No More Supermarket Blues

Aug 22, 2010

A few weeks ago, Kim and I were riding home from our weekly trip to Fred Meyer, and I had an epiphany: I never wanted to go back.

Kim wasn’t fond of Fred Meyer, either, so we hatched a plan to limit how much time we spent at the supermarket, and how much we bought, by buying groceries in bulk once for the entire month. Since we’d need a car for the monthly trip, we bought a membership at Zipcar, which has a hybrid available to rent for $7/hour. We had joined a CSA program through Helsing Junction Farms, which we would rely on for our weekly produce; and on the weekends we would buy a couple of items, like Dave’s Killer Bread (PS, this bread has an awesome story), at a local farmer’s market.

The plan has worked out so well that I’m not sure how we ever put up with the supermarket circus four times every month.

With all the time we’re saving not wandering the dizzying aisles of the supermarket, I’ve had time to reflect on why our experience buying directly from farmers, both at the farmer’s market and through our CSA, has meant so much to me.

I grew up in the suburbs of California and Oregon, shopping with my parents at all the popular big-box megastores. As an adult, I often gravitated back to these stores to avoid the hassle of traveling to multiple places to buy my food and household items. Fred Meyer (AKA Kroger’s), for example, sells produce, bulk food, socks, shoes, computers, toiletries, pharmaceuticals, vacuums, jewelry, bikes, plants, Christmas trees — the list is effectively endless, and I could always get 90% of what I need there.

During my early 20s, I began to have misgivings about this kind of store. Driving out to visit my parents in Gresham, I thought the concrete and retail blight of outer Portland was an eyesore compared to the Columbia River and the trees along the Washington border. These negative feelings peaked in 2006, after I returned from a trip to Ghana. While there, I had experienced a completely different approach to life than what I’d grown up with. One of the most notable differences was the central market. In Tamale, Kumasi, and Accra, Ghana’s major cities, I roamed immense central markets that twisted and surged with life. These markets were like cities within cities, and were constantly filled with people who came to buy food and supplies, in many cases directly from the people who ran the farms and from the tailors and craftspeople whose shops lay hidden like bright jewels within the catacomb of the market. These places were all the more beautiful because they appeared to be the creation of the Ghanaians who lived in those cities: over the years, new things — baubles, plastics and electronics — had all been grafted onto the timeless root at the center, the market.

Ghana showed me a way of life I never knew in the United States. The memories I had of Ghanaian markets lingered when I came back to Portland and had to interact, once again, with huge megastores owned by corporations that had no real stake in the cities in which they did business. Where were all the people selling food and things they worked to harvest or create? What kind of stuff was I buying, really? Most of it was factory-churned, bland, out-of-season, over-priced stuff harvested and created by, in many cases, low-paid workers, and the profits of the sales flowed directly out of Portland, Oregon. I know that my memory of Ghana was not informed by years of observation — I had my rose-tinted tourist glasses on — and the story there can’t really be too different from the story here (I’m sure not all of those people were selling stuff they had made, or food they’d harvested!). But, being there, and then returning home, helped me to realize an ideal I had for the way commerce should happen.

I wanted to incorporate parts of the Ghanaian lifestyle into my life, somehow; maybe not everything, but the good stuff, including the way I bought my food and supplies. Doing so proved hard. On my own, it seemed like I couldn’t really make a difference, even with something that appeared to be simple. Then I met Kim, and for a while, all the fun we were having getting to know each other led me to forget some of my ill feelings. Kim and I regularly shopped at Target, buying imported goods; we purchased electronics at Best Buy, furniture at Ikea, and groceries at Fred Meyer. My dissatisfaction with the American retail and food machine had not gone away, though. It only smoldered quietly.

Skip ahead to 2010. Kim and I weren’t exactly planning to drop out of mainstream American culture, but that is what seems to have happened. Over the past couple of years, we moved twice, each time closer to the inner-city. Pretty soon, we’d ditched our car for bicycles; we’d become vegetarians, then vegans, and had started buying mostly organic, local food. I resisted some of these changes, at first — especially buying organic and going vegan — while, at the same time, the more Kim read about the food industry, the more unhappy she felt with how we ate. All the cheap, factory-produced food; bland, imported produce; chemical-enhanced, boxed and double-packaged goods! I was like, “I can’t change. I don’t want to change!” But, once Kim got excited about finding an alternative, I started to feel excited, too, and before long we were creating for ourselves the kind of life I’d dreamed about since coming back from Africa. We bought more organic and local food, explored farmer’s markets, and shopped at local-farm-friendly stores like New Seasons.

Now, I know what I want from the experience of buying food and supplies:

  1. Cut out the middle man — buy direct when possible
  2. Support Willamette Valley, Oregon, and Washington farmers
  3. Do business in a community-owned and -operated space (not a corporate market)
  4. A fun atmosphere, a place of joy

In Fred Meyer, the bulk of our purchases were in a single produce aisle and a small island of “health food” hidden between a dozen aisles of beer, wine, cookies and cake. We usually locked our bikes at the opposite end of the store from the food, due to the direction we were coming from, which meant that we had to walk through half a mile of cluttered superstore nonsense, listening to elevator music and dodging lots of unhappy-looking people. Now, we have a much more enjoyable time buying organic food grown locally and responsibly, without hurting animals and without factories: once a week, Kim rides her bike to a house in our neighborhood to pick up the CSA box, and every Saturday we visit the farmer’s market at Portland State University where we buy food directly from farmers growing in the Willamette Valley and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.