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Health & Fitness: Shopping At Whole Foods

Does shopping organic have to eat up your whole paycheck?

Shopping at Whole Foods Market has gotten a bad reputation among some consumers. Some of us have heard the phrase that shopping at "Whole Foods equals whole paycheck."

Maplewood resident Marianne Lloyd's opinion is common: "I recognize that the sales at Whole Foods are competitive but find their standard prices to be prohibitive for my budget." 

But Laura Hall, marketing team leader at the Whole Foods Market on Springfield Avenue in Vauxhall, would contest that statement. "What usually happens is that people begin to impulse shop and forget the value selections at our market," Hall told me during one of the regular tours she offers at the store. This one was called "Healthy Eating On A Budget."

I met Hall in front of the store. I was given one of their Better Bags, a reusable bag designed by rocker Sheryl Crow. The bag included a monthly event calendar, Everyday Value Shopping Tips guide, Weekly Buy flyer and The Whole Deal, a pamphlet that includes $40 worth of coupons and menu ideas. "These are tools that help shoppers make the most of their money," she explained.

When you first walk in the store, you will see a display that features a yellow sign with red on top. That sign, said Hall, is the sales sign. Sales run Wednesday to Wednesday.

"Many customers ask if we have some sort of customer club card," said Hall. They do not have this card. Instead they offer the sale prices and their 365 Everyday Value products, their store brand. 

Hall pointed out that the store carries natural and organic merchandise and is America's first national certified organic grocer. "None of the products in our store have artificial colors, flavors, antibiotics, added hormones or hydrogenated oils."

As we walked through the store, Hall showed the different sale prices. In the meat department, she explained how the "extreme value zone" works. "Yes, this is a huge piece of meat, but a customer can get it cut to order and wrapped at no additional charge. This is our free butcher service. Again, the meat does not have any antibiotics or added hormones." (However, we should note that most supermarkets will butcher your meat per request and free of charge. We called Kings in Maplewood and ShopRite on Morris Turnpike and confirmed that this is their policy as well.)

Hall continued to introduce ways to save money, such as buying in bulk. A "Buying In Bulk" guide was included in the bag of tools I received at the beginning of the tour. "We have an amazing selection of grains and beans so customers can buy exactly the amount that they need," said Hall. Of course, buying in bulk won't save you money if you don't buy the right amount or use the amount in a timely manner.

"Everyday value" prices are also featured in their prepared foods department, such as a Seafood Dinner for two. The meal for two includes two portions of farm-raised all-natural salmon and two sides (vegetable and starch) for only $14.99. For $19.99, you can get a rotisserie chicken and two sides. For $6.99, you can get a half sandwich and soup. The store also offers a pasta option: for under $15, you can get fresh pasta, sauce, a bagged salad and bread to feed a family of four.

Does all this sound economical to you? Danielle Friedland, a Maplewood mother of two, says she and her husband do all of their shopping at Whole Foods, even though they do find the items pricey. "We're too lazy to go to other stores and shop for the best bargains on specific items or categories. We feel it's worth it for the quality and organic stuff. High quality organic ingredients are important to both of us," Friedland explained.

Food writer Monica Puri Bangia is another frequent Whole Foods shopper. "Some fresh produce like lemons, limes, avocados, bananas and berries are usually more expensive, but things like cilantro are actually cheaper than other stores. It really depends what you buy." Bangia admits to supplementing her grocery shopping at Trader Joe's and Eden Gourmet.

Another shopper from Chatham echoed Puri Bangia's comment about some items actually being cheaper at Whole Foods. She said she buys a 16 oz. organic half-and-half milk at Whole Foods for $2.09 and finds that the same item is $2.19 at ShopRite. This shopper also finds that Whole Foods milk in general is cheaper, saying she regularly buys the 365 gallon of skim milk for $2.99.

One Maplewood mother admits to shopping at Whole Foods once a week. "Yes, I think Whole Foods is generally more expensive than other groceries stores. However, the high prices are worth it to me for what I buy there, which is fish and/or other seafood.  I don't buy organics. I do the remainder of my shopping at ShopRite," she said.

However, not everyone is willing to pay top dollar for organic. One Millburn mother of two, who wished to remain anonymous, is not a fan of their prices. "I feel it's one thing for a store to be expensive, but when I look at their astronomical prices on many items, I feel they're downright trying to take advantage of people and that they must be making way more profit than they deserve." 

Unfortunately for her, her family does at times prefer the items at Whole Foods versus other local establishments. "I will buy mostly 365 products or things I can't find anywhere else. But I still get [ticked] off when I see things like a tiny container of all-natural marshmallows for $5, or other like items that seem ridiculous and utterly frivolous—and certainly not affordable to middle-class and lower-income people, for whom eating healthfully may be an unaffordable 'luxury.'" 

Liza Jane More of South Orange has her own secret to shopping at Whole Foods Market. "We are mostly vegetarians at our house, and I find that Whole Foods is reasonably priced if you stay away from meat and fish and stick to their 365 brand. Fruits and veggies can be very overpriced when out of season, but in-season the prices are a bit higher, but not completely out of whack."

Nicole Wilson James had another take: "Some prices are high but others are not, and for most of the expensive stuff I can totally understand why. I have grown veggies organically so I know how much extra labor goes into it, and how that would compute financially on a large scale." Wilson James adds, "I don't buy everything from Whole Foods, but a good chunk of my staple items come from there, so I am there a few times a week easily. The rest of my shopping I do at ShopRite."

In addition to the "Healthy Eating on a Budget" tour, Hall offers other tours for Mom's Clubs, various groups and school trips. To find out when the next tour is being offered, be sure to e-mail Hall or visit the Web site.

Jen Maidenberg February 22, 2010 at 09:00 PM
Thanks for the informative piece Judie! I think the tours Laura leads are great opportunity for community members to learn about healthy eating. And one step in the right direction! I remember referring to Whole Foods as Whole Paycheck about 4 or 5 years ago before I realized how much unhealthy food I was eating because I believed the claims on the packaging. This was before I became a more educated and empowered shopper. Now, I couldn't do a week of grocery shopping at ShopRite if I tried. Just try buying a loaf of bread without high fructose corn syrup there! While I occasionally supplement at Trader Joe's, I find their packaging to be very misleading. "All-natural" means nothing...consumers need to read the ingredients (and know what the ingredients mean) before they assume what they're feeding their family is truly "healthy." The 365 brand at WF is very reasonable. Compare their "Organic Morning Os" (both ingredients and price) to Cheerios. It will take a lot more education in the community before consumers understand the real reason to switch to the type of food that places like WF offers. Jen Maidenberg http://www.mindfullivingnj.com
catherine delett February 23, 2010 at 02:17 AM
I never thought I'd be doing all my weekly shopping at Whole Foods, but I do. I don't pay more at WF than I would for the *same quality* food somewhere else and my weekly bill is comparable to those of my friends who shop at ShopRite. I like Whole Foods: I like the food and product offerings (like locally-raised grass fed beef, pasture-raised eggs, local and organic produce, and the absence of high fructose corn syrup and other food additives); I like the shopping experience and customer service; I like the community programs offered (like 5% days). Certainly I don't think WF is perfect, but for the food that I want to feed myself and my family it provides the best option. In the end, everyone should read food labels carefully and get informed about the food (and "food") they eat. And really, if the healthiest option for my family costs a little more, I'll still buy it. catherine delett www.consumethisfirst.com
Judie Hurtado February 23, 2010 at 08:01 PM
Thank you Jen and Catherine for your comments. I think that while many families strive to eat healthy foods, they are overwhelmed at all the options and do not know where to start. Judie
Jen Maidenberg February 23, 2010 at 08:54 PM
Absolutely, Judie. If you think there is enough interest in the community at this time, I'd be happy to organize a "Clean Out Your Pantry" workshop through Mindful Living NJ or a similar workshop. It can be extremely overwhelming navigating the path to healthy living. The food we eat is just one part of the equation. I always tell people to take baby steps. You don't have to overhaul your life in one swift step. Simply paying attention to what types of meat or dairy you eat, or choosing organic fruits to start...is one "simple switch." The Environmental Working Group puts out a list of the "dirty dozen" fruits and veggies to buy organic. That's where I started when I felt my budget couldn't meet the prices.
catherine delett February 23, 2010 at 10:03 PM
It can really be overwhelming in the beginning. The biggest change I made was to start buying ingredients to do more cooking and baking. That kept me away from the processed foods, and also kept the grocery bill down. I agree with Jen that it's good to take baby steps.
Judie Hurtado February 23, 2010 at 10:24 PM
Jen, I think a "Clean Out Your Pantry" or even "Baby Steps to Healthy Eating" does seem like a great idea. My research and in speaking with members of the community, many people want to make a start but do not know how/where to begin and just give up. Catherine, to your point, some people don't even know how to cook or they fall into a rut by cooking the same things over and over. Judie
catherine delett February 24, 2010 at 01:51 AM
Judie, I hear that a lot -- people saying they can't cook or don't have time. But I think people underestimate themselves and overestimate how long it takes to cook a meal. That said, cooking more is the change I chose to make. It might not be right for everyone. For others it could be something as simple as reading a label every day to get a better understanding of what they are eating.

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