A typical Trader Joe’s is full of chatty employees in Hawaiian shirts, products with trendy labels, and shopping carts full of pickle popcorn and kale gnocchi.
With no checkout or delivery services, each of the 500 stores is much smaller than a regular grocery store to make it “feel like a convenience store,” Jon Basalone, president of stores, said on the store’s podcast.
“Maybe you meet someone or a crew member and you can talk about what you’re buying or products or what’s going on in your life, that sort of thing,” he added.
Long lines at the checkout and crowded parking lots are a testament to the store’s popularity, while its secure spot in USA Today’s list of the 10 Best Supermarket Chains in the US attests to this.
Trader Joe’s brand draws customers in, and the cheap prices and organic options — like the $0.19 organic bananas or the $2.69 organic hummus — motivate them to come back.
Lower costs can be attributed to their own brand, said Eva Montoya, 23, a former crew member at the downtown Salt Lake City site.
To “save every penny,” Trader Joe’s prices are estimated to be 16% lower than competing stores. But is the chain ready to be accessible to communities that can benefit greatly from these cost-cutting prices and healthy food options? Is Trader Joe’s really a “convenience store” for every neighborhood?
Trader Joe’s offers affordable options, but mostly for affluent neighborhoods. A recent study focused on Southern California found that the grocery chain had more locations “in upper-middle-income regions than in lower- and upper-class income regions.”
Montoya, who originally worked at a dealership in Santa Barbara, also noted that the two area locations were in affluent neighborhoods.
Essentially, Montoya is a second-generation employee of Trader Joe: her parents worked for the chain in the early 2000s, as did her uncle in the ’80s. The Montoya family has often wondered why people on lower incomes don’t shop there – was it the price or the location?
This year, Trader Joe’s expects to open six new locations, from Santa Monica, California to Miami, Florida. However, the list excludes rural areas in the western, midwest, and southern U.S. where people typically struggle to access nutritious food, also known as “food deserts,” according to the Department of Agriculture.
California has 192 Trader Joe locations, while Utah has just three — two of which, Salt Lake City and Cottonwood, are in regions with higher median household incomes, $80,196 and $93,563, respectively, than the state median of $74,197 while the location Located in Orem is one of the largest retail centers in the Orem and Utah Valley.
The reality is that over 53 million people live in communities that have easier access to grape soda than a handful of grapes. Living in such a neighborhood can lead to poor nutrition, increased obesity and other diet-related diseases.
The term “food desert” makes the phenomenon seem natural, although the problem is a “result of systemic practices like redlining that have led to divestments and subsequent grocery store shortages,” explained Caroline Harries, associate director at Healthy Food, an organization that advocates for food justice.
Rural areas with declining populations, distribution issues, and regulatory obstacles like signage and parking requirements aren’t the ideal place for a grocery store, she added.
Behind the scenes
Trader Joe’s, the “neighborhood grocery store,” has demonstrated its commitment to diversity and inclusion by purchasing 15% of its items from Black-owned businesses and donating groceries to expand its reach, but delivering to the store still a specific clientele. Business Insider described a typical customer as a married person living in an urban area, aged 25 to 44, and making $80,000.
This was also true more than two decades ago.
“Basically, we think the demographics of the area are a good fit for our goal. We saw a very educated group of people who were curious and interested in food,” said Michele Gorski, Trader Joe’s spokeswoman, in March 1997.
“Our customers are highly educated and adventurous. They are interesting people who like to explore different food options.”
The stereotype that low-income neighborhoods have no interest in nutrient-dense foods is a misconception, and there’s actually more demand in those neighborhoods than retailers realize, Harries said. One study found that people associate low socioeconomic status with less nutritional literacy, less knowledge about food, and a lower desire for nutritious dietary options.
One participant in the study said, “Many low-income people are used to highly processed foods… and might not buy fresh or local if it were cheaper.” Another said, “They didn’t make a connection… for food to get into my body , and that is the most important thing I can do for my own health.” But these opinions are not always based on facts.
So if a grocer moves into an underserved community, does that solve the problem of the grocery access hierarchy?
Just a patch
Perhaps the problem isn’t just the lack of a Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods in an impoverished neighborhood, but the lack of power that millions of Americans have over food.
For example, there are many urban farms in western Salt Lake City, “but a lot of that food is exported to communities to the east. Are there structural things we could do to give people more control over their own food systems?” said Dr. Adrienne Cachelin, Professor of Environmental and Sustainability Studies at the University of Utah and Director of the SPARC Environmental Justice Lab.
Building large retailers in these areas may not be the most sustainable approach, as they can become the biggest threat to community-based efforts, she added.
In 2014, a historically African-American neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, resisted a Trader Joe’s move, stating that it “won’t primarily benefit the black community” because it would “increase the desirability of the neighborhood” — in other words : it’s a recipe for gentrification.
According to a report by Real Estate Consulting, a street-level Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s can increase rent premiums by an average of 5.8%, driving locals away.
Before Montoya left the grocery chain, she considered moving to a new location. She wondered where that could be.
“We know that wherever they next build a store in Utah, like the next gentrified city is going to be,” she said.
Perhaps the solution isn’t simply building food retailers to narrow the food insecurity gap, but finding holistic and creative solutions — like promoting locally grown food and aligning produce at a Trader Joe’s with urban farming, Cachelin said.
“Who are the people who live in these areas that other people refer to as food deserts?” she said. “What do you want?”