What Trader Joe's teaches us about America's appetite for sustainable food

Is the chain a boon for higher quality food, or just a traitor to the local food movement?

Many food-conscious folks have a complicated relationship with Trader Joe's. Its low prices and healthy aesthetic draw us in, but its ubiquity and secretive owners leave us wary. A friend of mine's father calls the Bellingham, Washington location "Traitor Joe's," a nod to the store's appeal to once-loyal customers from the local food co-op.

What personally strikes me as odd is the chain's ability to make me feel okay paying rock-bottom prices that would sketch me out at any other store. They instill $1.49 tofu, $1.99 bagged spinach, and $0.99 pasta with a bourgeois vibe more akin to Starbucks than Grocery Outlet.

Alessandra Ram argues this week in the Atlantic that despite the store's shortcomings, it may offer a model for affordable sustainable food moving forward.

Ram points to the chain's responsiveness to customer concerns over the sustainability of its products. Trader Joe's raised standards for their seafood products, signed the Fair Food Agreement pledging to pay laborers more for produce, and made a public committment to stock more non-GMO items on their shelves, all thanks to public campaigns.

These moves by Trader Joe's have motivated other stores to take notice, Ram writes:

Even Wal-Mart, which serves a lower-income demographic than Trader Joe's, is following suit: The store has generated a lot of publicity since drafting a corporate policy to buy seven percent of all its fresh food from within 150 miles of its regional warehouses.

That influential effect is what's most promising to me about Trader Joe's. Yes, the store catered to demands for better food, but those demands came from a vocal mostly higher-income consumer base. If the store can continue to motivate chains serving lower income customers to remain affordable while offering higher quality food, I think that would be a prime opportunity to make real progress in improving American food consumption.

[via The Atlantic]

Photo: IK's World Trip/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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