Food prices are getting really crazy. How high will you go for the foods you love?
I spend a lot of money on food every month. So much so that I’m actually too embarrassed to write that number here. I’ll just say this: I could rent a really nice apartment with that money. In Los Angeles. With a view. Or lease a super fancy car better suited for a football player. I could take a (much-needed) lux vacation. For a whole month. But we spend that money because food is important to my family. And if we’re going to splurge on anything, it’s our health, our quality of life.
It’s surely TMI, but to give you perspective, my almost two-year-old daughter has never once had a bout of diarrhea. She last threw up nearly a year ago and we think that was car sickness. She loves to eat vegetables, and is a thriving, healthy child. Both her daddy and I are also quite healthy considering our long workweeks bookended by chasing a super healthy and active toddler all around a smoggy city. While quality food isn’t a guarantee against illness, it’s certainly known to help decrease the risks. And we feel that to be the case. Plus, if we’re going to be totally honest (we already talked about diarrhea, so it won't get any worse…) some expensive foods taste amazing too. And in my opinion, life is way too short to ever eat crap. We are what we eat, after all.
That’s not to sound like we’re decadent or entitled; we don’t eat foie gras or caviar or those obnoxious Wagyu beef products (we’re not assholes). We’re actually longtime vegans with a strong commitment to organic agriculture and artisan producers. So, when I’m shopping and there’s a choice between organic and non-organic, I will choose organic before I look at the price tag. I will not blink at a $9 chocolate bar (because I’m a mom now and chocolate is essential to my survival). But even I balked in horror a few weeks ago when I saw a jar of almond butter priced at $25.99 at my local Whole Foods Market.
No, it wasn’t a gallon size. It wasn’t adorned with pieces of gold or even a picture of a half-naked Ryan Gosling on the front label. It was your run of the mill organic almond butter. And it was $25.99. I looked at the price tag a few times to make sure. I looked around the aisle to see if anyone else was seeing what I was seeing. I may have exaggeratedly rubbed my eyes like a cartoon character and laughed just a little bit too loud. (What can I say, I don’t get out much.)
I could give you the back-in-my-day speech about paying $7 for a jar of almond butter just a few years ago. And we could look at the obvious culprits: A prolonged California drought hitting the world’s largest almond growing region right in the nuts (sorry) is driving almond prices way up. So much so that some almond farmers are selling their trees for wood rather than trying to irrigate. We could also look at colony collapse disorder, significantly impacting honeybee populations. Bees play a crucial role in pollinating crops including almond trees. When bee populations are compromised, farmers have to pay to bring in more bees to do the work, and that too drives up the prices of almonds.
But regardless of what causes the increased food prices (and almonds aren’t the only crops being affected), we have to ask ourselves how much we’re willing to pay for what we eat. Or rather, perhaps supermarkets should be asking those questions. After all, they’re adding a significant markup, usually around 40 percent to our food. And that means, if a jar of almond butter came into the store at $16—an already high price—should the retailer eat some margin in order to keep customers happy? I mean, really, will they even sell any jars at $26 (sorry, $25.99)?
Whole Foods was recently called out for overcharging on its prepared food products in New York City, and again for selling “asparagus water” for $6 that John Oliver spoofed brilliantly. The chain is not nicknamed "Whole Paycheck" for nothing. And some of us spend it willfully, blissfully, but certainly not ignorantly.
A well-known health and wellness expert once told me that if a product isn’t selling, don’t lower the price, which is the common practice in any industry. He told me to raise it—to create the image that this otherwise undesirable dud of an item is now something more aspirational. A total flip of the script. When we take the ordinary out of things by making them more expensive, people do often gravitate toward them. We want the lifestyles of the rich and famous and since most of us can't have that, we'll pay more for a pair of chinos than we should.
I do reach for expensive chocolate all the time. Granted, I do a lot of research on brands and ingredients, and if there’s a high quality product that is less expensive, I will opt for that instead (I’m not a total idiot). But the real question is how do we know? How do we know if food prices really reflect the quality of the ingredients or if they’re just inflated because a brand can get away with it?
What we do know is that our changing climate, our increasing global population, and our growing interest in quality ingredients and mission-driven companies are all changing the supermarket landscape. And, fun fact: Despite our Whole Foods obsession (maybe it’s just mine?), Americans spend less money on food than any other country (a startling 6 percent).
Just think about that for a minute. I’ve visited countries where dirt floors are the norm, as is hanging out in landfills looking for anything of value to use or sell. Yet here in America where Pay-Per-View football and new iPhones every year are the norm, we balk at food prices much lower than a $26 jar of almond butter. We’d rather eat .99-cent menu crap than buy real ingredients and prepare a meal from scratch.
Flipping our mindset about food prices won’t likely make expensive almond butter or asparagus water any more digestible. But it may make us value what goes into our bodies a little bit more. And that’s affordable on any budget.
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Image: Jill Ettinger