Natural Foods Merchandiser

The black consumer in the naturals market

Ever since Barack Obama asked a bunch of Iowans on the campaign trail if they'd seen how expensive arugula was in Whole Foods, there has been speculation that not only is our new president a foodie, he's a natural foodie. Entire websites are devoted to Obama's healthy diet, and the Chicago Sun Times recently reported that the nation's first black president passes up soda and potato chips in favor of organic Black Forest Berry Honest Tea and trail mix.

Obama's critics say his natural and organic food choices make him an elitist and out of touch with his fellow African-Americans, but recent research doesn't back up those claims:

  • Bellevue, Wash.-based market research firm The Hartman Group's 2006 and 2008 organics consumer surveys show African-Americans are just as likely to purchase organic foods as Caucasians, and are actually more likely to be core organic consumers.
  • A 2007 Harris Poll of nearly 2,400 Americans found that as many blacks as whites buy organic food all or most of the time (7 percent of all consumers, in each case).
  • A 2006 study, “Organic Food Demand: A Focus Group Study Involving Caucasian and African-American Shoppers,” conducted by academics in Wisconsin and Australia, found that although African-Americans have much less familiarity with organic foods than Caucasians, they are more receptive and positive toward organics. They are also more accepting of price premiums for organic foods.

    “One of the greatest myths about organics, that only Caucasian consumers are interested in organic products, is simply not true,” Hartman Group researchers wrote in their Organic 2006 report.

    In Hartman's “The Many Faces of Organic 2008” report, researchers discovered that 61 percent of African-Americans are core or midlevel organics consumers, compared to 72 percent of Latinos and 60 percent of whites. In addition, 37 percent of blacks buy organics daily, weekly or monthly, compared to 45 percent of Latinos and 38 percent of whites. “We no longer see any significant differences in consumer segments across race,” researchers concluded.

    The growing Latino interest in natural and organic products is well documented, but there's not as much information available about African-Americans' shopping habits. The result is that blacks are frequently neglected when it comes to the buying and selling of healthy foods. “It's easier to find a semi-automatic weapon in our communities than it is to find a tomato, much less an organic tomato,” LaDonna Redmond, a food-justice activist at Chicago's Frederick Blum Neighborhood Assistance Center, recently told The Chicago Reporter.

    Publicity about Obama's eating habits may change that. But in the meantime, here are some ideas about how you can cater to this underserved market segment.

    A healthy heritage
    “For African Americans in particular, food has two approaches: heritage and health,” says Ramin Ganeshram, director and chief food strategist for Iconoculture, a Minneapolis company that specializes in consumer behavior research.

    Heritage. More than other ethnicities, African-Americans tend to cook the foods of their ancestors, be it the soul food of Caribbean-Americans, the rice and beans from the West Indies or the squash, yams and pumpkins of Africa, Ganeshram says. Not only does this honor blacks' heritage, it also preserves the fellowship of gathering together for a home-cooked meal. “There's a much stronger association of passed-down tradition and culture,” she says. “African-Americans have never veered as far from cooking from scratch and from local foods than the rest of the country has.” This may be one reason why African-Americans are so receptive to organic foods—“they may be confusing local with organic,” Ganeshram says. “There is a lot of pride around organic farming and local food production in the African-American community.”

    Although there is a dichotomy—“African-Americans like to cook at home, but on the other hand, they're frequent fast-food users”—when blacks shop in a grocery store, they're frequently looking for whole-food ingredients rather than packaged foods, Ganeshram says.

    "When people of different ethnicities meet, food is one of the first barriers that's broken down"

    Health. Last December, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control released a shocking statistic: African-American women are actually shrinking. The CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that the average height of a black woman born in the 1980s is just under 5 feet 4 inches, but black women born in the 1960s are more than half an inch taller. Even black women born in the 1940s are a bit taller than their modern-day counterparts. In comparison, the average white woman born in the 1980s is about half an inch taller than one born in the 1960s.

    Researchers speculate that poor diet—particularly for low- and middle-income black women—is contributing to their shorter stature. Indeed, CDC statistics show that as of 2004, 80 percent of black women were overweight or obese, compared with 57 percent of white women and 73 percent of Hispanic women. (Black men's obesity statistics are similar to those of the general population). Consequently, 37 percent of African-American men over age 20 and 42 percent of African-American women have hypertension, according to the CDC.

    Other common black health problems include cancer (prostate in particular), AIDS and diabetes. According to the National Institute of Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, African-Americans are 1.8 times more likely to have diabetes than non-Hispanic whites. Nearly 15 percent of blacks older than 20 have diabetes, the institute reports.

    Natural products stores that address these health problems while avoiding stereotyping can be attractive to African-American shoppers, Ganeshram says. “You can talk about foods that are good for diabetes, but don't say: ‘African-American folks, this stuff is really good for diabetes, which we know you have,'” she says, only half-jokingly. “When we try to focus broad food categories by ethnicity, that can be dangerous.”

    Instead, think of your store as a “very democratic place for people to meet,” Ganeshram says. “When people of different ethnicities meet, food is one of the first barriers that's broken down.”

    Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer and editor.

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