Groceries for Grownups :: Part the First

Sep 13, 2010 by

All supermarkets are not created equal.

Okay, guess how much I spend on groceries every month?  SO MUCH.

And soon to be more, as I am bound and determined to eat out less and cook at home more, and now have both roommates and the boyfriend on board with this initiative.  So, in order to make a more enlightened choice about where I should be spending this large and vital percentage of each paycheck, I have been researching the practices of the five major chain grocery stores that a Chicagoan is familiar with: 

  • Jewel-Osco
  • Dominick’s
  • Aldi
  • Whole Foods
  • Trader Joe’s (thanks Danielle)  

It goes without saying that any time I have the option to buy local, support small business, or patronize a farmer’s market, I will do so.  But I have to be prepared for those occasions (February) on which farmer’s markets will be nonexistent, and the corner Mom+Pop grocery doesn’t stock what I’m looking for.
To this end, I present my findings.

Part The First outlines my inquiries into Jewel-Osco and Whole Foods.

The advantages to shopping at “The Jewel” are easily apparent.  There is one only a few blocks from my apartment, and it’s open 24 hours.  The food is cheap, there is a large variety on the shelves, and if you hunt you can locate whole foods and organic alternatives to many items.  But I am wary about this store, based almost entirely upon its size; Jewel-Osco is owned by SuperValu Inc, one of the largest companies in the U.S. grocery channel, comprised of approximately 2,500 retail stores with estimated annual sales of $45 billion.  Also worrisome is the fact that it’s been very hard for me to find out much about Jewel-Osco that wasn’t published by Jewel-Osco.

Take, for example, the report that:

JEWEL-OSCO, a leading Midwest food and drug retailer, will celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with its third annual VIP reception to honor the culture and significant achievements of the Hispanic community. 

Sounds excellent–promotes diversity, recognizes excellence, is an aware part of the community–and it should, considering the only details of the event that I can find are contained in a press release that Jewel-Osco itself sent out.  Also encouraging is my finding that Jewel-Osco gives $2500 grants to qualifying food pantries and soup kitchens through their Hunger Relief Grant Program; but again, the one place that I find information about this program is on the Jewel-Osco website.  Even more encouraging is a press release that I found on the website for Chicago’s 44th Ward (where I live).  It details the plans for a monster Jewel-Osco currently under construction at Southport and Addison, replacing the older store of the same name that used to sit there.  According to this document (issued by you-know-who):

The new store will be almost 52,000 square feet, more than twice the current size. The new store will include numerous eco-friendly features, such as a “green” roof, and will be LEED certified. It will also include a full-service pharmacy, as well as convenient underground customer parking. The layout will follow Jewel-Osco’s Premium Fresh and Healthy design, a concept that highlights the store’s fresh meat and produce selections. 

My friend Andy turned up this troubling piece of journalism, outlining how employees at an Illinois Albertson’s store (also a SuperValu company) were treated abominably for speaking out about racism and threats of violence toward black and Hispanic employees.  While that would be enough to stop me from shopping at Jewel-Osco had it occurred at one of those stores, the fact that there seem to be so many layers within the SuperValu conglomerate makes it impossible to figure out if the people who made the decisions in that Albertson’s case were high up enough to affect the store I shop in.

If the stories about recognizing community leaders, supporting charitable work, and expanding green service offerings are legit and not just the product of a large corporation’s spin department, then I can be confident that shopping at Jewel does support my community in a responsible way.  I just wish that I had some outside verification.  Searches on Inspired Economist and the Business and Human Right Resource Center turn up nothing on this business.  Responsible Shopper doesn’t have a whole lot of info, either, but did alert me to the fact that there are pending sexual harassment suits against some Chicago-area Jewel-Osco stores.  You have to expect, however, that any retailer as large as this one is going to have some litigation in court at any given time, and what matters to me is how the big brass of the company handles that.  Overall policy is more important to my decision than the inappropriate actions of some shitty local managers.  Unfortunately, I can’t find out much about the proceedings at all.

The most distressing thing I have found out about Jewel-Osco to date is that in 2009 the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the company for practices it felt violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.  But in trying to uncover how that suit was resolved, I found this report: EEOC sues Jewel on behalf of worker with allergy, which makes me wonder about the prudence of the EEOC itself. 

In short, my ruling on shopping on Jewel-Osco is at this time shaky, pending further inquiry.  I am distressed by this company’s seeming lack of transparency.

I will fully cop to being a Whole Foods junkie.  I used to salivate over the rare occasions to visit the New Orleans store when I was in college, and the day the one in Baton Rouge opened, I went three times in 12 hours.  Now I live but 3 blocks from the gorgeous, shiny Lakeview store in Chicago, and I shudder to imagine the the small countries I could have bought with the money I have spent there to date.  But I decided after readingThe Omnivore’s Dilemma that supporting organic, sustainable food production was worth the extra cost, and the only way to make this kind of food available to everyone is to increase demand for it.  With my wallet.  Also, unlike shopping at Jewel or other traditional grocery stores, it is quite easy to find quality products that are vegetarian-friendly and chemical-free.

I have a vague notion from reading Michael Pollan that Whole Foods is on the up and up about its commitment to the community, and I know that it sources its produce from both local farms and large-scale industrial organic suppliers, but before I can pat myself on the back for being such a good bleeding-heart Yuppie White Person (no really, click that), I should do a little more legwork on my own.

I knew that Michael Pollan had conducted a correspondence with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, taking him to task for… some stuff… that got fixed… and then Pollan told us, his faithful disciples, that shopping at Whole Foods was okay again.  But, um, clearly I needed to read Pollan’s letters (first and second) and Mackey’s responses (which have been taken off the Whole Foods blog).  What I have found is that Pollan’s major criticism of Whole Foods is that it does not walk the walk it tries to sell, or respect its place as a leader in the movement toward a better national foodlife:

I see more signage about the importance of local produce than I see actual items of local produce… I appreciate that you “don’t try to channel our customers into adopting any particular dietary regime.” And yet your stores — with their extensive information, signage, and well-informed counter help — are clearly in the business of educating people. You are selling information and stories as well as food, which is to say, you have set yourself the mission of leading, not just following, the consumer. Any retailer can treat the consumer as a dumb beast that wants what we wants when we wants it — appealing to the narrowest conception of our self-interest. 

But apparently Mackey took these criticisms to heart and has made very positive changes since 2006.  Good, good.  It speaks highly to me that the CEO of this corporation is at the very least willing to be in dialogue with journalists and consumer investigators, and though the negotiations can be prickly, to work with them toward a more sustainable future.

The Responsible Shopper Profile on Whole Foods is slightly less rosy.  Responsible Shopper’s main concerns seem to be with the fact that Whole Foods doesn’t support union organization, and carries a limited variety of Fair Trade products.  These are, naturally, both very valid criticisms, but I am beginning to think that Responsible Shopper profiles tend to lean toward the Negative Nancy side of things.  Also, Whole Foods tries to source a large percentage of its goods locally, and Fair Trade products tend to come mostly from overseas developing countries.  Responsible Shopper is helpful, but it tends to point out the cons of an organization without weighing them against the pros.  I suppose the balance is left to me to figure out for myself.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Center doesn’t have much Whole Foods info, but Inspired Economist lets me know that Whole Foods is on the EPA’s Top 10 Green Energy Purchasers, which is a fantastic find.  This site also informs me that John Mackey alienated lots of his customers when he spoke out against health care reform back in August 2009 in the Wall Street Journal, around the time it was also found he’d been bashing competitor Wild Oats in online forums under an assumed name.  Um… that was dumb.  But does that detract from the fact that the man has also been an acknowledged pioneer in the ethical business field, enacting such initiatives as the voluntary company-wide switch from plastic to paper bags, joining the Non-GMO Project’s Product Verification Program (a ban on genetically modified food, which is not regulated in any way by the US government), and developing The Whole Trade Guarantee partnership with non-profits, in addition to the laundry list of environmental and sustainability awards his company has received?  Only slightly, in my opinion.

Though it may in fact be true that “Whole Foods is a profit driven-publicly traded corporation that has wisely discovered that making white people feel good about buying stuff is outrageously profitable,” and it’s clear that the CEO isn’t a saint, I’m encouraged by the fact that it was so easy to find out who the CEO is.  He isn’t a group of faceless, blameless suits hiding behind a cold and impenetrable brand name.  The fact that people (albeit people who are hugely public and influential) write him letters and he responds with action and policy change makes me feel valued as a consumer.  Not to mention the cashiers are much nicer than the ones at other supermarkets, AND I get a $0.10 refund for every one of my own bags I bring in, WHICH I can immediately donate to a charity, right there at the checkout.  The opportunities to feel self-righteous in that place are almost limitless.

Therefore, and probably not surprisingly, my ruling on shopping at Whole Foods remains fully positive.


I know that the #1 goal of every for-profit business is to make money, and the easiest way to make money is to get the customer to believe that his or her life is unsatisfactory without your product.  I get marketing.  I work in marketing.  But I also know that there is proof, there is documentation outside of the Whole Foods website, that this company is doing good for the community, the environment, and local growers and farmers.  ADDITIONALLY, I know that the food I buy there doesn’t contain the chemicals and hormones I am actively trying to avoid.  The choice may be predictable, but that doesn’t invalidate it.

I know that food costs more at Whole Foods than practically anywhere else.  Yes.  I know it.  But the facts of the matter are:

  1. I make enough money to be able to afford good-quality food
  2. Since food sustains my life in a biological, viable way that clothing, entertainment, and social outings do not and cannot, perhaps grocery quality isn’t the place to be trying to save pennies
  3. By buying this food, I increase demand for it and hasten the day it will become more affordable and available to those who cannot currently purchase it; every action, no matter how small, is an opportunity for social awareness
Do I sound defensive?
I am strengthening my own resolve.
I am aware that I have more than two choices of supermarket in Chicago, but these two chains are equidistant from my apartment and together they collect 95% of my grocery budget every month.  Perhaps even more now that I’ve decided 7-11 is no longer a culinary option.  Jewel-Osco vs. Whole Foods is the consumer choice I am faced with every day, and even though I will certainly keep my eyes and ears open for current information and reports on both of them, I feel like because of due diligence, that choice just got a whole lot easier.

*Part 2 of this report will detail my research on Aldi, Trader Joe’s, and Dominick’s–now underway.

1 Comment

  1. Ali

    Hi Chelsea!

    I work at Whole Foods now, and I love it. The reason all the cashiers are so much nicer is because WFM truly knows how to treat their team members. Minimum starting pay is $10/hour, and we get gain-sharing once a month (any left over labor dollars are divided among the team)!

    The "green" practices are legit too, but I bet there are a few small ones about which you haven't heard. Any produce that's too ripe goes to the prepared foods department, and if it goes beyond that point it gets composted so there is little to no waste. That same compost, which we sell to local farmers, pays our electricity bill. It's a pretty cool cycle if you think about it.

    I realize it sounds like I drank the Kool-Aid, but I can honestly vouch for the company's legitimacy. I still go to the produce stand every now and then, but keep in mind that Whole Foods was once just a farmer's market with a super sweet business model.

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