The Grocery Outlet is a supermarket based mainly on the west coast of the US that specializes in food and wine bargains. It started off in San Francisco when, back in 1946, James Read sold food at a discount that he had purchased from government surplus supplies. The idea is still the same – the Grocery Outlet is able to sell food at a discount for various reasons – it might be surplus stock, a product with old packaging, a new product that’s being tried out, or in some cases products that are slightly damaged or close to their expiration date. It has grown quite a following and the “Gross Out” as it’s affectionately nicknamed has become a destination for bargain hunting – there’s an entire blog dedicated to wine finds: Gross Out Wine.
I’ve made 4 shopping trips so far during this first month of Coronavirus lockdown and while most of my stuff comes from a local fruit and veg store, Monterey Market (5/5 Green Stars), I also visited the Grocery Outlet to pick up some vegetarian protein and fulfill a craving for snacks that built up over a few weeks of isolation. I initially started going there for wine but have since found that it’s a good place to find new products to try with low-risk (i.e., at low prices). Over the last year I’ve picked up:
- Many vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes from Quorn, Gardein, Field Roast, and others
- Plant-based alternatives to butter and cheese, including Miyoko’s and Milkadamia
- Plant-based milks, including Oatley, Ripple, and Hope & Sesame
- Snacks like cassava chips, vegan puffs, seeds and nuts
- Wine from Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles and Lodi
- Local chocolate from Charles Chocolate and Ocho
Recession, budget and health
One thing that always hits me when I visit Ireland is the significantly lower cost of most store-bought food, compared to the US. There are a lot of people in the US who can’t afford quality food and places like the Grocery Outlet allow them to buy organic or plant-based food at discount prices. Here’s a video of some vegan bargains at the Gross Out – if you’re watching it in Europe you may be thinking, that’s not very cheap!, but they are cheap relative to regular grocery store prices. Once the economic impact of Covid-19 starts to really take effect then affordable food will become paramount.
Here’s a good article on the relationship between food prices and obesity in Europe. A key point is that obesity tends to be higher when food is cheaper (adjusted for average income) but an important nuance is the quality of the food. The price per calorie in the US tends to favor low-quality processed food while this is not so extreme in Europe. This is thought to be in part due to agricultural subsidies in the US favoring large farms producing commodity crops that end up as animal feed or processed food.
Research in the States has linked rising childhood obesity in the 2000s to falls in the prices of the energy-dense and sweetened foods (while the price of vegetables and low-fat dairy increased). – Newsweek.
Many of the items on my Grocery Outlet list above are processed or packaged to some extent. I’m not advocating that these items should be a large part of your diet. For me, they are supplements to a diet that’s mainly based on fresh fruit and veg, dried legumes and grains, etc. But, packaged as they are, they generally rate well within their categories in terms of healthiness and ethics, so bringing them to lower-income shoppers is an improvement on the status quo. And many of their items come in large packages, like this giant bag of potato chips that I featured before, calculating that it reduced packaging by up to 8-times, compared to small bags.
Environmentalist, actress, and former dumpster-diver, Nicole Danbom wrote this good post, In Defense and Praise of the Grocery Outlet, that discusses food waste and public perception. She found that regular stores (even Whole Foods!) would toss out tons of food for trivial reasons like slightly damaged packaging, while the Grocery Outlet only threw out actual waste. Studies estimate that half of all US food produce is thrown away and, having looked at a few proposed solutions to food waste, I think that the Grocery Outlet is making a useful contribution.
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 30 percent of food is wasted globally across the supply chain, contributing 8 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. If food waste were a country, it would come in third after the United States and China in terms of impact on global warming. – Washington Post.
Grocery Outlet – ethical review
Overall, I think that the Grocery Outlet deserves 4/5 Green Stars for social and environmental impact, based on these factors:
- Stocking food that would otherwise be in danger of being tossed out because of packaging changes, overstock, imperfections, or looming expiration dates, is part of the solution to the huge problem of food waste.
- Stores have been trending towards stocking more plant-based and organic food.
- The Grocery Outlet stocks a good number of brands that rate well ethically, making them available to low-income people that may otherwise have trouble affording them.
- A good number of these brands are also smaller, local companies.
- On Glassdoor you can get a feel for how happy employees are at the Grocery Outlet. One caveat with trusting Glassdoor ratings is that I’ve seen some companies post fake reviews to boost their own rating. The average rating for Grocery Outlet is decent at 3.4 out of 5 but the stores are independently owned so experiences vary. For example, an employee at a San Francisco store mentions good benefits including full health insurance, while employees at another store seem to receive minimum wage and no benefits. So it’ll vary from store to store.
- They have an annual Independence from Hunger campaign that raises funds or food donations for local shelters and food banks.
Happy to be doing a more straightforward post for a change! Let me know if you ever write an ethical review – I would love to feature it here.