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Whole Foods got caught overcharging customers, but that's just part of the problem with food costs.

The harsh fact of the matter is that food is becoming less affordable for low-income families.

For years, people have debated whether or not it's worth shelling out extra cash for organic produce.

It's one of those topics where reasonable people can disagree, and whether or not someone should or shouldn't go organic is something best left to the individual consumer.


Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

That said, there's some disturbing news coming from produce-land, and it's nothing to do with GMOs or processed foods. It has to do with mislabeling — possibly intentionally.

According to the New York Daily News, NY-area Whole Foods might have been ripping you off — more than you even knew.

People jokingly call Whole Foods "Whole Paycheck" for its perceived priceyness, but according to reporting from the Daily News, their local chains have been overcharging customers for at least the past five years, usually by mislabeling the weight of products.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Examples of violations included chicken tenders that were overpriced by $4.85, coconut shrimp that was $14.84 over its actual cost, and a vegetable platter that came in at $6.15 too expensive — all because the item weight didn't match up.

As most shoppers don't bring their own scale to the store (and probably aren't able to guess weight down to the nearest tenth of a pound), this isn't even one of those situations where it's fair to suggest "buyer beware."

But let's talk about a bigger issue: Lower-income Americans are having a harder time putting food on the table.

According to a report from the USDA, households in the bottom 20% of income earners were spending on average 36% of their income on food.

And just as frightening, the cost of food is rising faster than the rest of the economy. That is, over the past five years, the cost of food has risen by more than 10%, outpacing the average change of a little more than 8%.

It's not just food, either. The price of college, child care, and vehicle maintenance have climbed steadily over the past decade relative to other items while things like toys and electronics have gotten more affordable. In other words, the things we need to survive ("the basics") are getting less affordable, and without these, it's a huge challenge to pull oneself out of poverty.

We mat not have the power to single-handedly change the economy, but there are things we can do to help the hungry.

1. Fight for a higher minimum wage.

If prices are on the rise, at the very least wages need to rise as well. If the bottom 20% of earners can make just a bit more, they won't be as squeezed when it comes to deciding whether or not they can afford to eat healthy (and in the long run, avoid some potential medical bills) or not.

2. End food deserts.

Food deserts are low-income communities with low access to grocery stores. By opening affordable, healthy, community-run grocery options, food deserts can be fought, making for healthier and more financially sound residents.

3. Spread the word.

Possibly the most important thing any of us can do is to help spread the word about the food-related challenges facing low-income Americans. Sometimes their stories get lost in discussions about politics, and we hear about increasing restrictions on how SNAP (food stamps) funds can be spent. It's important to remember that the people in need of SNAP assistance are actual people and far more than pawns in some political game.

Because while Whole Foods is overcharging customers on shrimp (and YES, they could just go to Trader Joe's or somewhere cheaper), it's important to remember that this is indicative of a larger problem. Healthy food and fresh produce and the option to go organic or not should be one that all people have access to regardless of income.

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