The Conventional Grocery Shopping Experience

by Laura on February 28, 2010

in Blog

Heading into this challenge, I have to say, I was not excited a bit. It has been a long time since I shopped for all my groceries at a conventional supermarket, and I was a bit wary of what choice I might find. For example, I’ve made the switch to natural or organic meats and poultry, quite some time ago, and I’m suspect as to what I can get at the supermarket. If I find it there, I will buy it, but if I don’t I’m not willing to purchase the conventional meat and poultry.

Other than the meat and poultry, I wonder how much organic produce I will have to choose from, and on the dairy end, while I haven’t made the leap to organic milk, I do choose milk that is from cow’s not treated with hormones. The same is true with yogurt and cheese, I look for choices that are free from antibiotics.

As for making my decision on ‘local’ I don’t pay too much attention to the signs, and when I do, I also weigh it against price, and decide if would be a value for me. I guess, if I am going to buy local, I’ll shop at a place that assures me that products are local – such as the farmers market.

(But, I do have to say that I lean towards products from the U.S. as opposed to those imported from elsewhere. And, the recent news report that brought to light the fact that many of the organic products available from Whole Foods are purchased from China, where their organic certification may be in question, will give me more reason to think about from where my organic choices come.)

I’m not a big packaged, frozen or canned foods buyer, so I am assuming there won’t be a big challenge for me when I hit the middle aisles. I’ll be able to breeze right through.

My first stop when entering the store was the produce department. It was a huge produce section, but unfortunately, too few organic offerings for my liking. As I perused the somewhat unkempt and quite small organic section, I quickly decided ‘no’ on apples, since the $4.99 a pound price tag was not something I was about to pay. I did however, decided on the $4.99 for 16 ounces strawberries. I felt pretty good at the price . . . that is, until I made my way to the other end of the produce section where I found a buy one, get one free deal on conventional strawberries. Wow, two for one! For a moment I thought about it, but in the end, I decided to buy organic over conventional.

I continued to struggle in the produce section, unable to find the organic items I typically produce, and when I did, they just didn’t look appealing. They were dried out, wilted, or even on the edge of freshness. Because of the lack of availability of organic produce, I think my typical 80/20 ratio of organic to conventional produce was switched to 20/80 during this shopping experience.

I slowly made my way through the grocery store, warily choosing alternatives to those items I typically purchase – granola, cereal, butter, cheddar cheese, dishwashing detergent.

It was hard to do, and I spent a good amount of time trying to wade through the sea of national brands to find an alternative to my usual choices. All the while, I am wondering how my final bill will compare.

(As a side note, I do have to credit Safeway for creating the O organics line of organic food. The line offers customers a wonderful alternative to conventional products, and extends across many product categories.)

When I did round the corner from the deli to the checkout stand, two major themes stood out:

Price: The big one.

I kept looking in my cart, wondering how I would stack up to my Whole Foods shopping – thinking, I’m going to spend way less here at Safeway. As it turns out, there was very little difference in price – less than $10 in savings by shopping for the foods I eat at a conventional supermarket. However, the big caveat is that I purchased organic produce, organic milk and natural and organic meats and poultry. I can say with confidence, that if I shopped for the lowest price deal in produce, meats, and dairy, the difference would be greater. And, that is a big determinant for many.

The sheer volume of food at such low prices is so apparent in the conventional store.

Throughout the store, Everything is based on coupons, two for one deals or a super low price . . . the whole roasted chickens were going for $5. With all the sales, markdowns and the ubiquitous two-for-one deals, how could anyone justify making the change from conventional to organic produce?

Add to that the coupons for packaged foods from crackers to snack foods, the supermarkets – and their suppliers – have found a formula to keep us buying packed foods not only for convenience, but for the price.

Convenience:

Since I don’t shop for convenience food (i.e. packaged foods), my time spent in the aisle was brief. I have to admit that I was amazed by what I saw. I know it is out there, but since I rarely buy soda, juice boxes, frozen food (except for frozen fruit for smoothies, some frozen vegetables, and, of course, ice cream), I simply forgot how much convenience is out there. Between the canned soup, canned vegetables, pancake mixes, rice blends, mac and cheese, oh, the frozen food aisle, with a million and one kinds of frozen pizzas,  I was reminded about how convenience beckons from throughout the supermarket. It is all right there, in front of you, waiting to be snatched off the shelf and eaten with minimal effort. How could anyone resist?

I can imagine, that for those consumers who are thinking about making the change – choosing organic, natural or less processed foods – they will find it extremely hard to do so in a conventional grocery store. Price and conveniences are two very luring variables to consider when shopping for food. For me, there is a third element that outweighs the price and convenience factor – quality and taste. I grew up on Aunt Jemima syrup, mac and cheese out of a box, and Pop Tarts for breakfast. I became accustomed to the taste of these foods, and for years continued to buy the same brands that I grew up with. However, today I buy maple syrup that is maple syrup, not some amalgamation of unpronounceable chemistry induced flavors meant to pose as real maple flavor.

I make my macaroni and cheese from real cheese, not some orange powder posing as cheese. And for breakfast, if it involves a pastry, it is one I have made myself.

Today, I understand what a food is supposed to taste like, and when I occasionally have the opportunity to venture back and use those brands from my childhood, I can definitely taste the difference.

I guess it is all about getting out of your comfort zone. And I was out of my comfort zone at Safeway. I have found what works for me and my family at Whole Foods, that as I shopped at Safeway, I found it hard to make the change. I was out of my element, and felt uncomfortable.

It will be a few weeks before I experiment shopping for all my foods (or, rather most of it) at the farmer’s market. I am already wondering if my desire to know exactly where my food comes from, to support local farmers, and break the cycle of big business, will make me break the cycle of Whole Foods – to get out of my current comfort zone.

The results remain to be seen. Next week, I’m off to Trader Joe’s. If nothing else, I know I can get some reasonably price wine, and a Pound Plus milk chocolate bar!

 

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