Sunday, June 03, 2007

Things I learned at the grocery store

Today I went shopping (we had no food after our beach trip, and so our girls ate peanut butter toast for breakfast and peanut butter and jelly for lunch), and because Diane and I have decided to take part in the Grocery Game, I went to three stores.

I started at Aldi, which mostly has its own brand of food (i.e. does not sell the name brands), doesn't have shelves (the items are stacked on pallets) and you bag your own groceries. You also have to deposit a quarter to get a shopping cart and get the quarter back when you return the cart. The cashier scans your items and drops them in a waiting cart, which you wheel to the side when you are done to bag your items. For a family on a budget, I've found no place better for quality and price, and we have certain staples that we always get there (once we figured out which Aldi-brand foods we liked just as well as name-brand). While I was there I saw people from at least four different countries, and you could tell that the people there were thrifty and intent on saving money.

Next I went to Food Lion, the one near my house. This store is OK - it's not lightning fast at checkout, but usually has what you need. The mix at this store was much like the mix of our neighborhood - mostly African American and Hispanic, and the whites who were shopping there were either elderly or seemed to be poor-er. I also bagged my own groceries here (because there was no available bagger, and it gave me a chance to show off my skills honed at the Statesville Food Lion as a bagboy in high school).

Finally I went to the local Taj MaTeeter (Harris Teeter + Taj Mahal = Taj MaTeeter). Their produce section alone was nearly as big as the entier Aldi store. 95% of the shoppers were white, middle-to-upper class. Many of them sipped coffees from the Starbucks in the store as they shopped. At the seafood and fresh meats station, free samples of hot chicken stir fry were being given away, and two butchers stood by to cut meats to your specifications. This was not a grocery store, it was a sensory experience with shopping thrown in. The cashier and bag-girl each talked with me, asked me how my day was and how I was doing, were excited with me to see how much I saved, and urged me to come back again. (I could have picked out my items online, paid for them with a credit card, and had them bagged and waiting for me to pick up, too).

I was struck by the progression of service and quality of experience from one store to the next, and I think I was learning something about values and privilege in our country. If you have plenty of money, you can afford to value a sensory shopping experience over saving money. You can afford to value having your groceries bagged in a courteous and swift manner. It's not wrong to be able to afford that (I certainly was able to, obviously).

As I thought about why I was even in Harris Teeter to begin with (I usually only go there to buy orange Gatorade mix and the buy one-get one bags of chicken), I realized it was due to another small privilege that I take for granted - the ability to play the Grocery Game. I have an internet connection at my house (high speed), the ability to pay $10 every 8 weeks for the Grocery Game service (which you access online), the transportation and time to shop at three different stores in order to get the best deal, and access to simple information, such as the fact that there is such a thing as "the Grocery Game" out there. I am quite confident that if one looked at the demographics of who was using the Grocery Game, it would be largely white, middle-class (and up). There is nothing wrong with that. It's just that the poor are not even aware that this thing exists or have access to the resources to make it happen.

I've even thought about being able to shop at Aldi as being a privilege - there are many in Glenwood who go to Food Lion because it's reachable on foot. Aldi is several miles up the road, meaning a long bus ride or paying for a cab.

I'm not here to make a judgment on those who shop at Harris Teeter or condemn the affluent. I'm not even sure that I have a point except to say that there are all kinds of things we can learn about race and class in all sorts of places, even the grocery store, and I think that there are bigger things at play than I can put my finger on right now.


Tom said...

Good write up Marsh. Definitely true that most people don't know about ways to save, i.e. "the Grocery Game." They possibly could take advantage of access to the internet at a public library? I guess you then run into issues with credit cards, having time to go there, etc.

Made me think beyond just the thoughts above.

Brad Barrett said...

very interesting commentary, marshall. i wasn't aware that aldi existed in the u.s. -- in austria (where i studied abroad last fall), it's called Höfer, and uses the same methods: self-bagging, euro-for-cart, and bulk/discount products. also good description of the taj-mateeter's sensory experience. :)