Why we shop at our dingey local grocery instead of the place with all the possibly-better food across town

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My husband and I are way into the food we eat and the food we put into the body of our two-and-a-half-year-old. We’re vegetarians, and we’re totally those vegetarians. I don’t mind if you eat meat, and I won’t make you feel bad about it, but if we get into a convo about what’s in the meat that most people eat I’ll totally bust out some facts on you that you’d probably rather ignore.

I’m only bringing this up because it makes what I’m about to say a little bit… contradictory. While we have several quality grocery stores that sell all kinds of delicious, organic, 100% good-for-you kind of food, we tend to opt to shop at our local supermarket instead. And by local, I don’t mean locally-grown, I mean… right down the street.

We don’t do this because it’s close per se — the location is part of the appeal, but that’s because John, the man who owns the store, employs people who live in and around our immediate area. His store services people who live near us, and we routinely see the same people working and the same people shopping. Several of his employees know our names, the name of our child, the names of our house mates, what we do for our livings, what kind of music we like, and the food we tend to buy.

This supermarket isn’t the best, visually-speaking: instead of super fancy bright white lights, it’s got your standard pretty-old, kind-of-dingy, sort-of-always-blinking fluorescents. The floor is clean but a little yellowed from years of feet walking over it, and there are approximately six aisles in the whole thing. I’m pretty sure you can’t find organic anything there, and the groceries that are in stock tend to be a little overpriced — after all, you could go down the street to a gigantic box store if you wanted. If you’re shopping at John’s, you’re choosing to be there and choosing to pay $4-$5 for those bagged collard greens that you’re still going to have to wash yourself (because seriously, who KNOWS what was on them).

He has exactly one location: there aren’t even local alternative locations like other supermarkets native to our city. Posters with that catch phrase from a zillion years ago (“Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.”) line the walls, and the best wine you’re going to find will cost you $5 and some change — but you can score some pretty righteous alternatives for $2.

It’s a curious thing, really: for years I told myself not to even look at the organic food in grocery stores because I thought I couldn’t afford it. After we got married, my husband and I started intentionally buying as much organically as we could, and we kept that up for a while. It seemed a little pricey, but nothing that we couldn’t swing, and we were still very much in college when we wed almost five years ago.

When I was pregnant with our son I was totally on a high horse about what went in my body, but we were also totally broke, so we started experimenting with the quality of food we bought. Like, was it really so bad for me that my spinach wasn’t organic since I was eating spinach in the first place? Probably not — a vegetable’s a vegetable, no? So when we started renting our current house, conveniently located near the grocery store we once snubbed as college students, we started meandering over to see what we could find.

Our discovery has been this: we’re both more than happy to buy Ragu alfredo sauce if it means we’re buying it from a cashier (Rebecca) who knows our names, asks how our son is doing, and then inquires about my photography business to see if it’s still going. We’re totally stoked to pick up those bagged collard greens I mentioned because we’re supporting a man who lives within a few streets of us. And I’ll be damned if I stop going to the only grocery store in my neighborhood that has kid-sized shopping carts, because that means my kid feels independent and happy, and I don’t have to try to track down the only cart with a fucking blue car attached to it in a massive, too-big-for-anyone parking lot.

Comments on Why we shop at our dingey local grocery instead of the place with all the possibly-better food across town

  1. Plus – you won’t have to drive as far (or maybe not at all), hence saving gas. You will have more time to spend with your family (less driving). There’s all kinds of upsides to buying this kind of local food.

  2. I’m a college student myself, as well as a vegetarian. Fortunately, I go to school at one of the tree-huggiest campuses in the state, meaning I have lots of options. We have a co-op that has the advantage of being completely locally owned and run that carries a lot of foods I can’t otherwise get without driving 30 minutes across town to Big Name Health Food Store (the co-op is only about 8 min away). I can’t really afford to buy all of my food there, and as you said, does it really matter with some of it? Grape jelly is grape jelly, in my experience, and paying twice the price for a jar seems to defeat my purpose of saving money by eating pb&j instead of dining out.

    There’s also a chain grocery store that is easy for me to hit on my way back from the co-op. When I do my weekly shopping, I usually decide what I can buy where, and then go to both.

    We also have an Asian food mart that I go to occasionally (they have the cheapest tofu in town, and lots of amazing produce), and a nice Farmer’s Market that’s on my way home from work.

    I’m always trying to find a nice balance between supporting my local community and not living beyond my means on food.

  3. I hate to say it, but If you don’t like what’s in meat, you’re not going to like what’s in non-organic spinach. It actually IS a huge difference since its a question of whether or not it’s been coated in poisons (nvm what those poisons do to the environment.) We also like to support our local market as much as possible, but we draw the line at produce because they bring it in from Sam’s Club and it’s generally pretty yuck. It’s worth a stop at farmer’s markets or subscription to a CSA for that stuff, and then you’re REALLY helping out some local folks.

    • Totally legit. We also don’t like how animals are treated before (and while) they’re slaughtered in something like 99% of the “farms” in the US. But you’re right about the spinach — I just threw that out there because I actually had been to the store the day I wrote this and grabbed a bag on the way out since we were in a rush. 🙂

      • Yeah, conventional meat is pretty foul in a variety of ways, haha. But ever since all those ecoli and salmonella outbreaks from big veggie farms, I’m a little more careful about the stuff I’m going to eat raw as well.

          • Liquid manure from centralized animal feeding operations and well-rotted manure from pastured animals are two totally different things.

            E. Coli is generally killed in the stomachs of cattle that eat a diet of mostly grass (the ph of their stomachs kills it). But when you “finish” beef cattle on an all-corn diet, the ph of their stomachs changes (actually makes them very sick) and allows the E. Coli to survive through the digestive system and into the manure.

            Any manure that is not at least partially decomposed (except sheep and rabbit manure) actually poses more of a risk to the crops, as raw manure has a tendency to “burn” plants and the runoff into local streams, ponds, and rivers wreaks havoc on ecosystems (oxygen-sucking algal blooms, anyone?). Although chemical fertilizers like nitrogen do the exact same thing.

            Using liquid manure and even raw human sewage (yes! It happens!) on crops is more about finding someplace to put the sewage than it is about making the crops healthier, especially since it is often used in far greater quantities than the plants and soil can absorb.

            Moral of the story? Always thoroughly wash your veggies, even if the bag o’ lettuce says “pre-washed.” Or better yet – grow them yourself.

    • Except organic produce uses pesticides as well, just different ones, and usually more of them. Why does the myth that organic = pesticide free continue to persist?

  4. I wish we had this. There used to be a tiny hole in the wall place that sold a very small amount of produce, nuts, seeds, di Bruno Brothers cheese, and dried fruit, but it is no more. I’m really hoping we can move to a place that has stores that there are only one of and support the local folks.

  5. wow. my husband and I were just having this conversation. a married couple we are friends with were kind of teasing us for shopping at our local grocer the other night. we simply explained that we try to support our local business owners when ever possible. we live in what a lot of people call ‘the hood’ and thus our neighborhood gets ignored by a lot of people. we decided along time ago that we want to support those who are willing to invest in our community.

  6. We have been doing a lot of shopping lately at a local grocery that is basically a cross between a produce stand and a Latin market. The produce is ridiculously cheap, the non-produce items are a little more expensive, and the regular cashier who always calls me “mamacita” keeps trying to convince me to buy jackfruit, a watermelon-sized fruit that looks like it could be the inspiration for an alien race on Star Trek.

    I’m not too worried that we’re not buying much organic, and I am eventually going to try the jackfruit, but I am a little concerned about my husband’s growing obsession with a coconut-flavored aloe juice drink that’s made in South Korea. 🙂

  7. Right on! There is nothing organic on this planet as long as big farming corporations like monsanto are spraying our skies with who knows waht. Go local! Even if that means the non organic expensive grocer. He needs your money far more than Whole Paycheck does!! If we all went local and stopped supporting the bigger business we wouldn’t have to “occupy wall street.” Take action and occupy your local grocer and local farmers!
    Thank you for this article I’m sharing it on my facebook:)

  8. I love this! When I was in high school, I worked at one of these places. Yes, there were cracks in the floor and the lighting was terrible and many times flickering, but it was one of the best jobs. I got to know so many people (it was mostly regulars), and everyone (not just customers) were treated well – like real people. Honestly, this is one of the best jobs I ever had, and I always look back on it with love.

  9. I think its a sad state of affairs when shopping a local grocery store has to be defended. I’m really glad you are stepping up to the plate and doing it. (i’m going to go on a bit of a rant here and i apologize in advance…)

    Poor people can’t afford to eat organic food. People without mega-incomes are going to be lucky to buy some vegetables and cook their own food instead of eating time-saving crap. And don’t get me started on farmer’s markets- my ‘local’ farmers market is like, every other thursday or something and seems to sell more pies and prepared jams and hipster clothing than actual food. We have to stop making ourselves feel guilty for eating food that is accessible to us. its the system that’s the problem, and we can’t consumer boycott our way out of the entire system, we need to change it in significantly greater ways than that.

    I’m glad you are supporting your local grocery store that keeps your area from becoming a ‘food desert’, and having actual community instead of the fake kind you get at fancy grocery stores that put their produce in little carts. I buy organic food sometimes, i buy fair trade coffee sometimes- but its time to call ‘the emperor has no clothes’ on a lot of this so-called ethical food stuff. It’s not ethical if a salad costs $8 and most people can’t afford to eat it.

  10. I’m pretty lucky in that I live nine blocks away from a co-op that sells all the organic food I could want, although I pay the price by living in a neighborhood with community gardens that are too full for me to get a plot for truly local food. I am all for supporting local business, and am lucky I have a close one I can support, but also am lucky that the East African market under my apartment sells the same whole wheat pitas the co-op has for $2 less for double the number of pitas. I used to live in a neighborhood much further from the co-op I shop at, but went there a lot anyway (it was still the closest), but also sometimes went to a hole-in-the-wall local grocer seven or eight blocks away. At the time, it had very few organic/healthy options, but it’s the neighborhood is probably 1/4 working class, 1/4 old hippies, 1/4 college hippies, and 1/4 frat/sorority people not living on frat row. I had to bike through the neighborhood for a class last semester, though, and noticed it has started offering significantly more local and organic produce, and I think the student neighborhood coalition had a hand in it, as well as some other residents. So, my point is, why settle for local business or local and organic food if you can have both? If there are other people in your neighborhood with similar ideals to yours (and it seems like you know them and the grocer), perhaps you could convince your grocer to stock certain items, or at least you and your fellow like-minded shoppers could probably get in special orders which, if you split the cost, probably wouldn’t be much more expensive than the gas to get to the other store (and much more convenient).

  11. I just had to read this article aloud for my roommate. We both just started to smile and agreed that this is exactly how we feel about our local grocery.

    Now, it is a part of a small, statewide chain, but the people who work there are all people from the neighborhood. They don’t know us by name- definitely not their fault when we more often than not call each other by our roleplay character’s names instead- but they know our faces. For a country-girl at heart, there’s so much comfort in actually recognizing people and vice versa.

    Also, we’ve found that their produce is much better than those we find in other chain grocery stores. We’ve never had to throw away a head of lettuce or a bushel of apples when we came home. Not only that, but the prices are amazing, and we don’t have to drive to get there!

  12. We shop at our local grocery store because it’s cheap. None of the employees speak English well, so there is no getting to know each other. The produce is pretty bad because it’s the leftovers from the large chain groceries in the area. Certainly nothing is locally grown or organic. The selection of dry goods is slim. But my grocery bills are half the price that they would be anywhere else. I can feed myself and my husband three good meals a day for $60 a week.

  13. This is how I felt about the little grocery that opened near my last apartment. Yeah, it was more expensive, but actually, the produce was often FRESHER and the people who ran it were always friendly and comfortingly familiar. Plus, the woman who owned it always gave me free samples of things to try–she was just so enthusiastic about sharing new products!

    So yes, some things cost more, but by being only a block from my apartment, I was saving travel costs (I figured out that the cost to take the bus to and back from the big grocery store was comparable to the difference). Putting that money back into my neighborhood was completely worth it! One of the things I miss most about living in that neighborhood is definitely that wonderful store.

  14. This tale amuses me because the local grocer near my university was also called John’s. Not having a car, it was my only option if I wanted to feign independence and not beg a housemate to drive me to Walmart.

    It was small and friendly; I went there seeking a screwdriver to assemble my desk, and the manager (owner?) simply handed me one from behind the counter, asking that I bring it back when I was finished. It was my first week in a new country, at a new school. It was wonderfully welcoming. 🙂

    Growing up, my family shopped at a modest local non-chain grocery store, to which I still hold all other stores in comparison.

    • Where did you go to school? You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. It’s just that the only options for our university students are basically John’s or Wal-Mart… sooooooooooooo.

      • Yours is the same thought I had. But we also had a couple big-box grocery stores within the same driving distance as Walmart. Also, Target. But I will share that I was in Alabama. (: (Now my Canadian graduate classmates think I’m American. Y’all is just such a useful word.)

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