Food is kind of a big deal in my house. While the majority of Americans spend less than 10% of their income on groceries, we spend closer to 15, although it used to be more. A couple of years ago, seeing how much we spent on food and how much we threw away, we started a habit of planning the week's meals ahead of time, including the lunches we take to work. For the most part, we stick to this plan and it gives us an easy way to buy only what we need, and eat all that we buy. Now the expense comes from the fact that we love to eat, and we eat organic, natural, local foods instead of their cheaper processed counterparts.
This doesn't mean we don't value thrift, just that it is not as important to us as the health and well being of ourselves, our food, and our planet. By the same token, just because we can afford to spend 15% of our income on food doesn't mean that we can afford to spend 20. So, in an effort to reaffirm our commitment to organic, locally sourced groceries in 2013, we went to three local grocery stores and compared them with each other on both price and food source quality. Here's what we found.
Whole Foods: Whole Foods is probably the best known of these three markets. It has stores across North America, and in the UK.
Sprouts Farmers Market: Sprouts recently acquired Henry's, Sun Harvest, and Sunflower markets, uniting them under the Sprouts name. They can be found in eight states: AZ, CA, CO, NM, NV, OK, TX and UT.
PRICE BREAKDOWN BY STORE:
Organic Russet Potato
Organic Bunch Carrot
Organic Pink Lady Apple
Organic Romain Lettuce
Organic Salad Mix - 5 oz Box
Organic Persian Cucumber
Cheerub Cherry Tomatoes
Yogurt - 6 oz Cup
0.89 - 2.30
0.99 - 1.99
Sour Cream -16 oz Tub
French Bread Loaf
Items I could not find at Ralphs (the absence of these things also clearly illustrates why I don't shop at grocery chains like Ralphs.)
Good Belly Probiotic Shot
Lactose Free Organic Milk
USDA Organic Chicken Breast
Free Range Ground Turkey
Whole Roasted Free Range Chicken
Roasted Free Range Turkey Breast
Dozen Free Range Organic Eggs
Organic Frozen Cheese Ravioli - 16 oz
Tacupeto (Local) Chips
Pacific Natural Organic Broth
Whole Foods has a minimum standard of origin and ingredient that neither Sprouts nor Ralphs can rival. All of their produce is either organic, locally grown or both. Their meat is graded by a 5-step system and clearly labeled from steps 2 through 5. They don't carry step 1, as it falls below their minimum standard. I know this is largely marketing, but I like that they state clearly what they will and won't carry, something Spouts alludes to but isn't specific about, and something that Ralphs doesn't acknowledge at all. They also have a much larger selection than either Sprouts or Ralphs. There's a reason they are so much more expensive than either of the other stores. Even though they don't illustrate it as clearly as Whole Foods, Sprouts does have a minimum standard for their products and it is respectable to me. You'll find a majority of organic and local products on the shelves, and at least one cut each of red and white meat that would be considered step 4 in Whole Foods. Sprouts also refrains from stocking anything that Whole Foods would consider step 1.
However, I do wish Sprouts had more organic foods. As it stands, their organic produce section is only slightly larger than Ralphs, although their other products look better than Ralphs non-organic selection. They don't wax their fruit, they tend to have farm info in plain sight, and they tend to look a lot like what you'll find at the farmers market. Out of the entire store, the Ralphs products I would feel comfortable buying would easily fit on a single isle. As you can see in the table above, there are some very significant items that Ralphs doesn't carry. There was one brand of chicken breast that looked like it might pass muster at Sprouts, but it cost the same as Sprouts' most expensive brand, Petaluma Farm's Rosie Chicken, and didn't come half way to inspiring the same confidence I have in Rosie, even if the brand has been criticized by slow food guru Michael Pollen.
My response to that criticism is we can't all be famous authors, and at $8.50 a pound Rosie is already on the edge of affordable for us. Since I don't personally know anybody who raises chickens, and I can't raise my own, I'm just glad that they're as far above the industry standard as they are, and am happy to pay for that difference.
If money were no object, Whole Foods would win hands down. However, Sprouts offers just as humane, organic, free range, and reputable food, but with fewer options. Their selection is much smaller, they are also much cheaper, and for our purposes at this time I don't feel like the things this extra money buys Whole Foods shoppers are necessary for our daily lives. In all honesty, Ralphs was never in the running. I only added them because I suspected they weren't much cheaper than Sprouts, and I proved myself right. It's nice that they're trying to be more organic for the people that already shop there, but having switched to Sprouts a long time ago, I'm not interested in moving backwards.
A NOTE ON THE NUMBERS:
These prices are for as similar an item as I could possibly find in three entirely different stores. In the "Total Cost" field, I calculated it as if I were buying only one unit (lb, oz, box, etc.) which is sometimes accurate, and sometimes ridiculous (as in 1 oz of cheese), but for the purposes of accuracy in pricing, I wanted to stick to as reliable a measurement as possible. In the instances where there is a price range (yogurt, eggs) I chose the cheapest price for each store.
HONORABLE MENTION: TRADER JOE'S:
I love Trader Joe's. I know for a fact that they are cheaper than any of the three stores I listed here. I shopped there when I was on food stamps, and I could easily feed two people on what was supposed to be an individual food stamp allotment. However, I did not include them on this list due to their store size. First, they are so small, they don't stock a lot of the things on this list. Second, it was already a challenge navigating the midsized Sprouts. The idea of attempting this in a crowded Trader Joe's made me break out in a cold sweat. Trader Joe's is an amazing store, I suggest you visit them as often as possible.