans cannot afford to shop at a place like Whole Foods, also known as, "Whole Paycheck," because the average cost is 10-20% more than other grocery stores. Even Trader Joe’s, which is far more affordable by comparison, is out of budget for many consumers.
Instead, people shop at more standard grocery stores. That’s not a bad thing, as they also sell fresh produce, fish, meat, poultry and the like; many of them also have selections of organic or whole foods. However, those foods, regardless of the store at which they are being purchased are going to cost more.
So, people who cannot afford to buy the organic stuff end up buying the foods that have been treated with chemicals and growth hormones. The lower cost foods are often grown on farms that are growing genetically modified foods so that they may grow in climates to which they are not otherwise indigenous. Again, that may not always be a bad thing. It’s great that genetic modifications have allowed people to buy fresh produce of all kinds (organic or not), any time of the year. After all, sometimes you just have to have a pumpkin something in the middle of spring.
So, what’s the problem? Well, fresh produce, meats, fish, poultry, etc., are always more expensive than pre-packaged goods such as canned vegetables and tuna, or frozen strawberries, the nutritional value of such never being as good as when you buy fresh. Packaged goods that are high in fat, sugar, and carbohydrates are inexpensive. Fresh food, and organic food is not.
Additionally, people who live in underserved communities (think the South Bronx, South Central Los Angeles) are often provided with very limited options regarding fresh foods at a local grocery store. Some communities do not even have what many people would consider a traditional grocery store, being left to do their shopping at delis and bodegas, places which, (again) do not provide much in the way of healthy choices.
In fact, nearly 48 million Americans face some sort of inequality concerning food, meaning that they do not have access to foods high in nutritional value, or foods that help sustain a healthy lifestyle. Of those, about half live in food deserts, which are generally urban areas or small, rural towns, with limited access to grocery stores, farmers markets or quality restaurants, making fast food places and the aforementioned delis the only consistent options for food. Even at the fast food chains that serve healthier options such as salads and fruit, it is still far less expensive to buy a cheeseburger with a side order of fries and a soda.
Healthy Food = Healthy People
By now, we all know that a healthy diet equates to a healthier life, in general. The long-term effects of poor nutrition include obesity, which can lead to a myriad of health problems, such as diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and joint problems, as well as decreased energy, which can lead to performance problems at both school and work, and general feelings of malaise.
Just as people who live in underserved communities, or who simply cannot afford to be purchasing fresh produce or organic foods, they are often uninsured or underinsured, making it less likely that they will receive adequate healthcare to properly treat any ongoing health problems. When do they seek medical care, due to lack of insurance, it is generally limited to emergency rooms, where they are not provided with ongoing, follow-up care.
Performance problems at work, due to poor nutrition, can lead to issues with overall production which can negatively impact the company or lead to individuals losing their jobs. Lacking insurance and being from a lower income community may lead to hospital bills going unpaid, creating an uptick in insurance or medical costs for everyone.
Food, Glorious Food
With the acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon, the hope is that the retail giant will be able to lower the costs of the high quality, organic goods, making them more accessible to the masses. While that would be wonderful, Amazon will also need to be prepared to build new Whole Foods stores in the food deserts, the underserved communities. In doing so, Amazon may have work to do rebranding the once, “Whole Paycheck” as an affordable, healthy alternative to fast food chains or bodegas.