Last week Trader Joe's ex-president Doug Rauch made national news when he announced a plan to open a grocery store that will sell expired food at discounted prices. Rauch claims that the store will help the low-income residents of Dorchester, Mass. maintain a healthier diet while also reducing the rate of food waste. If successful, Rauch plans to open similar stores in other locations across the country.
But some Dorchester residents were not enthusiastic about Rauch's planned store. Kiki Carter, a 33-year-old hair stylist, told the Boston Globe that Dorchester doesn't need a store selling food others chose to discard. "We don't want it," Carter said. "Why would we?"
Carter has good reason to be skeptical. When middle-class Americans are flocking to farmers' markets and Whole Foods for fresh, organic produce, why does Rauch, with the help of major media outlets, promote a less healthy alternative for low-income families? Since those in need can already access discarded products in food pantries, Rauch's plan seems more likely to generate profit for wealthy executives like himself than address the problems of sustainability and public health for people on a limited income.
Oregon, my home state, has become notorious for its obsession with sustainable food. In a memorable Portlandia sketch, a yuppie couple interrogates a server about the source of the chicken on the menu. The waitress is unfazed, producing a portfolio with the chicken's name, photograph, and life history. Still not satisfied, the couple goes out to visit the farm and see the conditions first hand.
But Oregon's awareness of the importance of sustainable food doesn't stop at upscale restaurants and overpriced grocery stores. Nonprofit organizations, with some help from the government, are running innovative programs that bring healthy, sustainable food to people from all economic backgrounds.
In Lane County, Willamette Farm and Food Coalition (WFFC) works with local schools to educate K-12 students about healthy nutrition and add fresh, local food to school lunches. Another local nonprofit, NEDCO, runs a year-round farmers' market called Sprout in Springfield, a town where many residents rely on SNAP and state supplemental nutrition programs. Sprout's progressive SNAP match program makes locally grown food more affordable by adding a dollar to every two dollars customers spend at the market.
Though I've been lucky to have access to healthy food, the prices for local and organic food are sometimes prohibitive, especially for products that I buy on a daily basis. How do WFFC and NEDCO make local and organic food affordable for low-income Oregonians while also allowing local farmers to stay in business?
When it comes to including healthier food in school lunches, funding is particularly challenging. In recent years Oregon's public schools have undergone severe budget cuts which have resulted in teacher layoffs and furlough days. Yet as WFFC's Outreach Coordinator Leisha Wood told me in an email, their education program is funded by grants and is available at no cost to low-income children. Wood added that a bill recently passed by the Oregon State Legislature will "reimburse school districts for their purchases of locally grown food to help cover the additional costs associated with these purchases."
Dave Johnson, a NEDCO employee, told me that the SNAP match program at Sprout farmers' market is also funded by grants. The extra dollar for every two dollars spent provides an important incentive for SNAP customers to shop for local food. The decision to buy pricier food is a difficult one for people with a limited income, Johnson said. The match program makes that decision a little easier and it has succeeded in bringing low-income customers to the farmers' market. Each month, Sprout serves about 20-30 families who pay with SNAP cards.
The match program also gives an economic boost to local farmers. Unlike large agribusiness, small farms do not receive government subsidies, which is one of the reasons local produce can be more expensive. NEDCO's program helps level the playing field by providing a subsidy of sorts for smaller farms with sustainable practices.
The grants that fund NEDCO and WFFC's programs go a long way. While making healthy food more widely available, they also strengthen the local economy by keeping food purchases local. In 2012, Lane County schools purchased 72,686 pounds of produce and 59,794 gallons of milk, with a total of $314,014 spent locally. Without WFFC's school lunch program, the money would likely have gone to out-of-state providers and maybe even international corporations. Sprout farmers' market works with a small group of farmers who return every week to sell their products. By limiting the number of stands in the indoor space, Sprout helps ensure that all participating farms get a fair share of the business.
In addition to the economic and health benefits Sprout offers, both business owners and customers enjoy a sense of community. Farmers and consumers can form a relationship that is not possible in a retail setting. There are a few food carts parked outside, and the market has recently added a kitchen where visitors can take a break from shopping and enjoy a prepared meal.
When I asked WFFC's Leisha Wood about Rauch's planned store, she was skeptical. "Considering that most products lose the vast majority of their nutritional value well before their expiration date, I am not confident that this approach will indeed serve the mission of healthier food at all," she said.
Rauch's plan reflects a double-standard: the "healthy" alternative it will offer low-income families falls short of the healthy nutrition standards of the middle-class. Oregon's nonprofits have a much more equitable approach to food security. They develop programs that increase access to fresh, natural foods by making such foods more affordable and widely available. Since these programs keep the food business local, they also help strengthen Oregon's economy and create jobs.