When “Organic” Means Inequality: A Tale of a Local Grocery Store

Raley's O-N-E Market/Grocery Store, Wedge Parkway, Reno Nevada - photo: Shelley Buchanan

Earlier this month Raley’s in South Reno reopened with a fanfare celebrating their new O-N-E concept. Focusing on organic foods, Raley’s proclaimed, “We are driven by our vision of infusing life with health and happiness by changing the way the world eats, one plate at a time.”  Residents from the well-to-do South Reno neighborhood can now purchase gluten free hamburger buns while enjoying wheat grass smoothies all the time knowing that what they purchase will be “fresh, nutritious, organic when possible, minimally processed, sustainably sourced and free from ingredients on the brand’s banned ingredients list.”

While Raley’s public relations promotions for the new O-N-E market focus on the company’s concern with customer health, what they don’t divulge is that this concern is dependent upon which neighborhoods their customers live in. 

The Raley’s corporation owns 129 grocery stores on the west coast. They have six different brands, of which the Raley’s store is just one. Two brands that Raley’s owns are dedicated to lower income shoppers; Sak’N Save and Food Source. Food Source and Sak’N Save grocery stores primarily appear in low-income neighborhoods, and the marketing is obviously geared towards those who seek to save money. In Reno, there is a Sak’N Save and, until recently, a Food Source (closed in January.)  What’s interesting is that among their aisles and within their ads, there is no mention of “clean” ingredients or “infusing life with health and happiness” for their customers.  Although well-off shoppers at the South Reno Raley’s can be assured that their children will not be exposed to red dye #40 in their cereal, customers of more modest means shopping at Sak’N Save can get Lucky Charms cereal for a dollar less. 

According to data from Nevada Tomorrow, the population surrounding the Reno Sak’N Save has a median household income of $42,467, 46% are racial or ethnic minorities, and 27% is under the age of 18.  Within the local elementary school, 100% of all students qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch* (WCSD data 2020). Now compare these numbers with the demographics of the new Raley’s O-N-E store, just 13 miles away: residents have a median income of $113,693, 13% are racial or ethnic minorities, and 15% are under the age of 18. Only 7% of all children at the local elementary school qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch. 

Basically, the families shopping at Sak’N Save are poorer, more likely to be a racial or ethnic minority, and more likely to have children. And they are more likely to consume foods with red dye #40. 

While it is an admirable goal for a corporation to be concerned with nutritional health and ecologically sustainable practices, the application of these standards should not be dependent upon which zip code their stores are in. To be fair to Raley’s, this double standard exists throughout corporate America. The concept is nothing new, and it is widely accepted not just by businesses but by the public as well. We are largely OK with the inequitable distribution of nutritional foods. 

According to the Partnership for Healthier America, low-cost foods are disproportionately advertised to low-income and minority communities, predisposing many to diet-related disease. Recently the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stated, “39.4 million Americans continue to live in communities where it is far easier for most residents to buy grape soda instead of a handful of grapes.” 

It’s easy to ignore such facts when they are presented on a national scale, but if you take notice, you’ll see such disparities are in our own communities.  Where you live determines what type of food you have access to and what type you are more likely to purchase.  Organic foods and safe household products are not only more expensive, but they are more likely to be marketed to wealthier individuals. Health and environmental welfare are economic privileges. Don’t take me wrong. I’m not saying people shouldn’t spend nine dollars on an organic sustainably sourced poke bowl. Poke bowls are delicious. But maybe we should be a little more restrained when congratulating corporations for skillfully targeted marketing campaigns. 

Note – Free or Reduced Lunch (FRL) is provided to students whose families fall below a minimum income threshold and as determined by the federal government.


Shelley Buchanan is a forty year resident of Northern Nevada. After working as a English teacher, school librarian, and school technology specialist, she now writes about education, technology, and social justice issues. You can find her writing on http://www.thecultureoflearning.com


The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence.