By Lauren Herber, Co-editor
Yesterday was the third annual celebration of the Uptown Phoenix Farmers Market. Though I’m not typically much of an organic eater due to financial reasons, I figured I’d check out the festivities since they weren’t far from where I live and I generally don’t say no to midweek pick-me-ups. Upon arrival to the festival, I was greeted by live music and friendly vendors. I started my adventure in the fresh produce tent, where it’s easy to get lost in the whirlwind of colors and shapes that surround you. The market had every type of produce I could wish for and plenty more that I hadn’t even seen before (jicama? what are you?). I was immediately drawn to the uniquely colored vegetables (think purple cauliflower and pink kale) and found I just couldn’t walk away from the rainbow chard…even though I’m not completely sure what chard actually is or how it’s prepared. Eating should be an adventure anyways.
Loaded down with rainbow chard and fresh 9-grain bread, I meandered my way through the rest of the booths, where I saw everything from pickled asparagus to fresh seafood and herbs to gluten-free baked goods. All the vendors were extremely friendly, calling out cheery “Good morning!” greetings and offering samples of their products. Try to sample Chile Acres Farm’s fresh New Mexico Green Chili Goat Cheese and not leave with your own container—it’s impossible. The chilly morning temperatures drove me to the ClariTea tent, where I tried my first matcha tea (coffee who?) as the owner explained to me that he gets all of his tea ingredients shipped fresh straight from Southeast Asia. By the time I got to Chef Wade’s Bistro on Wheels and saw the Truffle Mushroom Mac & Cheese menu item, I was regretting that I had come to the market so early in the morning and not closer to lunch time.
While the market was full of unique offerings, there was one point of similarity amongst the products: their organic label. Everything—from asparagus to salmon to dog treats—was organic. Growing up, my mom didn’t buy organic, and while I’ve gotten accustomed to the hype more recently, the overwhelming presence of the word “organic” at the Uptown market got me thinking: what started the whole organic food movement? It seemed to appear, at least to me, almost overnight, with more and more grocery stores joining in on the trend. At first it was just a few select retailers, like Whole Foods Market, but now any grocery store that you walk into has at least some organic offerings. Two main questions plagued me after my visit to the farmers market: what sparked this obsessive movement, and how do people afford it?
A little bit of research led me to a conclusion that surprised me: the organic food movement isn’t a recent trend but a reintroduction of farming methods that used to be commonplace. Until the 1920s, all agriculture was generally organic, and farmers used natural methods of enriching the soil and controlling various pests. During the Second World War, chemical research boomed, leading to the development of certain chemical compounds that drastically changed the farming industry. Chemicals designed to be used as nerve gas were discovered to be equally capable of killing insects. Ultimately, the development of DDT, a chemical compound used in pest control, opened the floodgates for the use of chemicals in farming and essentially put an end to traditional organic farming methods.
The 1960s and 70s, however, brought a greener state of mind and increased consumer interest in health and nutrition. This increased focus on conservation and environmental sustainability sparked a redevelopment of the organic market. Some farmers, encouraged by the increased interest, began to once again adopt organic farming methods. As consumer awareness of the health risks associated with pesticides rose, so did the demand for organic products. Some governments began catching the organic bug as well, like some governments in the European Union that started to offer agricultural subsidies to support organic farming efforts.
Some select whole foods stores, such as Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats, at first dominated the organic food scene, capturing a pretty significant share of the grocery market. Recently, though, this has been changing. It’s actually harder to think of a grocery store that doesn’t have any organic options: Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Sprouts, and even Wal-Mart all offer organic options. Fry’s, my grocery store of choice, offers an organic alternative to most of the produce that they sell. And farmers markets, chock-full of organic, locally grown produce, have been increasing in popularity all over the country.
There are, however, criticisms to the modern organic food movement. One is that organic foods haven’t been proven to actually be healthier from a nutrient content standpoint. The concern is that some grocery stores slap the label “organic” onto their products so that they can charge a premium. The research on this topic isn’t comprehensive enough to draw a definitive conclusion either way, but the inhibitive price of organic food has become an increasingly important issue. Oftentimes, the difference between many people who buy organic and those who don’t isn’t health consciousness, it’s socioeconomic status. Healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive enough as it is, and the organic price tags are simply too high for many people to afford. Combined with the fact that people living in lower income areas are less likely to even have access to organic food stores, the organic movement runs the risk of looking like little more than a hobby for the wealthy.
Fortunately, this dilemma has not gone ignored. Evidence of this can be seen in the steps that have recently been taken to make healthy, organic food products more accessible to people of all income brackets. Whereas Whole Foods may have originally dominated the organic food playing field, many other grocery stores are starting to catch on to the trend and price their products more competitively, resulting in a market share loss for companies like Whole Foods (cynically dubbed “Whole Paycheck” by some) who have been known to price their products at 100%+ markups. What spurred this influx of organic food options? Whole Foods’ fat margins. Much higher than more traditional grocery stores’ (think Kroger or Fry’s) margins, Whole Foods’ gross margins attracted a high degree of competition. Thus the emergence and expansion of chains like Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, Aldi, Fry’s, and even Wal-Mart, which have begun to offer organic foods at more affordable prices.
Especially exciting is the emergence of a grocery chain called the Daily Table. Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s, started this grocery chain with the express purpose of making healthy, organic food more accessible and affordable to lower income areas. Think Whole Foods-style shopping experience and products at fast food-level prices. How is this possible? Rauch strikes deals with various vendors to get inexpensive prices on food that would typically get thrown away for arbitrary reasons, making the elusive pesticide-free future a reality for more people than ever before.
All this to say: healthy, organic food is becoming more and more accessible to all people, regardless of income bracket; there’s a new niche market full of customers with high demand; and less food is being wasted. This is great news for pretty much everyone.
Except Whole Foods. This is bad news for Whole Foods.