By Morgan Renata

How wholesome is your local wholefoods store? Morgan Renata investigates.

On Apirana Avenue in Glen Innes, little more than 100 metres apart from one another sit two supermarkets: one sports something of a household name after 30+ years of servicing New Zealand families, and the other, a relative stranger, offers only a handful of carparks to match their quiet and unassuming aesthetic. The close proximity of these two outlets is nothing unusual to urban-dwellers who have grown all too accustomed to juxtaposed supermarkets, particularly those serving subconscious reminders of our trans-Tasman rivalries. Rather what makes this situation so unusual is that the humble wholefoods store is still both figuratively and literally a stranger amongst the local community while its more mainstream counterpart, a couple of stores over, is never without patrons.

For as long as Huckleberry has been in Tāmaki the local communities that comprise this area have been at the highest end of the nation’s deprivation scale. Data from 2006 which predates the establishment of Huckleberry in the Tāmaki area clearly showed that the four communities that are collectively known as “Tāmaki” – Glen Innes East, Glen Innes West, Point England, and Tamaki – had absolutely no capacity to regularly access their store.  With unanimous deprivation rankings of 10, it could even be assumed that these communities had no capacity to ever access the upmarket food outlet. Their collective lack of access to housing, support, health and education, alongside regular unemployment ranked them all within the most deprived 20% of people living in our country. Fast forward to 2013 and the situation remained mostly unchanged, the only difference being that these significantly disadvantaged communities now had an organic supermarket around the corner from them. With its lack of popularity and significant inaccessibility for local clientele it begs the questions – what could have possibly compelled an organic, wholefoods grocer to set up shop amidst some of the country’s most deprived communities, and how is it that it manages to survive?

The ‘Whole Foods Effect’

In the United States, this business strategy has been given a lot of attention from a whole range of interests. Businesses, real estate agents, policy makers, scholars, and activists have all speculated, theorised or fought against the impact that opening a wholefoods supermarket in a low socioeconomic area has on the local community. What they are all able to agree on despite their opposing agendas is that there is an irrefutable increase in the cost of living for these neighbourhoods, and a dramatic shift in the demographics that make up these communities. The mere presence of a Whole Foods store in the US justifies house price increases by up to 30%, subsequently driving up demand for rental units in the surrounding area and significantly increasing rental costs. With the need for higher incomes, the original community of typically minority ethnicities is replaced with whiter, higher qualified counterparts, and the entire socioeconomic and demographic landscape of the area undergoes a positive process of ‘revitalisation’. Whether you choose to call it something more tactful like the “Whole Foods Effect”, or a more audacious synonym such as ‘gentrification’ or ‘economic displacement’, organic, wholefood grocers have repeatedly proven to have transformative impacts on low socioeconomic neighbourhoods.

To give this uprooting of communities some context, the grocer in question typically opens amongst low socioeconomic areas that are known to be ‘food deserts or have extreme distances to the nearest fresh food outlet. The premise to their establishment in these communities is ostensibly to improve the health and wellbeing of nutritionally deprived communities by making healthier food options more convenient and thus accessible. In some areas they even offered discounted prices on staple food items to better accommodate the communities they were operating within. Everything about their presence could indicate that they showed some genuine concern about the food insecurity and health problems that these communities experienced except for one fundamental oversight: their prices, discounts and all, were still not affordable options for locals.  Without genuinely accessible products this seemingly well intentioned outlet has become the “Trojan horseof low-income communities – an organic offering before the wholesale harvest of their streets.

The ‘Huckleberry Effect’?

Whether the same can be said here in New Zealand with the increasing prominence of organic food suppliers is still debatable. With several of Huckleberry’s location choices being positioned in severely deprived communities though, they flirt a little too much with this Whole Foods model to be unequivocally innocent. Their Glen Innes branch is but one of five stores that appear to be questionable retail spots. Both their New Lynn and Tauranga stores present a situation that is not too dissimilar from Glen Innes – their stores are situated in extremely deprived communities that are surrounded by communities that are only marginally less deprived than their immediate locals. Their Royal Oak and Mt. Maunganui stores however change the tactic ever so slightly and are safely nestled in less deprived pockets that are instead flanked by more deprived communities. In any of the above instances though there is a very clear arrangement pattern that Huckleberry have chosen to employ, that being the situating of their shops near borders to substantially wealthier communities. In every single one of these Auckland instances, their stores are no more than two suburbs away from communities that sit at almost the opposite end of the deprivation scale. An overlay of Huckleberry’s store finder with the socioeconomic deprivation map almost immediately paints a picture of juxtaposed inequality across the city with a Huckleberry store at the centre of every instance.

It would be a completely unsubstantiated claim to say that, just like the US, wholefood stores are symptomatic of impending gentrification in New Zealand. The relatively recent emergence and slow expansion of organic grocers in the country has made this particular research topic mostly irrelevant until now. What is irrefutable though without any need for academic corroboration is that Huckleberry Glen Innes sits at the heart of what is to be “New Zealand’s largest inner-city regeneration projectwith some of the city’s most established” neighbourhoods a stone’s throw away. Huckleberry New Lynn is similarly perched in an extremely strategic position to benefit from the major “revitalisation” project whose epicentre is in Avondale but ripples throughout West Auckland. This is not to say that there is a causal link between Huckleberry and widespread displacement, but it is to say that there are some extremely coincidental correlations between the two that warrant questions about who is actually included in their vision of feeding “the people of New Zealand”, and how could they justify sustainable profits given the socioeconomic information of their local communities at the time of establishing?

Food Swamps

In New Zealand, the rationale of providing wholefoods stores to alleviate food insecurity issues has no basis since research shows that higher socioeconomic deprivation is associated with an increased saturation of food outlets. Areas such as Glen Innes that make up the most deprived quintile have over 60% more fast food and take away stores, convenience stores, supermarkets and fresh produce stores available to them than areas with less deprivation. What is significant within these communities however is that despite the abundance of food outlets, a disproportionate number of them are unhealthy and significantly ease access to highly-processed, nutrient-poor foods. This inundation of food outlets with an over-representation of unhealthy outlets are known as food swamps and situate these communities within food environments that over-expose them to unhealthy food and consequently increase the likelihood of unhealthy consumption habits.

The prevalence rates of obesity and overweight adults and children within deprived communities is largely influenced by these food environments and do not improve with the provision of organic grocers as the problem goes beyond even economic accessibility. Negative health outcomes within these communities are indeed a result of low incomes but are just as importantly the compounded result of ineffective food policy, pervasive marketing, and strategically targeted business. In comparing the likes of Tāmaki to some of the least deprived communities in the country, there are 3.7 times more fast food and takeaway outlets, and 2.8 times more convenience stores present than in communities at the other end of the scale. Supermarkets similarly scale according to deprivation and will have 0.38m of shelf space dedicated to healthy food for every 1m of unhealthy food in Tāmaki compared to 0.44m of healthy products in the least deprived areas. Schools within most deprived areas are surrounded by more convenience stores and unhealthy food marketing than their least deprived counterparts, and within their gates they are more likely to sell sugar-laden beverages. Everything about these food environments has manufactured a demand for unhealthy food amongst lower socioeconomic communities and in doing so has not only manipulated their knowledge of what healthier food options are, but also reduced their capacity to engage in healthier food behaviours.

Food (In)Security

Without a basic knowledge on how to discern between genuinely healthy products and healthy-marketed products in a mainstream supermarket, there is almost no chance that the healthy, often alien food options that a wholefoods supermarket offers will be appropriate for these communities. The accessibility to nutritious, good quality food, although a major component of food security, is only effective at ensuring food security if there is an understanding of how to prepare that food in a healthy way. Food security is commonly defined as the assured socially-appropriate access to good quality food that is safe, nutritionally adequate and meets cultural needs. Some definitions explicitly stretch to mention the social, physical and economic aspects of access, as well as the need for it to sustain “an active and healthy life. A less commonly mentioned element of food security though is this necessity for appropriate knowledge of how to utilise the food so that it can be made to fulfil the above requirements. The prominence of convenience foods amongst areas of greater deprivation would suggest that this knowledge factor is a significant barrier to food security in these communities. Healthy food products do not inherently translate to healthier meals, particularly not within communities such as Tāmaki whose familiarity of ‘healthy’ food options is severely hindered by what mainstream supermarkets offer through their targeted product ranges and limited food varieties.

The most recent New Zealand data on food security shows that approximately 20% of households regularly have to compromise on one or more of the elements of food security making their assured access to food vulnerable. With lower socioeconomic status, sole parenthood, and Māori and Pacific ethnic identities all being key determinants of food insecurity, Tāmaki provides a perfect snapshot of a community that should statistically struggle more than most to access food. The average unemployment rate across Tāmaki is 17% and is as high as 21% in its most deprived community which assumedly contributes to an average of 53.8% of Tāmaki residents earning an average annual income of less than $20,000. Within Tāmaki, the percentage of families with single parents was on average, 36.3%, which is almost double the percentage of single parent families in Auckland as a whole. With 67.8% of this community identifying as Māori and Pacific, the majority of this community is at a disproportionately higher risk of experiencing food insecurity than any other ethnic group in the country.  Across every single determinant the Tāmaki area has higher than average rates which interact in complex ways to restrict these communities from accessing food. Although Huckleberry is physically located too far from community hubs to witness how these determinants manifest, their presence alone within this community is a stark reminder of the contrasting ‘Aucklands’ that live in opposing directions from their store.

So, Is It Okay to Shop at Huckleberry?

The food disparities that are representative in this community, although substantial in their own right, are symbolic of wider systematic inequalities that have allowed the likes of Huckleberry to monopolise on a prime business opportunity and fulfil a demand for a wealthier community within Tāmaki. By no means is this to say that Huckleberry are responsible for the food related inequalities that these communities face, nor is it to suggest that they have some type of moral obligation to acknowledge these multifaceted inequalities, after all, they are still a business with a bottom line that is not met through charity. It is however meant to offer a somewhat critical overview of the potential limits to our ‘more ethical’ consumption practices.  This situation, as confronting as it may be, offers a critical opportunity to assess the impact our consumption choices are having on our local communities. Is more convenient access to fair-trade, sustainably packaged products worth the potential displacement of families from rent increases that are either directly or indirectly related to that convenience? Is it fair to spend exorbitant amounts on organic kombucha or dairy-free cheese alternatives while local institutions and artisans, strapped for business, struggle to survive? How local is a store when their faces reflect none of those whose community it occupies?  Ultimately, how cheap must rent be (or promising the ‘regeneration’) before it’s a good idea to make a home there?

This article was prepared as part of a postgraduate course on Ethics and Governance in International Development directed by Professor Andreas Neef of the University of Auckland’s Development Studies programme.

Morgan Renata is a postgraduate student in Development Studies at the University of Auckland. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.