I have complicated feelings about: grocery stores and elitism!

This is not a post about food deserts. Mostly, it’s not a post about food deserts because I’m sick of hearing about them, I’m sick of talking about them, and my eyes are exhausted from rolling about this particular issue. If you’ve never heard about food deserts before (you lucky little thing) here is an extremely brief and incomplete primer to bring you up to speed:

1. The area that I live in has been called a “food desert” by the national media, it has been said that there are “no grocery stores” and it has been implied that many of our other problems are due to this fact.

2. That assumption, that there are no grocery stores, was made by looking at data which only counted large chain supermarkets as grocery stores. The data was correct, there is no Kroger here, but the interpretation of the data was incorrect.

3. I live in the heart of the “food desert” and there is a small, family-owned, grocery store about 2 blocks from me. There is another similar grocery store within walking distance (though I rarely go because it’s almost the same store, and it is considerably farther away, and I’d pass the first store on my way to the second) as well as a health food store, a bakery, and several liquor/convenience stores that sell more non-snack food than you would imagine, and even sometimes have fresh produce. In the spring, summer, and early fall, there is a once-a-week pop-up farmer’s market practically on my walk to work. If I want to hop on my bike, I can go to several other grocery stores, or the largest farmer’s market in the country. I’m not at all going hungry, is my point.

Most of the people I interact with on a day-to-day basis already know all of the above, and it hasn’t come up (thank the gods) in awhile. So that’s not really what I want to talk about, what I want to talk about is the grocery store right in my neighborhood.

I’ll be honest, it isn’t great. Some of their items are overpriced, and their produce selection is abysmal. It is also small compared to the giant, well-lit supermarkets that I grew up going to. The floors aren’t mopped as often as you might probably prefer. Their avocados are always unripe and terrible. However, I still go their fairly regularly. I stop to pick up things like dry pasta, and they actually carry the coffee that I like. If I can’t make it to a farmer’s market (this happens more in the winter months, since the one that is closer to me shuts down and biking becomes more of a pain) I’ll buy some produce items there, especially if I feel I’m in a pinch, or they have something on sale. Ok, and let’s be honest, I also shop there for icecream.

Right before Thanksgiving (tried to write a post about Thanksgiving, took too long, and now it’s no longer timely) they had a really good deal on sweet potatoes. I’d been perfecting a certain sweet potato recipe, and wanted to make it for a potluck I was going to. I stopped on my way home from work.

It was so busy!

The cashiers looked like they were about to fall over, and the store was full of what you might expect any grocery store to be full of in the lead up to a big holiday: moms, aunts, and grandmas, loading up on all the essentials (or last minute additions, or things forgotten) for their families’ feasts. Me and my small basket of sweet potatoes and garlic, I stood behind women who spent hundreds of dollars without flinching. Some of them had small children with them, some didn’t.

***

Let me tell you something else about “my grocery store” that may or may not be obvious to you by now: its customers generally skew towards the lower end of the income spectrum. The cashiers aren’t surprised when you pull out a Bridge Card, it’s normal here. And if you complain about your food assistance (my caseworker won’t return my phone calls, they keep changing the date I get my benefits on without telling me, they’re cutting me off because I work 10 more hours a month, like that’s enough to buy food with!) most of the cashiers will say something like “You know what girl? The same thing happened to me!” I have lived this. I was working a low-income job and my hours got cut. I ended up making about 20 dollars a month after my rent and electric were paid, and it was like that for a number of months. I’m not on food assistance, or any other kind of government assistance, anymore, and I’ve paid taxes since I started working when I was seventeen. My point here is that there are a lot of low-income folk around here, and I’ve been there, and we’re all just trying to get by.

“My grocery store” is also very close to a university, and I do see some students shopping here (though the ones with cars seem to prefer driving to the bigger, shinier stores in the suburbs). They don’t seem to be the majority, but during the first week of classes the number of groups of two or three pushing a cart full of groceries with a mop sticking out the top was comically extreme.

***

I made my sweet potatoes, I went to the potluck, everyone really liked them! Well, everyone except the baby who was there, who only wanted to eat brownies (and who can blame her?) One of the people seated at the table wasn’t frown anywhere near this neighborhood, and she rather innocently asked “where do y’all get your groceries around here?”

Someone answered right away with the name of one of the grocery stores that is a bike ride, or short drive, away. Not only that, they said it as if everyone who lives in this neighborhood regularly drives or bikes to that neighborhood to buy their food. Someone else said that there are actually quite a few options, which was a more accurate answer, I thought. Then I sheepishly mentioned that there is a small grocery store, just up the street.

“You mean THAT place? You could go there, but why would you? It’s too expensive, it’s really just for the college students.”

I didn’t really push the issue, I think I maybe mentioned how one could buy pasta there if one needed pasta. Honestly, what happened in that moment was that I was embarrassed by my own shopping at this grocery store that my peers found to be so beneath them. It’s only for dumb college kids who don’t know any better, after all. I’ve lived here for four years. What the hell is wrong with me?

But since then, I’ve been thinking about it. I don’t think that person meant any harm, they weren’t trying to be elitist. But it got me thinking about how young, mostly white, people from the suburbs move into a neighborhood, and almost immediately start categorizing which parts of the neighborhood are worth their while. The disparity between the comment “it’s really just for the college students” and the crowds of middle aged women buying sacks of potatoes and multiple cans of cranberry sauce is phenomenal. What does it say about us, and what we think about our neighbors? What does it say about how we really feel about poverty, the people who live it? There are a lot of young people in my neighborhood, and many of them either attend the nearby university or have at one time. I know these people a lot better than I know many of my other neighbors, possibly because we have a lot more in common, and that’s probably ok.

But living in the same building as me there are families, extended families with children. Families who shop at the grocery store just down the way. Families who do not scour the farmer’s market for organic greens. Maybe they don’t have a car or maybe there are all sorts of other reasons. It doesn’t really matter. It does matter, but not for my purposes, not here. What matters is that these people exist, they are my neighbors, and we may not ever be close, but I don’t want to dismiss them as people.

And what could be more dismissive than dismissing what people eat?

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