Our farmers’ market is winding down. Where I live, open air produce markets of just-harvested veggies and fruits sold by the people who grow them are a seasonal luxury. They run from May until now. Now we are forced back into the grocery stores.
In the rural U.S. the friendly little mom and pop grocers have been swallowed up by local chains, which are swallowed up by regional food distributors, which are swallowed up by megastores, where people are cranky, tired, rude to one another, and unhelped by non-customer service folks in matching aqua vests. Where women are afraid to negotiate the parking lots, which run a good quarter of a mile in every direction from the building itself, which is also a quarter of a mile square.
The megastores all work much the same way, regardless of brand. You must drive quite awhile to get there, fret about where you parked your car, slog your way into the store (through the dark, the ice, the snow), and when you arrive, you will be greeted by harsh, greenish overhead lighting, a hum of electricity, and a cacophony of signage that will confuse you, won’t help you find your way. The floors will be muddy, the aisles crowded. The shelves will contain every brand of everything except that particular brand of tat particular thing you came for. You will receive incorrect answers to way-finding questions from an army of clock watchers. You will not see anyone you know, ever.
It’s likely that you began this adventure in an exhausted state. Now it’s time to find what you came for. You may have remembered your list, or not. You may be familiar with the layout, or not. But instinct drives you to the perimeter of the building, where the food you can count on to be close to un-manufactured is displayed.
(By the way, if you’re in a poorer neighborhood, the food you’re offered here will not be as varied, as fresh as the food offered by the same store in the mirror bins in the more affluent neighborhoods. You don’t have to trust my opinion on this, just run your own test by visiting stores in demographically different neighborhoods on the same day. You’ll see what I mean. Note the vast difference in choices, quality of food, and prices just in the produce sections alone. The grocers will say they stock according to buying habits, and that’s true, but habit doesn’t account for the quality of the produce, the fact that it’s dented and bruised. Fresh produce is expensive because it’s hard to handle without bruising. Poor-quality, fattening, less nutritious food is cheaper and can be tossed about or sit on shelves forever. In the stores in poorer neighborhoods, frosting-covered baked lumps of white flour and fat will overflow the aisles, and there will be a wrinkled up old green pepper sitting in a bin for what passes as the produce area.)
The experience of shopping for groceries is often miserable. There are a few exceptions, but those exceptions tend to be expensive ones. Gourmet grocery chains, whole food grocery chains, offering the most beautiful foods at unreachable prices for most families.
What do we do?
*First, decide that buying fresh food is important for you and your family. For your health. For your neighbor’s health. It’s how we behave in mass that changes things.
*Write letters to your preferred grocers. Get your friends to write to them too. Ask for better produce for you and for everybody.
*Ask around. Take the time to find where the best, freshest, cheapest, most reliable source of produce is in your neighborhood or along your commute. Shop there for everything. You’re your friends to tell their friends. Move the market.
*Meantime, discover your local growers. Check out http://www.foodroutes.org. Even in the worst climates, there are greenhouse growers supplying local restaurants and grocers and buying clubs in your area. Find out who they are and whether they support consumers. Many do. How to find them? Ask chefs at gourmet restaurants. Ask at your favorite natural foods store.
*Join a food co-op or start one. Co-ops and buying clubs have been around for ages and have done much of the work of sourcing the best, cheapest, highest quality sources of food. You may have to work a little for your supper, but you make friends along the way.
*Get home delivery. If you live in a rural area where the choices are just too limited, and your food budget can manage it, have the good stuff delivered.
*Become a grocer with a mission to build smaller, friendlier grocery shopping experiences closer to the places where people live, providing good, whole food at reasonable prices. And then let me know when you’ve built something close to where I live, will you?
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