Grocery Shopping (part 1)

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Suburban stockade introduction I am a firm believer in shopping locally as much as possible. So as a dedicated energy saver, conservationist, and locavore, I source all our food from with a 10-radius. I shop at the local supermarket (Giant) which is 1.5 miles away from my house. I know this because I measured the distance on my car’s odometer to check AND I used maps of the local area to draw out 1/2 mile, 1 mile, and 1 & 1/2 mile radii circles centered on my house. This exercise showed me how many businesses there are within walking distance of my house, should I be so inclined to drag groceries or other items home in a wagon versus using a car. When I can, I walk to my local bank, drug store, office supply store, the post office, etc. It saves me money, it gets me out and about in my community, and I need (I always need!) the exercise.

Now there are people who will claim that you can’t be a locavore — a person who gets all their food from within a 100-mile radius — if you are buying from a supermarket. To meet the standard (this is yet another purity test and way of showing your status to lesser mortals) you should grow your own food and/or get everything from properly documented sources via Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and the local farmer’s market.

If you are serious about being a true locavore, you better start food gardening right now. You should also join that CSA; there are thousands across the country. Ask at the farmer’s market or look online for one in your area. A big part of eating locally and seasonally is eating locally and seasonally. In January, you eat stuff you preserved back in August; you eat from your root cellar rutabagas, potatoes, and turnips; cabbages that have been fermented into kimchi and sauerkraut; dried beans, winter squashes, and whatever leafy greens you can coax out of your cold frame.

In the winter, chickens don’t lay as much, so you can’t depend on quantities of eggs you got used to over the summer.

Early spring is known in many cultures as the starving time, the thin time. This is true for wildlife as well as people. There isn’t much left to eat by late March. You already ate it all or it is going bad so eating those moldy apples might be risky. There are ways around this involving more cold frames, hot caps, and using food-storage techniques to use up food in order of rottenness, and good planning in the previous summer of what you grow, preserve and how much.

Prior to the industrial revolution (1840s-1870s), everybody used to live this way. You had to be rich to not be hungry in late winter. Everybody used to eat within a 100-mile radius because transportation cost so much and food rotted before it got anywhere. Traditionally, the foods that got transported long distances were unlikely to decay and had high value such as tea leaves, spices, and coffee beans, or were unlikely to decay and there were huge quantities making it cost-effective to move them such as grains and dried legumes. You notice that there are no strawberries in January on this list.

This is a limited diet and by the time spring rolled around, the typical peasant was desperate for greens to keep their teeth in. Hence the popularity of traditional spring tonics made up of dandelion leaves. This would give you much-needed vitamin C, and ward off scurvy for another year.

grocery shopping kings

In the first world, we eat better than kings of old ever did.

We don’t have this problem anymore. In the first world, we eat better than kings of old ever did. Strawberries in January! Raspberries in February! Delicate spring greens in August! Apples in May! Today’s supermarkets are divorced from the seasons for growing fresh produce, and raising livestock for meat, dairy, and eggs. Animals had seasons, too. They were born in the spring and slaughtered in the fall so you had a) meat all winter when the cold helped preserve it and b) you didn’t have to feed those animals and try to keep them alive all winter. Eggs started showing up again in the spring. You preserved your milk by making it into hard cheese.

This is all a lot of work and I am so happy that I can choose to do only what I want to do: growing some supplemental vegetables and fruit, and buying and cooking with the seasons. I love having a refrigerator and a freezer. I don’t have to worry about spoilage. I love having a fully stocked pantry without having to prepare it all myself and spend hours canning, drying, fermenting and pickling so I can feed my family in the winter. These are great privileges and I enjoy them. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t utilize the wonderful resource of an American grocery store better.

First is your choice of grocery store. I make a joke of shopping at the Giant as a locavore choice but in a way, it is. There are two Giants within a five-mile radius of my home. The larger, newer, fancier one is further away. It also has the gas pumps there that allow me to purchase discounted gas.

I only go to the fancy Giant when I need to buy gas and redeem my gas points. That extra 3.5 miles one way translates into 7 extra miles per trip plus the additional time. On a single-trip basis that isn’t very much at all. But over the course of a year, two trips per week, that is 728 miles that I don’t put on my car and 728 miles worth of gasoline I don’t burn to avoid going to the slightly older, slightly less fancy supermarket. Remember to add in the extra bit of time per trip that I don’t spend driving: hours of my life energy that I put to other uses.

There are several grocery stores within five miles of my house. I like the Giant for its prices, selection, convenience, and the gas points. If I wanted to splurge, I could go across the Susquehanna to the Wegmans. This is a really fancy, high-end grocery store and when they opened, several of my neighbors regularly made the 20-mile pilgrimage to shop there. When the Wegmans opened, I wasn’t nearly as enlightened (and cheap) as I am now, and I made the trip once too. It was a very nice supermarket but the prices seemed a little higher, and it was certainly farther away. A lot farther. I never returned as it was not worth my effort. If the Wegmans has some magical product that no one else in the area carries, then I live without it. This is made easier by not knowing what that magical product is so I won’t want it anyway.

We have a Sam’s Club within seven miles plus the Wal-Mart. I used to have a Sam’s Club card but over time, I found that careful shopping and the pantry principle (more on that later) worked just as well and meant that I spent less money, less gas, and less time. Sam’s Club lures you into spending far more money than you planned on. Yes, it can have wonderful deals, but if you spend more money than you budgeted and you purchase wonderful items not on your list, you still lose. There is a Costco but it is much farther away (20 mile radius) so it is even less worth my time or gas money.

A save money grocery book that I read almost twenty years ago had the best story. I don’t remember the title or author but I sure remember her anecdote. The author broke her leg. She had to order her groceries from the most expensive grocer in town, the only one that delivered. It was the type of store that wrapped each piece of fruit in tissue paper. Despite the higher prices, she discovered that, after a few weeks, she spent less money than she did at the cheaper supermarket. How could this be? The fancy grocer only sent what she ordered. The fancy grocer did not add onto her purchase all those wonderful, must-have deals that called to her as she cruised the aisles.

This is the experience I have in Sam’s Club and any other fancier grocery store. I see things that I don’t have and I want them, even when I don’t really need them and they aren’t on the list.

grocery shopping warehouse stores

I see things that I don’t have and I want them, even when I don’t really need them and they aren’t on the list.

I do not buy groceries at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart can be cheaper than Giant to pay for the extra gas and time. I don’t like what Wal-Mart does to local communities, I don’t like what Wal-Mart does to local businesses, I don’t like how Wal-Mart treats its employees, and I don’t like how they handle perishable foods. Since I have better options, I always choose not to give my money to Wal-Mart whenever I have a choice. You may not have this option. If Wal-Mart is your only choice, you can still maximize your food dollar with careful shopping, price books and the pantry principle.

If I had to routinely walk to buy groceries, I would probably use the Karns or Pronios as they are closer, within a mile or less radius. That extra half-mile (one way) to the Giant can add up when you are pulling a wagon full of groceries in August. Both stores are smaller than Giant. Pronios is a standalone store, locally owned and operated. Karns is a small local chain in midstate PA. Giant is a regional chain, headquartered within 20 miles of my house so for a midsize chain, it is sort of locally owned and operated.

The deciding issue for which grocery store to choose, IF I HAD TO WALK EACH TIME, would be the gas points. You can’t grow gasoline and biofuel has its own sets of problems and learning curve. If we HAD to have the gas for a regular commute, then Giant would win for the gas points and I would make the hike pulling a wagon or shop almost daily using a bike with panniers. If we were car-free, then I would probably shop Karns or Pronios because of the distance and occasionally cherry-pick at the Giant for things I couldn’t get otherwise.

There is also a Weis grocery store within the 1-mile radius. It doesn’t strike me as being kept clean or well-maintained and that makes me suspicious of their handling of perishable items. Every time I go there, I see that the floor needs to be mopped and the shelves need to be straightened. This is not to say that Weis couldn’t be a good choice; only that the local Weis isn’t the choice for me. The store manager makes an enormous difference in how individual stores are maintained. If the manager is an annoying martinet who insists that the floors get cleaned, the shelves get straightened and restocked, the windows washed and does some of this work himself, being constantly visible and available to the customers, then the store overall will be cleaner and better run. The employees may be worked like borrowed mules to maintain higher standards but the customers are the better for it.

So this is the first part of better grocery shopping. Decide on the store that most meets your daily needs AND is the closest to you to cut down on gas and time expenditures.

Next Week: Deciding What to Buy for Your Family Meals