One of the most harmful myths about poor people is that they could care less about what they eat.
A man who applies pesticides to Iowa fields for $14 hour might not seem a likely organic enthusiast. But when I met Jim Dreier last fall, and he mentioned the backyard patch he and his wife had planted with vegetables in the spring, he told me he didn’t use any pesticides. When I asked him why, Dreier surprised me: “I don’t want to eat that shit,” he said. When I went grocery shopping with his wife, Christina, she surprised me, too, by picking out a bag of organic grapes even though she was paying with Snap — food stamps — for exactly the same reason.
I thought about Jim and Christina last week, and my surprise at their organic habits, after Walmart announced it will be adding 100 new organic products to its shelves this month. For as long as I can remember, "organic" has been synonymous with affluence and conscious consumption. Partly, that’s because organic foods are typically 30 percent more expensive than conventional items. But part of it is our assumption about who exactly buys organic and why. Typically, it hasn’t been families like the Dreiers, who are raising three kids on Jim’s $14 an hour and can't really afford it. So we tend to think that people who buy organic food are part of a select group: urban, well-meaning, affluent, educated “foodies.”
according to top researchers — and organic isn’t a “select” phenomenon at all. Three-quarters of American shoppers buy organic food at least occasionally and more than a third do so monthly, according to industry analysis by the Hartman Group. When researchers asked why shoppers didn’t buy organic more often, two-thirds said it was because of the higher price.
And yet the myth that only the rich buy organic persists, driven by a kind of circular logic that conflates preference (valuing organic) with behavior (actually buying it). The cost of organic food keeps the poorest families from buying it often, and since only the wealthy can easily afford organic food, the only people we see buying it are wealthy. That, in turn, makes organic food into a norm for the rich, and a treat for the rest of us.
Organic enthusiasts rarely help to clarify the situation, with some of the most prominent leaders making painfully tone-deaf comments about shoppers’ priorities. In 2008, just as the economy began to tank, respected chef and food advocate Alice Waters argued that shoppers make the choice between organic grapes and “Nike shoes — two pairs”, arguably adding to the perception that the poor simply do not prefer organic food.
As Walmart’s market researchers well know, the poor actually do care about organic. The biggest supermarket chain in America, Walmart has a customer base among the country’s poor and working class. The company estimates that 18 percent of Snap is spent in its stores, according to a recent series by Slate and Marketplace on the retailer — enough that it currently lists changes to public assistance programs as a potential liability for investors.
Meanwhile, organic food has been one of the retailer’s strongest categories of sales, says Marketplace’s Krissy Clark, who reported the Walmart series. “It makes sense to focus on the growth area,” she told me recently. And with cuts to public assistance from the farm bill going into effect, Clark added, the new organic line could attract “higher income consumers who are also feeling a squeeze, and maybe have reasons they wouldn’t shop at Walmart. This gives them incentive.”
While Walmart made a failed bid at going upscale a few years ago, its new organic line might have better luck. That’s because the new products will be branded under Wild Oats, a longstanding natural foods brand that Whole Foods bought and then resold in the 2000s. (Whole Foods sold the brand after a federal court ruled the merger violated anti-trust laws.) With the glimmer of brand-name recognition that Wild Oats could inspire, middle- and upper-income shoppers may be persuaded to take a closer look at Walmart. And the prices seem low enough to fit the modest shopper's budget: a can of Whole Foods’ 365 organic corn sells for $1.29 at my local Brooklyn store, but Walmart plans to sell Wild Oats vegetables for 88 cents a can.
Where I live, I can pick from Whole Foods and farmers markets, not to mention food cooperatives that offer organic food affordably, so Walmart’s move doesn’t mean much for folks like me. And precisely what the new line will mean systemwide — how Walmart’s massive scale will affect for organic farmers and prices throughout the market — remains to be seen. But for families like the Dreiers, who — like an estimated 15 percent of Walmart’s own workers — work hard and yet still need Snap to pay for food, it offers something new: an organic option they can afford. And it reminds me that I never should have been surprised that they’d want one in the first place.
Tracie McMillan is the author of the award-winning New York Times bestseller, "The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table." She is a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism and teaches writing at Wesleyan University.