The Middle Men

An old discussion about where I shop and why… and how I believe we manage health and economy.

I am going to go ahead and re-vamp some posts from The Green Notebook (my old blog) to get us caught up on some of the information I shared way back then. The first is the second half of a blog where I shared photos of my newly bulked-out pantry. The part I am now sharing is less personal, but is a discussion about where a person who buys “healthy” food manages to do so on the cheap. (Not counting coupons. I have never been much of a couponer.)

There are, believe it or not, several ways to buy groceries without a grocery store. And even grocery stores come in different categories with different purposes, sizes, and cost-savings involved. Here is the way that I see it.

Grocery stores come in a few basic varieties: small local; small chain; large chain; specialty; and discount. (Those are not the technical terms, which involve cutsie phrases like “big box.”) Small local stores are going to exhibit the most difference-between-examples. Are they affordable? Most of them will be more expensive, but it’s hard to say. And you are buying something besides food, there, which is support of a local business and a vote against everything most chains stand for. Try shopping there for specialty items, like star anise at a tienda, or rice noodles or green tea at an Oriental grocery. You can come by big savings for those specialty items that aren’t specialty to a certain culture. Small chains, as far as I am concerned, are the biggest rip-off. (By small I mean that they are not huge, factory-sized places, just “normal” sized, like Kroger, Safeway, or Piggly Wiggly.) They can’t bring the deep discounts, but they tend to offer the same thing as big chains, just less selection. However, some of these places do have a decent offering of health-food and/or environmentally-conscious foods, which some of the larger do not. Speaking of Kroger, it’s a great place to get clearanced-out “natural” foods. Just plan to go there and take advantage of the random deals, not do your grocery shopping (unless you are couponing). Large chain stores (again, think size of store not size of chain, like SuperTarget, WalMart, Meijier, and Wegmans) tend to give you better deals on your groceries, but at a cost to your karma. WalMart sort of leads the pack in low prices, but they also lead the way in lack of options, crappy food, and general low quality. Wegmans is the only one I know that has a decent selection of natural and healthy foods, but I’m not sure how affordable the prices are on those items. As for around here, some of my conscientious friends have given up on these stores–like looking for flowers in a hay field–and some continue to keep looking as long as they get a great deal in the end. Discount stores (like BJs, Costco, and Sam’s Club) do offer up some great deals, and most people will make up the cost of membership without breaking a sweat. But buyer beware: even though they are stocking more and more to appease the granola crowd, not everything on their shelves is a deal. You have to do some math if you really want to save money, plus you actually have to eat the food in a timely manner, but I’m not sure that anyone with limited income and access to one of these should pass it up. Trade in elevator music and laminate floors for a bucket of organic spring greens for next to nothing? You betcha! And last but not least: specialty stores. This category sort of overlaps with local stores, but I am referring mostly to health food stores. (In this category, my experience is largely with Whole Foods and Trader Joes.) The chain specialty stores, I have found, can offer some great deals, but–like at most stores–you have to be shrewd. A great rule of thumb is: go for the house brand. Many people have been dubious over the years when I tell them that I get lots of cheap groceries at Whole Foods. But when I did some comparisons recently, they came out on top for several foods, even over Costco and WalMart, partly because they offer a quality of food that the others don’t. You can get cheap basics: which is not what all those on-the-way-home shoppers that clog up the place seem to be getting. Sugar-free peanut butter. No-added-sugar fruit spread. Hormone-free milk. Local eggs. Like that. I could have made a career from shopping “well” at specialty stores. (And please take advantage of “bulk” sections where you buy from a bin, like with no packaging, wherever it is offered.)

And now for the other grocery shopping options.

An obvious place for groceries: Farmer’s markets. They are available in so many cities now, and even in small towns. They can be great, or they can be sad and rinky-dink. But you want to support them, for many reasons. You can get a deal there, especially if you buy large quantities or hang out as the market closes down, but once again, you are purchasing more than what you eat. Plus, you will probably come to love the experience. You just have to check it out to see what it can offer you in your own town.

Groceries are becoming abundant online, as well. I do a fair amount of shopping for home goods, toiletries, and supplements online. Specifically, I have found that Vitacost has a lot to offer me in savings of high-end products (like Rainbow Light vitamins and Ecos detergent). I have also shopped around at other sites, but you want to pool your goods as much as possible, to save on shipping and to consolidate all that food-travel. Amazon always has some savings to offer (like cases of Seventh Generation diapers), but you have to watch out: if it is coming from a secondary seller, you are going to get charged for shipping from both (or all) sellers. Otherwise, I haven’t found online grocers to save me money.

I am getting more and more into source direct shopping, as well. There is a grain mill, a half hour from our house, that will sell to the public out of their front office. My local Whole Foods also purchases from this same mill, which specializes in a handful of organic grains and flours, and I was astonished to discover that I was buying the exact products for more than two times what I could pay at the mill. Not that this isn’t fair; it’s how it works. But let me be an example: if you catch word of someplace that will sell to you direct, go for it. Grain mills. Turkey farmers. Raisin processors. Honey suppliers. Whatever you can come across.

And last but not least: co-ops. I love the idea of co-ops. It’s so simple. A group of people buy things direct and in bulk so then the savings is distributed among them. We had a large co-op here in Durham, but it fell apart in the last couple years (right after I bought into it, of course). I am just now beginning to venture back into an even smaller co-op model: friends! There is a health food store that makes deliveries of its very fairly priced whole sale goods in a nearby town, at odd times. This is the business I just got my bulk stuff through, but second-hand through another party in Chapel Hill. Now it looks like so many friends are interested that I am going to just start my own co-op and start bi-annual purchases of my own. Either way, we get some great deals, and so can you. Plus, there are food shares, too. Did you know that you can actually buy into a farm and then get their produce (usually weekly) for a season? Or did you know that you could buy a cow and then take home its meat when it is slaughtered? (Most people do this with other interested parties.) We bought into a farm a few years ago and found it to be–while not very profitable in the money sense–a great learning experience for all of us. And it encouraged us to do the following:

Garden. Okay, so it occurred to me that the last one was not the last one. You can, in fact, grow your own groceries. The cheapest way is to start from seed, but seedlings work too. I encourage you to start small so that your knowledge and experience grow with you and you don’t end up sinking in more money is a season than you will reap. A small herb garden is a great place to start, but there are sure to be some veggies that grow almost on their own in your area. A well-researched and climate-specific book would be a good investment. And more than that, you can also farm your way into groceries. Even in urban areas, you can sometimes legally have chickens, a cow, or goats. Fresh cheese, any one?

(PS. You don’t have to agree with any of this. I am just trying to get the blood flowing to that part of your brain that is probably stymied, doing the same grocery routine week after week after week after…)

(PS2. A great source for a lot of the stuff I just mentioned, like farmers markets and co-ops and farm shares: Local Harvest. See for yourself.)

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