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A nations love affair with Trader Joes and Whole Foods

Turlock seems to have this love affair with Trader Joes and Whole Foods Market — the problem being, we don’t even have one. And although it doesn’t seem likely that either of these stores will soon make their way to town, many Turlock citizens are still calling for one to open on almost a weekly basis, or whenever a new business opens up that isn’t either/or.

I’d like to kindly provide some clarification for those who continually ask, “Why doesn’t the City bring a Trader Joes or Whole Foods yet?” whenever they hear about a new Mexican restaurant or a McDonald’s opening in Turlock. Although it would be nice, the City itself does not hold the power to tell which businesses to come open a store in Turlock, while also not being able to tell new restaurants or other businesses “no” simply because there’s already existing ones here. Businesses will continue to open where they see a market base, and given the success of their already existing stores in town (such as the McDonald’s on Geer Road, Countryside Drive or W. Main Street), they will try to capitalize on that success by expanding into other areas of town. If everyone stopped spending their dollars at the existing McDonald’s locations, I guarantee you that the multi-billion dollar food conglomerate would find more profitable communities to build a new store in.

It’s no secret that Whole Foods Market tends to be picky when deciding on locations to open its stores, however, there have been many petitions asking the company to change its ways. Like most retailers, Whole Foods relies on demographic data when deciding where to open stores, such as population trends, household incomes, the cost of real estate, education, and shopping habits. Company representatives have recently said that they’re beginning to take petitions requesting stores more seriously as they plan to build 1,000 new stores. However, the wealth of a community still comes into play when making a decision.

With both of these organic-and-specialty-food industry giants opening new stores nationwide, the demand for organic, natural and specialty items is continually growing at a rapid pace. While people supporting the “organic-only” lifestyle have shopped at local co-ops for decades, the success of organic mega-retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joes has added a certain “trendiness” that has made the industry soar. But are the products and produce being sold in these chains really the same as buying from a local organic grower? Or has successful marketing ploys and convincing labeling/packaging just made it possible to appear so, while being able to reach a larger market? Also, how might bringing in such stores affect local, conventional farmers?

There seems to be quite a few misconceptions about the term “organic,” first being that it is synonymous with “small family farmer.” Sure there are plenty of small organic family farmers throughout the nation, but their representation in chains like Whole Foods or Trader Joes is miniscule as their produce mostly comes from a small handful of big organic farms that dominate the whole industry. If you want to support small organic family farmers, then simply find the nearest co-op near Turlock to shop at. But please don’t believe the stores’ misleading marketing methods when they plaster a friendly looking farmer standing in front of his field with the words “Help the Small Farmer” next to it because it’s exactly that — a marketing method. This misleading marketing technique is easy enough to get away with for these mega-stores, as the USDA did not include any “local” restrictions within the guidelines for organic food that were set in 1990. Perhaps this is also why Wal-Mart has recently entered the organic-food market, and is being able to do so with their famous low-prices — a potential threat to the over-priced products and “elite-status” of stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes.

Also because of the abstract restrictions placed by the USDA, what passes for organic farming today is far from what was intended when the movement really picked up in the 1960s and ‘70s. The second biggest misconception about the term “organic” is that it is synonymous with being inherently “healthier.” There is very little to no difference in the nutritional quality of organic farming as opposed to conventional farming methods. Some might cite GMOs or pesticide residues as being their reason for shopping organic or for growing their own produce, but reports and studies have shown that over 95 percent of pesticide residues in any form of food are the ones created by the plant itself, not that which was placed on the fields by the farmer. And if you’re someone who believes that planting your own veggies at home will save you from those scary GMOs, it won’t unless you’ve really researched where you’re getting your seeds from. Almost all seeds available for purchase have already been genetically modified before you even got the chance to touch it. You may also want to check the soil you’re using.

With organic food only needing to be around 70 percent “organic” to obtain the coveted label, for the most part, many of the products being sold in chain stores such as Trader Joes or Whole Foods are still using precautionary additives like the products being sold in conventional stores do, just in lesser amounts so they can technically qualify as “organic.”  If everything in these stores were 100 percent organic or natural, it would not be possible for them to sit on the shelves for as long as they do, without the store being filled with rotting items. That’s kind of the benefit of things like pesticides, preservatives, GMOs — our food lasts longer, being able to meet the needs of a growing global population.

And if you really want to get into the “health” aspect of it all, studies have found that the prevalence of E. coli is significantly higher in organic produce, supporting the idea that organic produce is susceptible to fecal contamination. This is because a majority of organic production uses plant/animal wastes and manure (which is often times completely untreated) to increase the levels of nitrogen in an effort to foster more fertile soil — a problem that has been avoided by utilizing agricultural practices that emphasize efficiency and technology to streamline food production and availability of contaminant-free productive farmland.

I’m not saying that conventional farming methods are necessarily “better” than organic farming, but as it stands now in light of current regulatory policy, essentially any organization can acquire certification as an “organic producer” merely by paying an established fee and demonstrating the bare minimum that is required of them by disconcerting policies and standards. Then go on to ultimately benefit from the unquestioned loyalty of all the organic-loving Whole Foods and Trader Joes shoppers, who have been told through endless promotion and marketing efforts to treat the organic label as the infallible symbol of “health” and “ethical superiority” — those who buy organic foods simply because it shows other people that they’re the type of person that buy organic foods.

I’ll be the first to admit that I enjoy the different and unique specialty choices that are found in Whole Foods or Trader Joes that you can’t find in your conventional store, but I don’t think that we should continue to buy into this “everything organic is better, and I’m a better person for it” mindset that has swept over the nation in recent years without questioning and researching where their products come from, and what methods are being used, before demanding that we need a Trader Joes or Whole Foods.

But if you’re in Turlock and you must get that popular-all-natural-super-organic peanut butter to go with your preservative free jelly, and take a picture of it for Instagram with the hashtag “#healthyliving,” the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market on Geer Road is selling such items in their newly established organic aisle.