Why is Walmart so expensive?

kicking-the-can-down-the-roadIn my eternal scan of the Internet for MOM’s data and feedback, I came across this blogger’s post: Why is MOM’s Organic Market so expensive?  I hear this question in one form or another all the time.  If you read reviews of MOM’s on Yelp, Google, etc., there is always someone who gives us a low rating because we’re “too expensive.”  For example, “The staff is very friendly and helpful, but the prices are a little high,” and “If you’re into paying high prices for their so-called organic food, then come here. It’s been proven that organic foods are not as healthy as regular food, cannot be proven to be organic, and they don’t taste better. So convince yourself in believing in the organic hype and shop here.  My rating would be lower except they do have a lot of produce, even if it’s overpriced hype.”

MOM’s has a price guarantee, which states that on all same-branded packaged products, we will cost the same or less than Whole Foods and other natural foods stores.  A couple of years ago, Consumer Checkbook did a 3rd party survey of our prices and found us to be 7% less than Whole Foods and 4% less than Wegman’s.  Our own internal data now even shows us to be approximately 10% less than Whole Foods.  So I believe that when people say that we are expensive, for the most part they’re saying that organic foods are expensive, not MOM’s in particular (or they’re misinformed, because sometimes they do claim we’re more expensive than Whole Foods or Wegman’s).

Rather than ask why is MOM’s expensive, I think we should ask why are Walmart, Safeway, etc. so expensive?

Take for example, a headline that came across my computer last week:

Screen Shot 2014-02-07 at 10.52.07 AM

I realize that the 2 chemicals banned aren’t used specifically for food production (they’re being used to control mosquitoes), but it’s one example of the many hidden costs of what are assumed to be “solutions” to problems.

A friend of mine drove the Eastern Shore last weekend touring the local oyster farming industry.  He ran into some poultry farmers while he was down there, and they are up in arms over the new proposed Poultry Fair Share Act, which will charge tax to large chicken suppliers of 5 cents per chicken.  The tax will be paid to the Bay Restoration Fund and used to fund cover crop programs on lands where chicken manure was applied, i.e. to clean up the havoc that the poultry industry constantly wreaks on the Chesapeake’s ecosystem.  Since the industry won’t spend the money to clean up after its own mess, the government is forced to step in and do it for them.

Using chemicals to grow non-organic food hastens climate change.  The carbon footprint of fertilizer production and delivery is substantial, estimated at over 1,200 million metric tons per year in the US alone.  As weather patterns become more severe and unexpected (hurricanes, droughts, flooding), there is a large cost in many categories, including crop losses and infrastructure damage.

Pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and antibiotics are currently used on 99% of American farmland.  These chemicals contaminate our waterways, often impacting other industries (like crabs and oysters here in the Chesapeake).  Inevitably, environmental groups, other industries, and taxpayers are left holding the bill to clean up the mess.

Entire species can become threatened, as has recently happened with honeybee and Monarch Butterfly populations. Honeybee CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) is thought to be linked to the traces of pesticides in high-fructose corn syrup.  Sharp decreases in Monarch Butterfly populations are being linked to GMOs.  This has cost the honey industry and farmers billions of dollars in loss production due to pollination deficiencies.

Along with the decades of increases in carcinogenic chemical residues in our food, cancer rates have  increased.  Not only does this lead to human suffering, but the medical costs make insurance rates higher for us all.

Conventional foods often have high-calorie, nutrient-deficient ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup and white flour.  Obesity rates have risen dramatically from 13% to 35% since 1960, which leads to more cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.  The estimated costs to the healthcare system of these ailments are $190 billion annually.

The conventional industry receives massive amounts of government subsidies (corporate welfare) while the organic industry receives virtually nothing.  The new Farm Bill allots taxpayers to pay out $956 billion over the next ten years to highly profitable agribusiness such as Tyson, Monsanto, and Cargill.  We taxpayers are subsidizing them to do the wrong thing.

Corporate America will forever work its hardest to keep Big Government off their backs, but who’s going to keep Big Corporations off our backs?  It would be nice if the free market would fix this- and if average consumers were informed enough to consider the hidden costs of products and shop accordingly.  But this isn’t going to happen any time soon, if ever (especially considering the constant bombardment of misinformation put out by large corporations).

The burden to society caused by conventional farming is constantly deferred to other industries, citizens, taxpayers, and non-profits.  The lower price of conventional foods reflects these deferred hidden costs.  Those who buy conventional foods over organics because they’re cheaper, selfishly do so- happy to kick the can down the road to those of us who keep informed, continue to recognize hidden costs, and keep doing the next right thing.

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12 Responses to Why is Walmart so expensive?

  1. Doug Percival says:

    Regarding this comment that Scott found somewhere and quoted: “It’s been proven that organic foods are not as healthy as regular food, cannot be proven to be organic, and they don’t taste better.”

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the first two claims in that quote are BLATANT LIES, and they are specific blatant lies that the toxic chemical industry has paid various shills like admitted LIAR John Stossell to purvey to the public, often through the so-called “right-wing media”.

    If you look around the Internet, you will find people reciting those EXACT lies, in the EXACT SAME WORDS, over and over again — very much like the blatant, scripted lies that are endlessly told and retold by the global warming deniers. For the record:

    1. There is NO EVIDENCE, and it has certainly NOT been “proven”, that “organic foods are not as healthy as regular food”. (By the way, what a euphemism to call produce drenched in toxic chemicals “REGULAR” food!)

    2. Organic food CAN be “proven to be organic” BY DEFINITION, since “organic” means “USDA Certified Organic”, which means the food has been produced and processed in accordance with the legal standards that DEFINE “organic”. (So this claim is not only false, it is nonsensical!)

    3. Whether or not organic food — especially fresh produce — “tastes better” than chemically grown food is, of course, a matter of opinion. Personally, I think there is a noticeable difference and organic produce tastes better.

  2. Shopper in Jessup says:

    This is a very disappointing post, Scott. Many who shop at Walmart, Safeway, etc do so because they cannot afford to put enough calories on the table for their families otherwise. It is expensive to eat organic and many simply can’t afford that luxury. Your attitude that it is selfish of them to be shopping where they can afford is itself selfish. Further posts like this will make me reevaluate the enormous amount of money my partner and I spend in your store.

    • Scott says:

      In writing my post, I assumed that people reading it would assume that I’m not asking people to buy Organics or starve.

      • Shopper in Jessup says:

        In writing your post, you specifically targeted a young person experiencing the sticker shock of organic foods. Worse than that, she actually had good things to say about your stores and you targeted her anyway.

        A hallmark of good writing is saying exactly what you mean. If you don’t mean to target young people who may not be fully schooled on all of these very complex issues surrounding organic and conventional foods, you shouldn’t do so. There’s no legitimate reason to leave your readers in a position of having to interpret your meaning.

        MOMs is a great store. We love the variety we can get there that we have a hard time finding elsewhere. We appreciate decisions you’ve made such as not using anti-bacterial soaps in the bathrooms, disallowing cartoons on items targeted to kids, not selling bottled water but offering inexpensive filtered water in bulk. There are lots of great reasons to shop at MOMs if one can afford to and that’s where one chooses to spend their money. But if your attitude is that people just choose to kick the can to others selfishly, you need to pick worthier opponents than kids just starting out on their own. You come across as an elitist snob and you owe your customers, and potential future customers, an apology.

      • Scott says:

        I completely disagree. Yes- I admit, I am targeting the blogger’s ignorance- and I’m happy to do so. That is the problem frankly with everyone who chooses conventional foods over Organics when they can afford the latter.

        Maybe the blogger can’t afford organic foods (although she claims herself a grocery snob)- but pretty much throughout her post she complains of Organics as being expensive, never once acknowledging that they have a higher value- or that conventional foods have a lower value- and never once clarifying that they are too expensive for her budget. As you say, a hallmark of good writing is saying exactly what one means.

        Not only that, she irresponsibly titles her blog as “why is MOM’s more expensive” insinuating that we are more expensive than our competitors. To be fair and accurate, she should compare apples to apples. If anything, she is unfairly targeting MOM’s.

        If I were to apologize for anything, maybe it would be that I hyperlinked her article. It was the title of her blog that I mostly wanted to point out and that I found most egregious, and I didn’t find her actual post to be malintentioned (ignorant, yes!).

        On the other hand, in your righteous indignation of me, maybe you need to evaluate your reaction to my blog. [Aside from the threat to boycott MOM’s, I think that might be the first time in my life anyone has ever insinuated I’m an elitist snob, being that I grew up in PG county, went to public schools, worked from the age of 12 for my own money, and generally view status and the wealthy class as huge problems with society.]

  3. Doug Percival says:

    I think there are two distinct issues getting mixed up here:

    1. Is MOM’s “expensive” compared to other retailers WHO SELL THE SAME THINGS, namely organic foods? I think that question is easily answered by the Consumer Checkbook survey that Scott cited, and the answer is no. MOM’s is NOT more expensive than the big chain stores like Wegmans, Whole Foods, Safeway, Giant and Harris Teeter. (I note that the survey did not include co-op stores like TPSS, but in my experience the prices at MOMs and TPSS are roughly similar.)

    2. Is organic food more expensive than “conventional” food — and if so, WHY? Again, the answer to the first part of that is pretty clearly yes. The CC survey for example found that organic food costs on average 57 % more than “conventional” food.

    That is a really significant price difference, and I think that “Shopper in Jessup” is quite right to take issue with Scott’s statement that “Those who buy conventional foods over organics because they’re cheaper, SELFISHLY do so.” The fact is, that many people simply cannot afford to buy enough food to feed themselves at organic prices. It’s not really fair to say that simply getting enough to eat is “selfish”.

    Of course the answer to WHY organic food is more expensive is complex, and Scott delves into that in his post. The cost of all of the damage done by “conventional” agriculture is “externalized”, so the costs of toxic pollution, for example, are not included in the cost of the food. If they were included then “conventional” food would have to cost more. Also, “conventional” chemical agriculture practices are heavily subsidized. Without those subsidies, “conventional” food would again cost more.

    I tend to think that if we had a true “level playing field”, that organic food production would greatly expand, and the cost of locally produced organic food would be lower than the cost of, for example, chemical-drenched produce grown with costly irrigation in drought-ravaged California deserts and transported in refrigerated diesel trucks 3000 miles to DC.

  4. Marc says:

    In response to “shopper in Jessup” post: I interpreted Scott’s last paragraph differently. He says, “Those who buy conventional foods over organics because they’re cheaper, selfishly do so…” I took the first 10 words of the sentence to refer to those who have a choice. If folks can’t afford to buy organic and don’t even shop at MOMs then of course they are not selfish. Its those who DO have a choice, but only look at the retail price tag when making their decision that are making short-sighted, uninformed and ultimately selfish decisions.

  5. Pingback: The Hidden Cost of Clothes | Style Me Minimal

  6. Reblogged this on Farmstead Lady and commented:
    I will admit that I am a bit biased as I am a frequent shopper here but I will say that I think Scott hits the nail on the head. Organics do cost more but is it the organic industry’s fault or our own because we have allowed conventional foods to be manipulated for our convenience?

  7. anomadlife says:

    Hi Scott,

    I’m the blogger you linked to a few weeks ago, and I was wondering where all the unexpected hits were coming from!

    I hope you don’t get the impression that I’m ignorant about the benefits of organic food or that I don’t recognize that places like Mom’s, Wholefoods and Wegman’s are more expensive because they offer higher quality food that is more expensive to grow and raise. Unfortunately, sometimes it comes down to economics. As a grad student paying rent, car payment, school fees and all the other things that come along with being an adult (on a relatively modest salary) it’s unrealistic for me to buy all organic. I’d love to, but I can’t unless I cut out any “fun” (going out, doing things) from my life.

    I think that there is a subset of Americans who are always going to go for the cheapest options and who scoff at the notion of organic food, but I think most of us are doing the best we can with what we have. I think that this is really more than a personal issue; I think the real question here is re-framing the way we view food and the food industry. Eating healthy foods free of hormones and chemicals shouldn’t be seen as a luxury. I think that as a country, we need to move towards finding ways to feed our population in a way that allows the ordinary person to have a real choice when it comes to organics.

    Also, my blog is not what I’d call an environmental/healthy lifestyle blog. I think that if you take a look at my other posts you’ll see that it (attempts to be) humorous and light and I think most people reading it understand that. In other words, I don’t think my average reader is going to read my blog and start an anti-organics campaign. I’m not attacking MOM’s…I’d love to be able to afford to shop there for all my grocery needs, so no need to take my entry so seriously! All I was relating was an everyday account of what it’s like to be a twenty-something earning a modest salary in a place like D.C. So thanks for sending all the hits my way and I’ll keep buying choice items from MOM’s!

  8. “The conventional industry receives massive amounts of government subsidies (corporate welfare) while the organic industry receives virtually nothing. We taxpayers are subsidizing them to do the wrong thing. The burden to society caused by conventional farming is constantly deferred to other industries, citizens, taxpayers, and non-profits.”

    This is so true; people are paying a very high price in exchange for allowing the nearly indiscriminate use of toxic chemicals in our food supply.

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